October 4, 2020

Debbie Walton

Pronouns:She/Her
School DistrictEast Lansing Public Schools
City:East Lansing

How long have you lived in your district?

17 years

Have you received any endorsements?

Yes. Erin Graham (President, EL Board of Ed), Chris Martin (Secretary, EL Board of Ed), Jessy Gregg (EL Mayor Pro Tem), David Chapin (Former EL Superintendent), Former EL School Board Members: Kay Biddle, Babs Krause, Rima Addiego, Nell Kuhnmuench

Are you an incumbent?

No

Why do you want to be a school board member?

I am running for a seat on the Board of Education because I love East Lansing! When I moved here 17 years ago, I found an incredibly welcoming, vibrant, diverse city, and I fell in love with this place and its community. I began volunteering in the schools in 2009 when my son started kindergarten at Donley Elementary. My intent has always been to support our teachers and help enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for all of our students. Since then, I have volunteered consistently and in many capacities including serving as President & Vice-President of the Donley, MacDonald Middle School and District Parent Councils. I have also worked to create Science and Math events at the elementary schools and middle schools, initiated the creation of a “Needs Closet” at MMS, provided music enrichment to the Early Childhood Special Needs classes, and volunteered weekly in an ELHS Algebra 1 classroom, among other things. I want to be on the School Board to contribute in an even more profound way to this community that I love. I want people to know that East Lansing Public Schools provide top-notch academic opportunities, that our arts and athletics are phenomenal, and that our students leave here ready to be active and engaged citizens. East Lansing Public Schools should be a point of pride for the entire community, and I will work tirelessly to make that potential a reality.

What does education justice mean to you? What does it mean specifically in the context of your school district?

Education Justice means focusing on providing an equitable education to every single member of our district. It means allocating resources to students based on their need, whether that is a need for mental and emotional support or a need for advanced curriculum (or anything else that might arise), and engaging fully in the practice of Restorative Justice so that we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. The East Lansing Public Schools are fully committed to providing equitable education and, if elected, I look forward to continuing that work. Our schools have a long way to go, however we have made concrete steps in the right direction over the last several years. Our middle school and high school are currently using Restorative Justice practices, and we are working to ensure that our district provides an education that is tailored to each individual child’s needs.

If you could completely reimagine the way schools look after this public health crisis, what would they look like?

If funding were sufficient, I would reimagine our schools as follows: I would begin by providing preschool for all of the 3 and 4 year-olds in the district. Early Childhood Education has been shown to improve educational and life outcomes, and it is the most proactive way to begin to close our achievement gap. As children transition into kindergarten, they would be allowed ample time to play outside, as well as given exposure to music, art, and foreign languages. Their reading curriculum would not require an age-inappropriate 90-minute-block at the beginning of each day (as is currently required), and their elementary teachers would be confident and excited to teach math and science. Teachers who are particularly interested in STEM would provide faster-paced classes for students who are eager for those challenges. Our special needs children would be included as much as possible in traditional classrooms and specials (art, music, language), and our special needs families would feel welcomed and embraced by our community (a reality that sadly is not the case currently). As children transition into middle school, they would be provided anti-bullying training. Academically, the school would tailor curriculum to the different needs of the students, providing resources both for those who are struggling as well as those who require additional challenges. And in high school, all students would be provided Mental Health First Aid training. The counseling staff would be open and available, creative, and willing to think outside-the-box to tailor each student’s educational experience to their individual needs. Students would be informed about career paths outside of the traditional path to college, and training in the trades would be easily accessible on the high school campus. Academic successes would be celebrated equally to accomplishments in sports. In short, I would create an environment where each child is celebrated and provided opportunities to explore their own interests while learning how to live in a community that respects, protects, and lifts up each individual.

Describe how you think parents, students, and families should be involved in making decisions within your school district?

Every member of our community must have a voice in the decisions that are made in the district. There are several different ways to have a voice, whether it is attending board meetings and making public comments, emailing the School Board and administration, or being a participant as a community stakeholder on any number of various work groups. However, we must recognize that there are barriers to participation. First and foremost, the district must be transparent about the information that is being used to make decisions so that community members do not have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing their own individual research. Information must be communicated in a timely manner to our community. Second, communication with the School Board must be treated as equally important whether it is received via email or in-person at a meeting so as to not penalize community members who cannot attend in person. Third, community stakeholder positions must be allocated in an equitable manner, consciously and intentionally including BIPoC. And finally, there must be time set-aside for community members to have their questions answered publicly, whether this is during Board meetings or as part of a district-wide newsletter. Without an opportunity for give-and-take, it is too easy for districts to ignore community input.

Who (if any) are your top financial supporters for your campaign?

Jen & Steve Lathom and David Mittleman

What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals within your school district?

My top three educational goals are improving our reading and math proficiency levels district-wide, creating a system which provides access to higher-level curriculum to a more diverse group of students, and reducing our class sizes.

First, our district’s reading and math proficiency levels currently stand at 71% proficient in reading and 56% proficient in math (based on the 2019 M-STEP results ). There is no doubt that there is significant room for improvement, and we must make this a priority.

Second, in our district, access to advanced curriculum in math and science at the middle school and high school is primarily restricted to students whose parents advocate for them to have access to atypical curricula. This system is inherently unjust, and we must dismantle it and build a system that identifies students who require additional resources and provides in-district options to them, without the need for family/guardian advocacy. The system we currently have reinforces systemic racism and results in the students who have access to the strongest college preparatory coursework all being predominantly caucasian, which does not reflect the distribution of our student body.

