Alexandria School Board candidates make their pitch to voters

By Melissa Quinn and Lisa McLean

Alexandria residents gathered at the Beverley Hills Community United Methodist Church and Mount Vernon Community School to hear school board candidates from districts A and B debate. The candidates talked all things education, such as the achievement gap, accreditation and overcrowding. (Ed. Note: District A candidate Heath Wells was absent.)

Which specific goal or objective in the ACPS strategic plan is most important to you personally, and what would you do as a board member to advance it?

Kelly Carmichael-Booz (B): “As I mentioned earlier, the achievement gap is my No.1 priority … We need to look at ways to bridge that gap and close the gap between our minority students and [other] students [as well as our] ELL students [and] special education students and make sure that they have the best tools and resources in their schools to succeed. Again, I’ll go back to pre-K education; we need to make sure students have access to the best education possible, and that when it comes to kindergarten, they’re ready to learn. And a lot of students don’t have the opportunity to have pre-K education. They don’t have the opportunity and they’re not as ready for kindergarten, so the school board and city council need to work together to find funding, additional funding, to fund these pre-K initiatives … In terms of the other programs that are happening in Alexandria — that are great successes — the AVID program, I think, is another great success story and should be expanded … That’s a college-readiness program that’s looking at students that might be going to college for the very first time — the first member of their family — and it’s a really great way to show [students] that they can do it.”

How would you address the present and the future crowding of the schools given it would be hard for the city council to increase the capitol improvement funding? There is talk of adding modular classrooms at George Mason. Would you consider redistricting to reduce overcrowding?

Chyrell Bucksell (B): “Well, to talk about over crowding, the city has stated … that we need five new schools in [Alexandria]. That is something that should be a priority to the city council because our students are going to be our future. They’re our future employees, they’re our future employers, they’re our future politicians, [and] so I think that the schools and the city council need to work together to … find the money to build these five schools. Modulars, I think, [are] a great idea … There are so many people who live in the Parkfairfax area that should be able to go to the schools where their friends go. And it’s important to be able to provide that for them. Redistricting, of course, will help, but it’s not going to solve the problem and we need five new schools.”

If you were a parent of a student at a school and found the state had rescinded the school’s accreditation, what would you … expect from the school board?

Michael Brookbank (B): “I can’t imagine the reaction from parents. This is bigger than one parent and one school. Eighty-eight percent of the households in Alexandria do not have children who are school-age, and one of the big gaps — and one of the reasons we have a great achievement gap — is we haven’t involved the communities enough. We need to reach out; we need to find ways to [help those] households into understanding the importance of our school system. I would hope that schools that lost [their] accreditation will see the entire city rise in support and say, ‘What do we need to do? We will get you the resources you need. We will make this happen because there is nothing more important to us than to make sure we have a good school system, and that school system reflects on all of us.’ It increases our property values [and] it increases our tax rate, but the dedication is just the right thing.”

You hear about the U.S. students’ gaps in science and math achievement, how would you make a decision about what to do about that?

Marc Williams (B): “Since I’ve been on the board, to answer the question, let me start off with this: The [national] achievement gap has to start at the local level. I mean we can’t wave a magic wand; Congress can’t wave a magic wand. We’re responsible for that. You know we have done quite a bit … [With] math, when I first came on the board, only 17 percent of students took algebra in eighth grade. This basically means if you don’t take algebra, you [couldn’t] access a higher-level math class at T.C. Williams. We now have well over 50 percent, in fact 58 percent, who are taking algebra in eighth grade. We have dual-enrollment programs, we have AP programs and we have online programs.”

Do you think there is a problem retaining middle-class students, and what, if anything, do you plan to do about it?

Justin Keating (B): “I am just not convinced that there is real evidence … for middle-class families leaving Alexandria as their kids grow through the years [and] that that’s attributable to our schools actually being subpar. I think that the extent it’s happening is attributable to the fact that … a two-bedroom duplex, it’s just not big enough for two growing kids and two parents. So I think it’s mostly attributable to that and the fact that if I want to move across Commonwealth to the four bedroom, I’ve got to come up with $160,000 in cash in order for that to happen. My intuition is that it’s not in the school system. However, I would like to take a better look at the data. I hear [this argument] anecdotally. I know a couple families who left because they claim ACPS is not good enough for their kids that are starting with my son in kindergarten … Our schools are not perfect, but I don’t think this is [the] problem.”

Our community and students deserve candor and a complete picture when it comes to looking at schools and performance. On a scale of A to F, how would you grade the school administration on communication, transparency and candor? If you grade less than an A, what changes to improve the situation would you recommend?

Stephanie KApsis (A): “I would go with a C+. I think the school board and the school district [are] incredibly well intentioned in terms of communication that’s happening with schools and families: The website is up to date … and the education digest [that] is being sent home covers a lot of issues. I think those are key components of communication. That being said, I think the information being shared does not always tell the full story. I’ve been reading through all the communications thoroughly, and one of the things that stood out in the education digest is [how it] highlighted a number of achievements made this past academic year. There was a box that looked at the SOL standards of learning. There were seven particular courses that all showed growth over the past academic year, which is something to celebrate. What I found interesting was that it didn’t share the full story, and as a parent, I would want to see how we did across the board in each course level … I would also recommend hosting data forums at the school and the system level so people could get into the nitty-gritty.”

Joyce Rawlings (A): “I would grade it a D, and let me tell you why: Because I’m not just looking at communication that goes out to those who have computer access. How do people who are illiterate in their own language, how do they get it? I also look at how often information goes out, so that’s why I give it a D. The other point about candor and trust is [that] we have to be big enough to allow … parents, students, administrators and teachers to have honest conversations so we can get to the crux and address the many challenges that we have without retribution.”

Alexandria elementary schools are at or beyond capacity. How would you address the capacity challenge facing the schools and how it affects parental choice of schools?

Karen Graf (A): “This is a very timely question. We are continuing to grow … [The] good news is we are staying in our neighborhoods and we love our city and we want to see our schools improved. We need to analyze new development with the city … Going forward we’ll have to rapidly build and it may put a bit of a strain on the neighborhoods, but when you look at these buildings, [they] were built a long time ago. What I can say is I have confidence in the city and [city council] working with the school board and building beautiful buildings, and if you are a nonbeliever; then go to T.C. Williams and check it out.”

Some parents are concerned with the Success For All approach to reading. Is this model appropriate for a diverse community such as Alexandria? If so, how widely should it be implemented?

Helen Morris (A): “We need to look at this issue in a larger context. This is about intervention for reading. Our data shows us that too many children of need are failing in reading at the early elementary level. We know if our children are not reading well by the third grade their chances of success go down significantly, and we can’t afford that anymore … So whether we choose something like Success For All or whether we choose another program, we agree that many of the tenets are about good, strong teaching. And what we need to do is make sure that teachers have the requisite background and knowledge on how to intervene, and that’s what a good reading intervention program will do.”

Schools across America are struggling to close achievement gaps. Do you believe that Alexandria is making progress in closing its achievement gaps? If so, where are the best examples and in what areas do we need to do more?

Bill Campbell (A): “I’ve been around longer than everyone on this [issue]. I find it condescending to be constantly told about this moral imperative to close the achievement gap … We care as much as anyone — these are our children … We need to ask what are our issues here? We have some schools that are very successful, and some that are not. We don’t need to look at statistics, we need to look at our schools: who’s failing, why are some failing [and] what [support is] needed by our families? … We need to make meaningful connections to these families. We need to stay uncomfortable with what’s happening to them, and we need to be advocates for these families who have been historically uninvolved. We need to be advocates and make sure they get all the resources they need.”

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