VOTER GUIDE | School Board Candidates

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VOTER GUIDE | School Board Candidates
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At Least One New Face to Join ACPS School Board

Nothing, it seems, is getting any simpler these days in Alexandria.

Like nearly everywhere else in the region and the country the economy caused a sort of latent uncertainty and a need to reassess the status quo.

The race for the city School Board is no exception. With one current board member not seeking reelection on May 5, the nine-member elected body is bound to see at least one new face when the next three-year term begins on July 1.

While many of the issues facing the citys public schools are not new, they are still news, only magnified by budget shortfalls and the cuts they require.

Now, probably more than ever before, electing the next School Board, which oversees a budget of roughly $200 million to educate more than 11,000 students, is vitally important. Put in perspective, the citys contribution to the Alexandria City Public Schools budget makes up about 30 percent of the citys total expenditures.

With that price tag also comes the hefty responsibility of giving students the best education possible.

And, yet, as ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman said at a recent School Board meeting, more will need to be done in order to attain the higher achievement for each and every student for which the school system is aiming and posturing itself.

The citys schools consist of a radically different set of demographics than the surrounding school districts, marked by much higher levels of poverty over 50 percent of the T.C. Williams student body is eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students with extensive and diverse needs.
Unlike Fairfax County and Arlington County public schools, minorities make up the vast majority of students within ACPS, and among all students, more than 20 percent need services for learning English as a second language.

Many of these students come from families that have recently immigrated to America and are struggling to provide some of the varied forms of support necessary to helping students thrive in the ever-changing educational landscape.

Beyond the persistent achievement gap that exists between different portions of the ACPS population recently quantified to a degree with the release of graduation and dropout rates around the state there exists a number of other significant issues.

The graduation rate for the class of 2008 at T.C. Williams (76.4 percent) is below the state average, and the schools dropout rate (11.1 percent) is the second highest in Northern Virginia, according to the state.

The number of homeless students is rising faster than in years past and already exceeds the total from the 2007-2008 school year. These students, too, require special, additional support to succeed during an especially difficult time in their lives, an experience that is new for many this school year because of the economic downturn.

Looking within the graduation statistics, homeless students, disadvantaged students, Hispanic students and those struggling to learn English all performed at a markedly lower rate than other students.

If anything, these numbers only serve further notice that the achievement gap, which is now widely accepted as fact, has not gone anywhere and requires more attention.

And, as if the schools systemic issues were not enough to deal with, there are structural issues looming as well.

After a year of unprecedented enrollment growth, the largest percentage increase of any school system in Virginia, ACPS is facing all-too-real growing pains.

Several elementary schools are already at capacity and with the number of students entering the system not expected to drop off any time soon, the buildings, many of which are showing their age, will only become more crowded.

The possibility that ACPS may need as many as two more elementary schools in the next five years to accommodate all of its students all of this occurring in a period of decreasing revenue and available, tenable space mean that creativity and careful planning will be critical in making the difficult decisions that are sure to come.

So, while the board will not see the sort of wholesale change it did in 2006, the District A race is sure to be a close and interesting one with five candidates running for three spots.

With many choices to be made in the next three years involving millions of taxpayer dollars and the education of thousands of children, choosing candidates who will represent student interests is a consequential task worthy of critical thought.

SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES – DISTRICT A

Bill Campbell

Occupation: Program Engineer
Alexandria Resident: 5 years
Children in ACPS: 3
Education: B. S., West Virginia; Masters, Georgetown; pursuing Ph.D., Univ. of Phoenix
Neighborhood: Parker-Gray
Website: www.votebillcampbell.com

With his campaign focused on getting back to basics, it seems apt that Bill Campbell extremely proud of his family and his approaching 25th wedding anniversary in October holds family and community interaction in just about as high regard as the schools themselves when it comes to education.

A father of three ACPS students, Campbells campaign for a District A School Board seat is intent upon soliciting the parents, families and community and providing continuity in the message of the critical nature of education and the entire village to provide the necessary support structure.

Beyond his own educational experience and that of his children five different school districts in four different states Campbell sees his background as a minority growing up to a single mother of six on welfare and in public housing as one that makes him unlike most candidates.

[My background] gives me a unique perspective to say certain conditions do not resign you to remain in those conditions, he said. With the right type of support structure, the right type of expectations from everyone, theres really no limit to what you can attain.

In addition to efforts to increase rigor at the high-achieving end of the spectrum, Campbell thinks there needs to be a priority for those who are struggling to meet minimum marks. That effort to increase achievement and close the existing gap between whites and minorities is the most pressing issue currently facing ACPS, according to Campbell.

Weve been talking about it for several years now and we need to do something about [the achievement gap], he said, citing the need for high expectations coupled with finding positive educational advocates for students in the home and in the community, not just the schools.

Mimi Carter

Occupation: Publicist
Alexandria Resident: 10 years
Children in ACPS: 2
Education: B.A. George Washington; Masters, American
Neighborhood: Del Ray
Website: mimicarter.wordpress.com

As one of the candidates running for a seat in District A, Mimi Carter is pushing for As accountability, accessibility and adaptability.