Third, for a variety of reasons (primarily funding), class sizes in ELPS have grown larger and larger over the years. Although teachers receive a small pay increase for each student over the “cap,” the impact on classroom management and content delivery is notable and detrimental. It is practically impossible to provide differentiated instruction for the number of students who are physically in each class. We are asking our teachers to do the impossible. If we want to make it possible for teachers to provide the highest quality education to our students, we must reduce our class sizes.

What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals at a state level?

At a state level, I would be thrilled to see implementation of the Great Start Readiness Program for 3-year-olds in our state. I would also like to see our state pursue affordable postsecondary education programs such as the Michigan Reconnect legislation, and I would like to see additional funding for teacher compensation and benefits.

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?

Our district is facing the same challenges as every other district across the country. Namely, how do we keep our students, teachers, staff, administrators, and families safe while also providing equitable and rigorous academics to every student in the district. Our district was smart to start entirely online (we will be continuing online until the end of October, at a minimum, due to the high number of COVID cases in East Lansing currently), and the administration has been doing a good job of surveying the teachers and families separately to get a sense of what measures the different stakeholders see as necessary to keeping everyone safe. Teachers are the heart and soul of our district, and their needs must be heard and listened to. Our district is also working to bring our highest-need learners back in small group cohorts as soon as possible.

What should be your school district’s top spending priorities in their budget? Alternatively, what should not be prioritized your district’s budget?

Our district’s top spending priority is, and should be, our teachers. Their salaries, retirement benefits, and supply needs currently make up the bulk of our budget, which is appropriate. In response to what should not be prioritized, ordinarily I would say that administration should be a low priority, however our district runs extremely lean, and we have been advised not to reduce the size of our administration any further.

What role do you think standardized tests should play in your school district?

Standardized testing is intended to be a means to provide fair and reliable assessments of our students and teachers; however, what it actually does is create high-stress, high-stakes events that detract from real education. Standardized testing negatively impacts classroom teaching, decreases seat time, and creates pressure on teachers to raise test scores, both for performance evaluations and to improve the standing of the school academically and financially The anxiety levels of both students and teachers are raised, and the overall goal of providing high quality education is diminished, because the goal changes from learning the grade-appropriate curriculum to learning how to pass the standardized test. I would like to see a reduced reliance on standardized testing across our district, to the extent that it is possible.

If you could have an impact on your school district’s curriculum , what changes would you make? What, if anything, would you keep the same?

In the elementary schools, we are utilizing a literacy curriculum entitled “Reading Street” which requires a solid 90-minute block for our youngest learners. Not only is this large block of time inappropriate for our youngest children, but it complicates scheduling for the rest of the “special” areas. I would advocate for the adoption of a more age-appropriate literacy curriculum.

The math curriculum in our middle school is an inquiry-based curriculum that is being developed at MSU. Although the idea of inquiry-based curriculum is appealing, as a math tutor in East Lansing, I see significant amounts of confusion from the students. I would advocate for a return to a more standard math curriculum for our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math classes as well as Algebra 1.

The high school science curriculum is new as of 2017, and is primarily a science literacy curriculum consisting of Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Science. I would advocate for adding the traditional Physics, Biology, and Chemistry classes for any student who wishes to pursue a STEM career.

The foreign language, English, and math curricula at both the middle school and high school are fantastic, and I would not advocate for any changes in those areas.

What responsibility do you believe your school district has in supporting students’ and staffs’ mental and emotional health/wellbeing?

I believe that supporting the mental and emotional health of our students and staff is of the utmost importance. It is impossible for our community members to do their best work, whether that is teaching or learning, if they are experiencing mental and emotional turmoil. Our district has a Mental Health Advisory Committee which is quite active, and our High School counselors are currently looking into providing a “Mental Health First Aid” course to all teachers and students. I strongly support the district’s efforts to provide mental and emotional support to our community.

How do you think your school district should handle student discipline/and make schools a safe place for students and staff?

Our Middle School and High School are using Restorative Justice practices to help make the schools a safer place for our students and staff. I would like to see our school continue to use these practices to create a safer school environment, however appropriate implementation of Restorative Justice practices requires additional staff members to support the program, so I believe we must make the financial commitment to hire additional counselors if we want Restorative Justice to succeed at our middle school. The School Board also voted last spring to remove the East Lansing police “School Safety Officer” from our High School in response to feedback from our students and teachers of color. I believe that listening, hearing, and believing the input from our underserved communities is the first step to providing an equitable education.

What are your top priorities around special education in your district?

For the past several months, I have been meeting with Special Needs families in my district to get a better understanding of how our district has served them to this point. My understanding from those conversations is that our district requires a culture shift that must come from the highest levels of our administration. Many families currently feel that our district approaches the students from a legalistic standpoint, attempting to determine which required legal boxes need to be “checked off” as opposed to meeting them as individuals and determining what approaches might best suit each child. However, a new Director of Special Education was hired last Spring, and families are reporting that he has been extremely responsive and proactive during meetings, and they are cautiously optimistic. I would like to ensure that our district follows through on these hopeful changes. Additionally, I would like to see families of our Special Needs students included as stakeholders on hiring committees. When a new Special Education teacher or administrator is hired, the families should have input as to which candidate is selected. This is a relatively low-cost way to get their important input on hiring decisions that will impact their families directly for many years.

What is your perspective on working towards achieving equity within your school district?

My district has a strong focus on equity, and I think it is imperative that we continue this attention. My goal, if elected, is to help ensure that every single student in our community is given the resources that they need to achieve to their highest level. We must recognize that our students are individuals and have individual needs. We must tailor the curriculum and resources to meet those needs for every member of our diverse student body.

Any other information you want to include or share?

Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questionnaire. Please feel free to contact me with any further questions. votedebbiewalton@gmail.com