October 20, 2020
School District: Detroit
- Why do you want to be a school board member? *
I first ran for election because I believed I had meaningful skills to improve the district, I wanted to make a difference in Detroit, and I knew that the privilege and opportunity I’d been afforded educationally should be accessible to all Detroit students. I’m running for re-election because I still believe those things. And, I’m running for re-election because there’s much more work to do to continue improving our district. I believe that I have proven myself well-suited for that work. In fact, I believe myself, Sonya Mays and Iris Taylor, to be the candidates best suited for that work especially during such uncertain times as a global pandemic.
- What does education justice mean to you? What does it mean specifically in the context of your school district? *
Education justice means that students have access to the opportunities that they need. That their families and the adults supporting them have tools to facilitate their students’ success. In our school district it means from a funding perspective we have what we need, and aren’t forced to make it work with what we have. From a curricular perspective it means that students are being challenged and that their critical thinking and creativity is being nurtured. Organizationally, it means that students and staff are met with culturally responsive and anti-racist environments, that they have voice and input in organizational development, and that staff are properly supported in their wages, training, and opportunities for advancement.
- If you could completely reimagine the way schools look after this public health crisis, what would they look like? *
I think there are opportunities we can learn from in this crisis. Virtual meetings have led to increased community engagement in board meetings; continuing that engagement is important. The dramatic increase in virtual learning has pushed districts and teachers to better integrate technological tools into teaching and learning and to ensure families have access to technology. Schools, and local governments, should continue to ensure technology is accessible and integrated into classrooms. My greatest hope is that we can truly reimagine school funding after this crisis. One of the first things we did as a district when the shelter in place was first directed was figure out how to continue feeding students. Another action we took quickly was establishing a mental health hotline. Schools are expected to serve students and families holistically yet underfunded for the “essential services” like teaching students with special needs. Our governments need to take a new approach to school funding.
- Describe how you think parents, students, and families should be involved in making decisions within your school district? *
The Districts governance and operations should be in partnership with parents, students and families. It is the collective that would ensure the attainment of excellence. This would include constantly engaging in multiple communication avenues.
- Who (if any) are your top financial supporters for your campaign?
My colleagues and I who are running as a slate have been fundraising together and received support from diverse and bi-partisan sources. We have also received support from across the community including faith-based institutions and the local business community. Over the past four years these diverse relationships and partnerships have been critical to work in the district such as negotiating the partnership schools MOU which kept 24 schools from closing, advocacy on behalf of the Right to Read case, replacing water fountains with led and copper free hydration stations, and recently, procuring over 50,000 laptops and wifi for students. In a Republic dominated legislature, as we continue to advocate for equitable school funding, these diverse relationships across our Detroit community continue to be critical.
- What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals within your school district? *
DPSCD is a reform district and therefore student achievement–literacy and math literacy–is always my top priority. Additionally, while facing the COVID-19 pandemic it will always be critical to ensure a protective environment and access to education for all families.
However aside from those things, my top priorities are:
- Amplify Student Voice–Students deserve to have a voice in the policies and practices that they have to experience every day. Positioning leadership opportunities that allow for them to do that ensures DPSCD will develop environments that reflect their needs and that students will grow in their leadership skills. I intend to see through the authentic implementation of the student board member role and support further development of student leadership opportunities
- Facilitate Community Connections–We have a lot more work to do in building trust and effective communications between the district and the community. The people closest to our challenges, our own community, has answers, resources, and valuable ideas to develop solutions. It’s critical that our broader community is connected to our district and present to support our children and families.
- Continue to Positively Change Culture–DPSCD has seen a positive shift in culture so that staff, students, and families feel supported and welcomed as well as have opportunities to provide feedback. There’s more work to do to ensure our organizational culture sets expectations for excellence in all areas with students as the number one priority. In the next four years, I plan to spend time especially on fulfilling our commitment to be an anti-racist district
- What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals at a state level? *
- Continue to fight to change how we fund public education so that our district and students are equitably supported.
- Legislation preventing return of emergency management
- Exit from state oversight – we have met the demands of the treasury department by demonstrating fiscal responsibility
- What challenges do you anticipate this school year to COVID and what do you think your school district must do to keep students & staff safe? *
We are already seeing a sample of the challenges we’ll continue to face. Black and Brown folks are over-represented in essential work and among students with special needs so we will always be navigating how to best provide educational options for our families. At the start of the school year, we had lost contact with 8,000 students (that number is now down to 2,000). Our community has a high percentage of renters and families who are experiencing transience. Lack of connection with a school building makes it difficult to remain connected and we’ll have to continue to identify ways to ensure students have access to their educations. People will get sick and they will be scared. It’s our job to continue building trust so that families and staff feel supported by DPSCD and while a face to face option is available, as safe as possible within our buildings.
DPSCD continues to be very responsive to the needs of our children, parents and staff during this COVID-19 pandemic. The metrics and criteria established by the CDC, MDHHS and City of Detroit Health Department have guided our reopening plan while leaving flexibility for adjustments due to the uncertainty of the virus. The priority is to ensure a protective environment during this pandemic, which requires diligence and compliance with all safety measures. The school opening plan provides the structure for this compliance.
- What should be your school district’s top spending priorities in their budget? Alternatively, what should not be prioritized in your district’s budget? *
We’ve established a strategic plan to guide our priorities.