We should be able to be really innovative and as a $200 million organization we should be able to really have the services, the technology and the programs that are some of the best in the country, Carter said, explaining her campaigns focus on seeing more program evaluation, increased access to top notch programs for students and teachers and an ability to make existing programs work.

Carter brings with her an extensive history of involvement in Alexandria, including her work as co-founder of the State of the Schools forum for parents considering ACPS schools as well as leadership in the PTA and after-school programs at Mt. Vernon Community School.

She also wrote a book on early childhood education in the D.C. metro area, The Insiders Guide to Child Care in Washington DC, which Carter said gave her a good idea about what goes into a successful pre-kindergarten program.

We need to have a systematic pre-school program, Carter said. [The current program] is just here and there throughout ACPS, and we
really need to do a better job of ensuring quality.

According to Carter, the biggest issue facing the schools is the need for accountability and putting a system in place to evaluate programs effectively. In working to remedy the achievement gap, she said there needs to be a mentoring program involving proper training for general education teachers, as well as an emphasis on early childhood education.

The best dropout prevention program is pre-school, she said. All the statistics are there about how kids who get a quality educational experience in pre-school are much less likely to drop out of school later on.

Sheryl Gorsuch

Occupation: Small business owner, chef services
Alexandria Resident: 23 years
Children in ACPS: 3
Education: B.A., Pomona College
Neighborhood: Del Ray
Incumbent: 3 years
Website: www.sherylgorsuch.org

As ACPS works to right the achievement gap that exists between different cross sections of the school population, District A candidate Sheryl Gorsuch, someone whos admittedly passionate about educational issues, does not pretend that there is a single, fix-all solution to the problem.

Theres no magic bullet, but as a board we definitely need to focus on the achievement gap, Gorsuch said. With a clear focus that which gets measured gets done [and] if were relentless about dealing with that issue ,I think we can make some significant progress.

If were not talking about it, I dont know how we can expect the staff to be talking about it or the community to be helping, she said.

Gorsuch has been active in Alexandrias public school community. She was previously part of the PTA at the school level and the citys PTA Council, in addition to being a parent of three ACPS students, which she thinks has provided her with the experience has helped her as a school board member and makes her a unique candidate.

During her time on the school board, Gorsuch said she has striven to provide balanced decision-making and leadership, while collaborating with the Superintendent and other Board members to have a positive impact on the citys schools something she thinks will be required as the school system faces increasing enrollment and decreasing revenues in years to come.

Enrollment increases and decreasing revenues are going to drive a lot of decisions in the next few years, Gorsuch said. Its important for the Board to work collaboratively with the staff to tackle these issues and to get input from the community.

Helen Morris

Occupation: Education policy professional
Alexandria Resident: 7 years
Children in ACPS: One (Jefferson-Houston pre-school)
Education: B.A., Univ. of Michigan; Masters, University College Dublin, Ireland
Website: www.votehelenmorris.com

Having moved to Alexandria in 2002 with a background in education policy and a daughter in the pre-Kindergarten program at Jefferson-Houston, Helen Morris is running as a District A candidate to ensure that our children are able to reach their own unique potential in life.

As I talk to people around the city and people tell you their own stories, I think across the board, the sense that I get is that we do O.K. by some of our students, she said. The students who have parents pushing them along the way, they can get the best out of the system, but the students who dont have those advocates or someone theyve made a connection with in schools those are the ones who have fallen behind.

Morris cited her ability to look at hard questions and reach consensus, do the necessary research about problems before forming conclusions and her 20 years of experience in educational policy an experience shes dying to bring to the Board as qualities that make her a unique candidate for School Board.

When it comes to the gap in achievement in the ACPS, Morris believes that the time for excuses is over and that a change in mindset and rhetoric needs to occur. It has already started to occur under Superintendent Morton Sherman, she said.

I think we have the capacity to be excellent, Morris said. If we look at kids as individuals rather than groups, and if we demand that everyone who touches a childs life in any way truly believes that child can succeed I think thats where the right decisions begin to get made at the policy level.

And, although her 4-year-old is not quite old enough to make the team, Morris said she has loved coaching middle school girls basketball at different points over the past 15 or so years.

SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES – DISTRICT B

Scott Newsham

Occupation: U.S. Coast Guard Commander, Ret.
Alexandria Resident: 15 years
CHILDREN IN ACPS: One current and one 2008 T.C. Williams graduate
Education: B.S. Virginia Commonwealth Univ.; Masters, Washington Univ.
Neighborhood: Del Ray
Incumbent: 3 years
Website: www.newshamforschoolboard.com

Running for re-election in District A, Scott Newsham is looking to build upon the positive progress he and the other board members have made in the last term.

The retired Coast Guard commander and summertime safe technician at the CIA growing up wants to continue to provide strong leadership and sound management to the School Board as it moves ahead with its new Strategic Plan.

Newsham thinks that his 14 years as an involved Alexandria parent of two ACPS students, an extensive resume of community outreach activities including tutoring, working with the Red Cross and other volunteer efforts provide him with different perspectives and voices on issues.

