October 4, 2020
School DistrictYpsilanti Community Schools
How long have you lived in your district?
Have you received any endorsements?
Washtenaw County Democratic Party, Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, Eastern Washtenaw Democratic Club, 3.14 Action Fund (supporting scientists running for office), State Representative Ronnie Peterson, State Senator Jeff Irwin, Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo, Ypsilanti Township Trustee Monica Ross-Williams, Ypsilanti City Council Member Steve Wilcoxen, Ypsilanti City Council Member Annie Somerville, Former Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education President Sharon Irvine, Former Ypsilanti Public Schools Board of Education Vice President Kira Berman, Former Ypsilanti Community Schools Superintendent Benjamin Edmondson, Former Ypsilanti Public Schools Teacher Herman Humes, Peri Stone-Palmquist, Gail Wolkoff, and other community leaders
Are you an incumbent?
Why do you want to be a school board member?
I want to help ensure that all students in my district have access to equitable, excellent, and ambitious educational opportunities: equitable in that all students get the opportunities and resources needed to reach their full potential; excellent in that teachers are empowered and supported in providing engaging, high quality, culturally competent instruction; and ambitious in that we let nothing and no one put false limits on what any child can achieve.
I believe in the promise and the necessity of excellent, strong public schools, and I want to serve and support the kids of my community, and by extension all the people and services needed to ensure their success.
I have had the privilege of working with families, teachers, administrators, and community partners throughout the YCS district who all have so much to offer to our kids, and I want to be part of bringing all those voices to the table. I have also taught really smart, really capable young adults who successfully made it to college but did not have confidence in their own abilities, or who were just tired from fighting against barriers.
There are no perfect answers to the challenges that face public education right now, but I feel a responsibility to seek out the kind of universal design solutions that can support the most vulnerable, make the system more equitable, and benefit every student who the district serves.
What does education justice mean to you? What does it mean specifically in the context of your school district?
As a longtime follower of the work of 482Forward (and as of August, a proud new member) I don’t think I can articulate it any better than the stakeholder-defined parameters embraced by that organization: Education justice requires equitable funding, accountable governance with stakeholder voice, rich culturally competent curricular resources, teachers who are provided with the supports and resources they need, wraparound supports to ensure that each child is able to succeed and thrive, schools that are welcoming and inclusive for students and families, and equitable access to special education services.
While the guidelines from 482Forward were developed for Detroit public schools, I think they are equally relevant to Ypsilanti Community Schools. In many ways we face a very similar set of challenges packaged into a much smaller school district. Instead of being surrounded by more affluent suburbs, Ypsi is encircled by the wealthier communities of Washtenaw County. Every single point identified is above is an area for growth in our district. In some places we are making excellent strides: our administration and teachers are embracing the teaching of Gholdi Mohammed and seeking to cultivate the genius in each of our children, the assistant superintendent is discussing formally adopting the 1619 Curriculum, and our Blueprint Network has been working hard to develop a robust Intense Student Support Network to make sure wraparound supports are in place and accessible. However, regarding equitable funding, we need only look down the road to Ann Arbor where the state funding model values students there at over $1,100 more than those in Ypsi. The lack of equitable funding has ripple effects throughout our district, feeding into a “failing schools” narrative that drives families away and further stresses our school budgets. On top of that, our district carries a debt that takes $2 million away from our teachers and students every year when our total budget is only $58 million.
If you could completely reimagine the way schools look after this public health crisis, what would they look like?
There are so many possible directions to go with this that I hardly know where to start…
One thing that I think the public health crisis (and the resulting online education adaptations) has forced us to examine is how we meet students’ educational needs and best use the time that students and teachers have together. Knowing that long stretches of Zoom are not good for students, we have needed to be creative and intentional about what instruction is done asynchronous and what kinds of teaching are worth the precious synchronous time that is available. I would love to see us be much more flexible about what the school day looks like, and maximize the opportunities for interactivity among teachers and students during the time that they are in class.
The pandemic has also thrown into stark relief the magnitude of the inequities in our educational system. The kids whose schools are already chronically under-resourced are also many of the same kids whose families are more acutely affected by COVID. Even when districts like YCS make equity-minded plans to prioritize the most effective in-person instruction for those who need it most, some families are understandably finding the risk too grave. I want to see us take a hard look at how resources are distributed and demand that funding be both adequate and equitable in all schools.
One interesting silver lining of the pandemic has been the opportunity to be a daily guest in my child’s classroom, and to be better-able to support her learning because I know what she works on with her teacher. I think that this is a positive that we can carry past the pandemic, both by making families welcome in their children’s schools, and by improving communication to families and giving them straightforward, practical opportunities to support their child’s learning at home in a way that helps expand on their explorations in the classroom.
Describe how you think parents, students, and families should be involved in making decisions within your school district?
Parent, student, and family voice needs to be integrated into district decision-making. This must be something far more than individual stakeholders coming to speak for three minutes at a school board meeting. The district needs to seek out and facilitate participation from a diverse range of families that reflects the socioeconomic, cultural, and racial composition of the population that they serve. It isn’t enough to ask for volunteers – teachers and principals can take an active role in recruiting and encouraging potential participants, and the district can bring conversations to the venues and through the formats that are most accessible to the families they desire to hear from. Parent, student, and community member advisory commissions can provide a rich source of wisdom and perspective that the district can draw upon when considering new initiatives or tackling thorny problems
Who (if any) are your top financial supporters for your campaign?
My family and myself – the rest is made up of smaller donations from friends and community members
What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals within your school district?
Adopting (and supporting!) high-quality, culturally competent, ambitious curriculum across all subject areas at all grade levels
Implementing restorative justice practices at scale throughout the district and eliminating disproportionate discipline practices toward students of color
Integrating literacy learning and support across all subject areas and ensuring that engaging science and social studies instruction is not neglected
What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals at a state level?
