October 4, 2020

Jeff Gaynor

Pronouns:
School DistrictAnn Arbor Public Schools
City:Ann Arbor

How long have you lived in your district?

45 years

Have you received any endorsements?

Washtenaw County Democratic Party, Ann Arbor Education Association, Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, LiUNA, Local 499, Ann Arbor Indivisible (focusing on Climate Neutrality)

Are you an incumbent?

Yes

Why do you want to be a school board member?

As a 38-year classroom teacher and nearly 4 years as a Trustee, the issues I have first hand experience with still aren’t resolved effectively. Of primary focus, I still care about how we educate our kids.

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

While we are an affluent, highly educated district, there is still a significant gap in achievement, suspensions, drop outs and other measures that indicate we are not serving all students properly. We have attempted, with only small measures of success to lessen these differences, but at times it is more rhetoric than reality. For example we have begun instituting what we call Restorative Justice practices, but it is often far from authentic or meaningful.

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

This is too big a question. Throughout my teaching career, well, even before it, I have advocated for a progressive student centered approach.

One of the most disheartening things I’ve witnessed as a teacher is to have a student enter the new school year glad to be back among his peers and anxious to please his teacher. One can see he is kind, affable and eager to please. But as the school year progresses, and he is being judged on test scores, homework completion and grades, rather than being perceived as the whole person he is, his demeanor changes; he withdraws or acts out. He is labeled a failure and the school exacerbates the problem rather than taking responsibility for it. This dynamic occurs at all grades and the cumulative effect is devastating.

As a teacher, I had high standards for every one of my students, but the approach was holistic. I first understood and appreciated the student as he was, and then promoted growth. I did not start with an arbitrary grade level standard, which would be sure to fail many students.

I would promote a radical shift in why and how we are educating students. As a teacher at our Open Elementary School for 10 years, I was more able to teach with a progressive student-centered model, without grades, yet still producing extraordinary results. In fact, when students in middle school were polled, former Open School students did not rate themselves as high as others who were used to getting A’s – but they performed better.

We must make sure our curriculum is expansive and inclusive. Representation must be embedded in all grades and subjects, not just relegated to Black History Month, or a high school African-American humanities class. Restorative Justice practice must serve the needs of students, not be a pretense so that the district can report fewer suspensions, though that too is part of the needed reforms. Reinvigorating curriculum options – such as vocational education – will also help many students find their place in our schools. And we should expand our work with community groups, Community Centers, etc., to support families and students most at risk.

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

This three-way partnership was always significant while I was teaching. I would establish a relationship with parents early on, and inform them regularly not only about how their child was doing, but what was happening in the classroom, early in my career by sending home weekly letters and later by setting up a class website, long before it was common.

I tended to create units and projects that allowed students many options to show what they knew and could do. Cooperative learning activities were a fundamental feature. Expectations were designed to meet individual student abilities and needs – and often in consultation with parents – rather than arbitrary ‘grade level’ standards. Well, as mentioned, this was less so in the waning years of my career as top-down decision making restricted my ability to teach to my students’ interests and needs.

When I was elected to the School Board I bid on and was voted in as Secretary, as the responsibilities included replying to everyone who wrote to the Board. Openness, transparency and Communication have always been a priority. I would post Board agendas and other relevant information on a dedicated Facebook page. I have had open meetings with the community, and others by request.

Is this standard for the district? I would say not. Pre-Covid, there were not many emails written to the Board. I’d like to think that this is because problems were dealt with at “lower” levels as appropriate. But it may also be that the community felt that the Board has not been very responsive. While this is disheartening, it is also true that teachers and other staff feel like they can’t speak up about issues; their experience has been that if they do, they get chastised by their principal or other administrator. This does not set up an environment of trust in which everyone can contribute their thoughts and opinions to the betterment of the district.

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

The Ann Arbor Education Association endorsed me, and promised that they would contribute $1,000 to my campaign. Otherwise I have received individual donations mostly in the range of $5 to $100, though I did receive one donation from a current teacher for $150 and one from a retiree and former School Board member for $250.

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

* Openness and transparency about issues and process;
Fostering community input and discussion;
Critical thinking and problem-solving.

* Decision making in support of equity and social justice.

* Enabling and supporting teacher professionalism and decision making.

While not “educational per se” – also:

* Monitoring the $1 billion bond spending; supporting carbon neutrality measures.

