Below are my answers to the questionnaire sent to Board of Education candidates sent by SOMA Justice and Parents in Partnership for Respect & Equity in SOMA Schools, also known as PARES.
1. Do you believe the district’s access and equity policy introduced in 2016 goes far enough in addressing the issues of inequity in our district (particularly in regards to vulnerable populations, i.e., POC, queer, special needs, immigrant, second-language learners, etc.)? What are the benefits of the plan? What are the highest priority areas still needing improvement?
No. While the Access & Equity policy represents an important effort toward addressing the issues of inequality, the district has room to improve professional development and strengthen policies with regard to all vulnerable populations. Stated policy is just the first step and must be followed up with implementation and effectiveness. This is an area in which SOMSD efforts can benefit from an increase in transparency, accountability and dignity.
2. What are your thoughts and/or plans to move SOMSD forward in dismantling the segregation and racial achievement gap that exist in our schools (i.e., teacher education, policy review etc.)?
I would like to see more innovation in phasing out tracking, or academic levels, as well as greater access to in-school support for students who need help — academically, socially, emotionally. Teachers also should be allowed discretion to use lesson plans that span a range of abilities, and a variety of subject matter, basing class instruction on a class-by-class assessment of interests, abilities and goals.
Educating a diverse student body becomes more organic with a diverse and sensitive faculty. To this end, SOMSD should ramp up recruitment efforts, professional development, and in-district support for teachers of color. This can include new avenues of recruitment, and non-traditional initiatives such as NYC Men Teach, which “helps men of color through the entire certification process, provides them with mentorship and training to transition into the field, and has cultivated a community of Black male teachers who are in the education workforce.” Yet increasing the diversity of the faculty is only part of the equation; once hired, teachers of color need our support, perhaps with an assistant superintendent tasked with recruitment and retention efforts. We need to respect and empower our teachers.
Finally, since nothing exists in a vacuum, full implementation of the Amistad Black History curriculum would benefit students in the evaluation of primary historical sources, and in a critical manner, which is a skill desperately needed in our age of social media and misinformation. Such a feature of an updated curriculum would also help make U.S. history more relevant to students of color.
3. Do you think that SOMSD should take steps to address the racially disproportionate discipline of students in regards to suspensions and expulsions, and the disproportionate number of students of color placed in special education? If yes, please explain how.
Yes. Any strategy to address racial disparity in disciplinary actions must tackle two possible issues here — one is of unconscious bias that contributes to a disparity of how disciplinary measures are meted out, and the other is of the lack of a formalized position of student advocate. We must do a better job of creating professional-development programs that help us understand our unconscious biases, and address how they play out in the classroom when it comes to student discipline. Disciplinary policies need to be transparent and designed with the goal of getting students the help they need in order to receive the education to help them achieve their goals in school and beyond. Policies regarding the behavior of Columbia High School security guards — a code of conduct that emphasizes respect for students, for example — should be another area that can be examined. The other component involves having a student advocate in each building tasked with hearing students’ concerns in an impartial manner — an ombudsman-type role, perhaps — to give students a voice in how they themselves are treated.
4. What are the most important safety and security issues facing the district? How do you believe SOMSD schools can be a safe environment for ALL students? Do you support the placement of School Resource Officers in SOMSD schools?
The continuing use of trailers as so-called “temporary” classrooms presents the most egregious safety issue for students in the district. While the district conducts lockdown drills and fire drills, little has been done to address the fact that students are squarely in harm’s way were an imminent threat to present itself at the door of one of these structures. Thankfully, the facilities plan addresses this issue. On the issue of lockdown drills themselves, the aftereffects of the exercises on the children who experience them appears to have been ill-considered. My own kindergartener broke down in tears over dinner one night — days after the fact — when she recalled the trauma. Another student in another school was in the restroom at the onset of a lockdown drill and was also traumatized — so much so that the student refuses to use the restroom at school, opting to wait until pickup to use the bathroom at home. Our children are beautiful, sensitive human beings, and we need to be more careful with foreseeable effects of such policy. As for the placement of School Resource Officers in SOMSD schools, I do not support such a move. Any district employee that comes into contact with students should have some degree of educational training, along with an understanding of child psychology, conflict resolution and restorative justice practices. Every staff member throughout the district needs to be, in essence, an advocate for children, and any significant shortcoming in training for SROs potentially creates in direct conflict with the district’s educational goals and what’s best for children. Research also shows that certain students are more likely to be suspended — namely disabled students, minority students and LGBT students — and expelled from school as the focus turns from education to law enforcement.
5. Do you support the redistricting component of the capital improvement plan approved by the BOE? What do you see as the potential strengths and weaknesses of the plan?
Yes. With the growth of student enrollment in recent years, overcrowding is becoming an increasingly dire situation that has already resulted in more families unable to send their children to their ostensibly “zoned” schools. This issue creates unnecessary stress and confusion for families, and it is not going to resolve itself. In the district’s facilities plan, photos of collapsed classroom ceilings, crumbling concrete steps, rotting window frames and heating boilers that look like they’re from the 1800s are, frankly, shocking. Our children deserve better — namely, safe, secure, permanent structures free from overcrowding. When every family potentially has an equal stake in every one of the school buildings, the entire SOMSD population will benefit, and the more progress we will make toward forging a community that truly feels like a single cohesive group, even though it spans two towns. The reconfiguration of elementary and middle schools also represents a significant step toward achieving integration and allowing each school’s student population to resemble the community at large. One possible weakness is the likelihood that some students may experience difficulty in making the transition from a K-4 school to a 5-6 school, then to a 7-8 school before moving on to high school. Thus it is important for teachers, counselors and social workers to help identify those students who need the extra attention and the socio-emotional tools to make that transition. The good news: Evidence suggests that such transitions are eased by maintaining peer relationships during the transition, which the plan achieves, and also by the influential adults in a child’s life maintaining a positive attitude toward the changes.
6. If you are an incumbent please explain how you have worked to address racism and inequality in SOMSD during your previous tenure.
- BOE SOMSD Report Card, Bleasdale Educational Research & Consulting
- SOMA Justice & PARES: 2018 Race & Equity Scorecard for BOE Candidates, The Village Green
- Diversity: Responses to the Black Parents Workshop Questionnaire
- Our Children Deserve Better Than Crumbling School Facilities
- Challenges and Opportunities in the Current SOMSD Superintendent Search
- My Video Introduction (With Text of Full Transcript)