Achieving equitable school funding
Abolishing for-profit charter schools and revising the foundation allowance allocation for school choice
Eliminating high-stakes standardized testing and adopting better metrics for student, teacher, and school success
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?
The biggest challenge is balancing the most effective public health interventions with best practices for education, especially for those students who are most marginalized.
COVID safety while in person requires small class sizes to facilitate distancing, good ventilation, scrupulous mask-wearing, and plentiful personal protective equipment. The resources and facilities needed to achieve that for all children in our district simply do not exist. We have neither the space nor the staff to keep class sizes as small as they would need to be for the entire student population, and too many of our classrooms don’t even have windows that can be opened to improve air flow.
The alternative that YCS has landed upon seems to be the best we can do in an extremely challenging situation. By using the best available facilities for our current condition but filling them far below capacity to allow spacing I think the district is doing an admirable job of serving and protecting the students who most need the benefit of in-person instruction. At the same time, plenty of vulnerable students do not feel safe coming to school, and they and the rest of the student population are relying on distance education. It is imperative that while we take these measures to ensure physical health and safety we also throw our efforts and resources strongly behind adapting and creating high quality distance learning.
What should be your school district’s top spending priorities in their budget? Alternatively, what should not be prioritized your district’s budget?
The first priority should always be the kids and anything that affects their learning. This includes attracting and retaining (and supporting and equitably compensating!) excellent teachers, investing in high quality culturally competent curricula, and making sure that wraparound supports are available to help ensure that our most marginalized students are safe, secure, and ready to learn.
It is harder to identify the things that should not be prioritized. I think that efficiencies can be realized (as has been done in our district) through more efficient facilities upgrades, better busing routes, and adoption of sustainable technology life cycles. One of the changes I am most proud of, and which served fiscal responsibility and educational equity, was the decision to remove police officers from our buildings with the intention of reallocating those funds to support staff who can more effectively support a safe culture and climate in our schools.
What role do you think standardized tests should play in your school district?
I honestly do not know – it is easier to say what role they should not play. As I see it the issues with standardized tests are two-fold. 1) The tests as they are now written are biased and not culturally competent. 2) The data from those tests are too often used punitively (and inaccurately) in evaluation of teachers and schools – both officially in the hands of government officials and school administrators, and unofficially in the hands of parents making school choices based on poor data analysis.
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?
I think that my district has made some good curricular choices, informed by some really excellent teacher input. However, I worry about our ability to carve out the time to fully support, implement, and adapt those resources. In my time as a science consultant for my district I saw high quality curricular resources languish in storage in some buildings because of staffing shortages, and I worked with teachers who were exhausted and deeply overextended by trying to manage all those materials and learn them on the fly without adequate time for professional development and collaborative support from colleagues.
One curricular change I would love to see is a more intentional emphasis on science and social studies. These subjects are too often marginalized, especially at the elementary level, by the urgency around literacy and math. However, when we neglect these students miss the opportunity to grasp foundational concepts and develop critical skills that are needed in future classes. Additionally, research shows that literacy instruction integrated into engaging science and social studies content substantially improves reading skill. Of course, that science and social studies content that is taught needs to be relevant, engaging, and of high quality – to that end I applaud my district in exploring the adoption of social studies curricula like the 1619 Project.
What responsibility do you believe your school district has in supporting students’ and staffs’ mental and emotional health/wellbeing?
I think it is incredibly important that schools can be a place to access vital mental health resources. Many of our kids are wrestling with trauma and need additional supports; likewise, teachers and staff can be subjected to overwhelming amounts of secondary trauma as they seek to support their students. Also, I feel that by providing high quality support services in this area schools can help destigmatize mental health struggles and make it easier for students to identify challenges early and reach out for help.
How do you think your school district should handle student discipline/and make schools a safe place for students and staff?
I believe in the potential and the efficacy of restorative justice, and I would love to see it implemented well and at scale throughout my district. (In truth, it has received a lot of attention in YCS, but turnover in teachers and administrators seems to have made it challenging to maintain.) Above all I think our focus needs to be on repairing harm and making it possible for students to productively return to learning. Counselors and support staff are needed to support this work and help work on the root causes of behavior issues. We also need to be very clear-eyed about unconscious bias and resorting to disciplinary actions when they are neither necessary or appropriate. Above all, we need to keep kids in school with access to the myriad resources that school can provide; suspensions and expulsions only serve to further marginalize students who are already at risk.
What are your top priorities around special education in your district?
I think that we need to ensure that we are providing equitable and high quality special education services that are tailored to the needs of individual students, and that we are furnishing the supports to allow those students to be mainstreamed whenever possible and appropriate. I don’t want to see any student denied access to exciting and challenging learning or subjected to false limitations on their potential.
What is your perspective on working towards achieving equity within your school district?
Equity is a word that gets thrown around a ton in education, and I’m certain that I am guilty of overusing it in the context of this questionnaire. My understanding of true equity is still evolving – right now Angela Glover Blackwell’s definition resonates with me most strongly: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Ultimately, we need to look at the needs of the most marginalized and identify the universal design solutions to overcome the systemic barriers that hold them back. By putting our efforts and priorities there, we have the power to improve outcomes for everyone.
Any other information you want to include or share?
This was an excellent and challenging questionnaire. I’m still learning and evolving in my understanding of many of these issues. One thing I promise if elected to the school board (or, frankly, even if I’m not), is that I will never stop being open to new perspectives, information, and understanding. I am keenly aware that I do not have all the answers, and I know that it is only by integrating our collective wisdom that we can identify and pursue the changes that will benefit everyone.