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

* Equitable Funding
* Adequate Funding
* Reversal of the laws that stripped teacher unions of their organizing power (Right-to-work) and that limited items that are subject to collective bargaining.

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?

There is a strong demand from families – especially those with single parents, or both parents working, those with young children, and those with vulnerable students to reopen the schools. We are looking at metrics carefully to reopen as quickly as possible but only when it is safe to do so. This is quite subjective so raises a lot of conflict in the community. Funding for all of the safety requirements is problematic; the Board just approved close to $1million for safety measures which will get us just through a couple of months of the school year. Yet safety of the students, staff and community must be our priority.

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

With Covid, we have to keep everyone safe.

We need to prioritize educational equity – resources to the students and schools which need it most to support especially vulnerable students.

While we have to attend to technology due to the demands of virtual learning, I have been concerned about over spending for technology “because we can” not because we should.

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

Through much of my career as a teacher, standardized tests were limited, both in time and in consequences, and the benchmarks they provided had some value. Now, high stakes testing has disrupted authentic teaching and is being used in invalid ways to evaluate not only students but also teachers. Furthermore, they don’t tell teachers anything they don’t already know about their students. They are also inherently inequitable, being more a measure of parents’ education and income than they are of student ability. So ultimately the current standardize testing regimen serves to solidify a hierarchy of student success and failure rather than helping teachers to support their students. This teachers can and do adjust their instruction and support their students with their own relevant and timely assessments.

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?

This year the administration is mandating what every teacher teaches, in every subject, every day, and it’s uniform across the district. While this is being done in the name of ‘supporting’ teachers while we transition to virtual teaching, it is the logical and ultimate culmination of a trend over the last decade of top-down decision making that has been robbing teachers of their professional autonomy. Instead of lessons based on the unique interests and abilities of their students, teachers are having to spoon feed lessons based on some arbitrary standards.

While broad curriculum should be established in terms of scope and sequence – and be much more inclusive and representative than it has been (we’re making slow progress with this) – teachers must be allowed to make decisions based on the their knowledge of their students.

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

This is hugely important, especially this year. However, this must be done authentically, by supporting student autonomy and decision making and providing the knowledge and skills for them to be successful by showing achievement – not by judging them based on arbitrary grade level standards. And certainly not by subjecting them to canned “Social-Emotional Learning” gimmicks and slides.

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

This has to be done by setting up a positive environment of trust and shared responsibility. Students must be respected and this will only happen if they know they are respected by given individual and collective ownership of what happens every day. It will not come from an authoritarian structure and enforcing strict discipline measures. This is especially true for students who have felt alienates. I am not saying to go easy on students who misbehave. In fact, restorative justice practices must be deep and well structured. It is not enough to wrap traditional ‘punishments’ or to go easy on kids, under the guise of a restorative justice label.

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

Our district has a vast amount of improvement to make in meeting the needs of students with IEP’s and 504 plans. Simply holding meetings on time and following through with the promises made does not happen near enough. We had a major Special Ed Improvement Plan done by an outside organization. Board members received a draft in May, 2019, and yet this still hasn’t been made available to the public. We have to increase our commitment to providing services for the most vulnerable students.

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

My perspective is that the administration is very good at rhetoric about equity, but so far the reality has not matched up. One example of this is due to our in-district transfer policies. In order to retain families in the district we have seen an exodus of families from more diverse schools to more increasingly homogenous schools, increasing school segregation within the district. So while we make a show of providing more resources to schools that have greater need, either due to lower student achievement, or less funds available to their PTO, we are not taking a look at how systemically we are increasing the inequities. It is still true that privileged parents get their way more so than underrepresented groups. While we are making small scale efforts, overall we have made little progress.

Any other information you want to include or share?

I have been a life-long activist, protesting against the Vietnam War in high school, joining in on the Black Action Movement protests at the University of Michigan, advocating for Feminism and Gay Rights in the 70’s. Last year I engaged in an all-day climate change protest, getting arrested for my convictions.

This year, after the detainment of Black Lives Matters protestors by Federal agents, I organized a protest at the Federal Building here in Ann Arbor, one that drew hundreds of people to hear 14 speakers, including Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Rep. Yousef Rabhi, civil rights attorneys, local officials, and activists.

In between, during my 38-year teaching career, I was told that I was the teacher who spoke up during staff meetings when others were hesitant to do so. I bring the same level of critical thought and conscience to my work as a trustee.