- Items and processes that support student achievement (the “classroom” including staff wages and supportive roles such as counselors and nurses)
- Physical plant operation and maintenance (“buildings)
- Advance learning opportunities (“enrichment”)
If we can’t afford to do something well we should hold off on those activities and focus our energy on top priorities. Additionally, if there are worthwhile projects that fit within a school based budget but can’t be justified in a districtwide budget, they should be supported at the school level and we can learn how to scale in the future.
- What role do you think standardized tests should play in your school district?
Public schools exist within our systems of government. And our systems of government have determined that quality is evaluated based upon standardized tests scores. Therefore, we must participate in them. That aside, I also think that some standardized testing is good because it allows use to compare and contrast at scale across our very large district and between other districts. However, the results of standardized tests are not the end all be all, they are one data point, among others that should be considered, that I do believe is helpful. Testing should be used sparingly so as to support teacher creativity with curriculum and an educational system that’s responsive to student needs.
- f you could have an impact on your school district’s curriculum, what changes would you make? What, if anything, would you keep the same? *
We’ve worked hard to update the district’s curriculum over the past few years. It was selected by teachers after learning about national standards and going through an evaluation process, so I would keep our curriculum. However, I would like to do an anti-racism review of our curriculum and modify or supplement as necessary to ensure we are authentic in our commitment to being an anti-racist school district. Also, teachers are currently adjusting to the new curriculum which takes time. As we get into a rhythm, I would like to see teachers supported in amplifying the curriculum–adding additional reading to ELA classes which proposes different angles to the given topics; building in concepts like engineering and coding to math curriculum, etc.
- What responsibility do you believe your school district has in supporting students’ and staffs’ mental and emotional health/wellbeing? *
Mental Health services have increased under this board. We have added roles that build relationships with students such as deans of culture, culture facilitators, and attendance agents. We have increased funding for social workers and school counselors. We work with partnering organizations to offer further support. Integration of services across school based clinics and external agencies is one of our goals, and should be developed to ensure early detection and intervention for students’ needs. Specifically, in the areas of suicide prevention/awareness, depression, and anxiety there must continue to be a focus.
As an organization it’s important to also support the mental and emotional well being of staff. On one hand, that is accomplished by continuing to develop our organizational culture into one where staff feel happy at work, connected to their peers and leaders, and absent from fear. We’ve made great strides in this area which I think is demonstrated by the consistent increase in staff who report they would recommend the district as a place to work (via annual survey). On the other hand, this is accomplished by directly supporting mental health needs. We continue to look for the best benefit packages for staff and all of our staff have access to benefits. This is an important area of work because it ensures staff have access to mental health services through their health insurance. We also, when reviewing staff discipline, make sure to have attentiveness to challenges that may be related to mental health. Under those circumstances, the district supports mental health evaluations prior to any disciplinary decisions. These are the kinds of areas of mental health and emotional well-being for which the board has responsibility.
- How do you think your school district should handle student discipline/and make schools a safe place for students and staff? *
Since the reform of the Student Code of Conduct, led by myself and supported wholly by my colleagues, restorative practice, positive behavior interventions, and family engagement have been at the core of our discipline model. I believe it’s important that students remain connected to their schools (in buildings under normal circumstances) so that their educations are compromised when they have a behavior challenge. I believe that students should be able to learn from their mistakes and be supported in health social and emotional development. I also believe that as a community–students and staff– have to embrace a common meaning for safety and responsibility to keep one another safe and to do no harm to one another. That’s the first step in keeping schools safe and why we’ve tried out campaigns such as “Expect Respect,” so that there’s a common language and responsibility. Safety from violence, especially external violence, is a different circumstance. We need staff who are trained and available to disrupt violence–whether that’s security or school police. But it has to be clear that the role is violence disruption/prevention; not student behavior, learning, or development.
- What are your top priorities around special education in your district? *
A large proportion of DPSCD students have special needs. However, within Black and Brown communities misdiagnoses and overdiagnoses are common. So we’ve started with ensuring accurate and early identification of special needs and from there supported students through our comprehensive Exceptional Students Education plan (and following policies). The plan includes a focus to remove the stigma and engage parents. We have a very diverse student body whose needs range from mild to severe. There is much more work to be done to implement the plan, address funding shortfalls and attract exceptional talent who are dedicated to the needs of our young people. With such a large population of students with special needs, equity in this case looks like ensuring they have all the supports they need to receive a high quality education.
- What is your perspective on working towards achieving equity within your school district?
As the largest urban public school district in the state, equity has always been at the forefront. When we first were appointed, the state was threatening to close a significant amount of our schools which would have disenfranchised thousands of students, jeopardizing their right to access to public education. We swiftly went to work with the State Superintendent to develop a plan to ensure our schools remained open but most importantly were placed on a plan to ensure students were not attending a failing school. We are on track to turn around these schools. This is just one example of our focus on equity, other examples include ensuring we maintain a balanced budget to exit from the FRC, this is important on many levels but most importantly we would not be able to secure funding to repair our buildings and physical plant. We must ensure our students have buildings that are conducive to learning. As a board, our job is to oversee state and district level policy is in place to not only operate but to ensure we are operating in a way that accommodates and addresses all of our students needs, from equitable teacher pay, professional development, student resources, cultural responsiveness, and much needed wrap around services for our most vulnerable population of students.
- Any other information you want to include or share?