My past experience and my everyday community involvement give me a good sense of what peoples views of the schools are, and not just from a parent or PTA perspective, he said.

According to Newsham, the most critical issue facing the schools is the combination of an aging educational infrastructure and increasing student population, which have the potential to create serious fiscal problems for ACPS. We need to get more information and we need to be planning much more than one or two years out, he said.

Beyond the structural issues facing the school system, Newsham also cited the need to increase achievement and put an end to the existing gap among certain portions of the student population.

If there were a few things we could do to close the achievement gap [right now] we wouldve already done those, Newsham said. As a school board member, I can make sure that we have the right superintendent and the resources to succeed.

Yvonne Folkerts

Occupation: Mother; School Board Chair
Alexandria Resident: Nine years
Children in ACPS: Two
EDUCATION: B.A., Eastern Illinois Univ.
Neighborhood: Seminary Ridge
Incumbent: 3 years
Website: www.yvonnefolkerts.typepad.com

Running for re-election in District B, current School Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts hopes to provide continued leadership and experience in the upcoming term, while working to implement the schools new Strategic Plan and see higher achievement for all Alexandria students.

Folkerts sees her three years of previous experience on the Board, including one year as chairperson, and a dedication to studying the issues, discerning all opinions and trying to reach consensus as qualities that make her a unique candidate in the May 5 election.

A native of Illinois, Folkerts said that her earliest American ancestors in the 18th century actually hailed from Old Town before branching out over the decades. As a current Alexandrian, she sees the need for higher achievement across the board as the number one issue facing the schools.

I really want to see higher achievement for each and every student, regardless of whether that means a student is struggling and needs extra intervention, or if that student is functioning at the highest levels and needs more of a challenge, she said.

In working to overcome the citys achievement gap, Folkerts said that the Boards action over the past year enacting a new set of goals and a Strategic Plan have the school division headed
in the right direction. Along with further developing mentor and tutoring programs, the schools are looking to implement new programs that address how students learn as a means to erase the disparity in student achievement.

SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES – DISTRICT B

Arthur Peabody, Jr.

Occupation: Lawyer
Alexandria Resident: 37 years
Children in ACPS: 2 T.C. Williams graduates
Neighborhood: Chapel Hill
Education: B.A., Northeastern Univ.; J.D. Cornell Univ.
Incumbent: 3 years

For Arthur Peabody, a longtime litigator at the U.S. Justice Department dealing with special education issues, equal opportunities and health care issues, his goal as a District B candidate for School Board remains the effort to effect excellence in education and realizing higher achievement for all students.

And of course, when your own kids go through the school system, you learn a lot, he said, referring to his daughters who have recently graduated from T.C. Williams High School.

According to Peabody, one of the biggest issues facing the schools right now is increasing the rigor and the challenge of the classes, which would in turn assure higher achievement for all students.

Were entering the 21st century where the value of an education is increasing exponentially in all fields, Peabody said, noting the increasing cross-disciplinary nature of skills required to do any job. The need for a good education is just so significant.

When it comes to eradicating the achievement gap, Peabody thinks a multi-faceted approach starting with marching boldly into the pre-school arena to make sure that quality pre-kindergarten opportunities are available for all that could be beneficial.

Once children are in school, Peabody cited the need for quality teachers at every level, engaging after-school and mentoring programs and maintaining high expectations for all students.

Having high expectations for students is also a key, Peabody said. In my experience, students tend to rise to the occasion and we dont ever want to be in a situation where we underestimate the capacity of children to learn.

Marc Williams

Occupation: Lawyer
Alexandria Resident: 17 years
Children in ACPS: Three
Education: J.D., University of Virginia
Neighborhood: North Ridge
Incumbent: 1 year
Website: www.marcwilliamsforschoolboard.com

Less than one year after having earned his spot on the Alexandria School Board in a special election last summer, Marc Williams is running again in District B for the upcoming three-year term.
In that 2008 election, Williams ran under the banner of Believe in every child, a tenant by which he wants to continue in the upcoming term.

Kids can do a lot more things than adults often times give them credit for, he said. Its incumbent upon all of us to give kids what they need to be successful.

Williams thinks his experience and training as an Eagle Scout have served him well as a School Board member, enabling him to set goals, manage goals and execute the steps needed to meet those goals. Along with his current work at IBM, its a way of thinking about the world that says, O.K., Im going to focus on a fundamental thing thats important, and were going to achieve it, he said.
In confronting the issues facing ACPS, Williams sees a general need to improve from students not achieving to those that can be viewed as doing just fine and cited the writing program as one example of an area that can be addressed in all schools.

After making sure those building blocks are in place for students to succeed, Williams said that, of the other multiple components needed to mend the achievement gap, the schools cannot paint with a broad brush, but ask, What does this student need to succeed?

SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES – DISTRICT C

Ronnie Campbell

Occupation: Postal Worker
Alexandria Resident: 23 years
Children in ACPS: Two and one T.C. Williams graduate
Education: Worcester State College
Neighborhood: Landmark/Van Dorn
Incumbent: 3 years

Ronnie Campbell, a District C candidate and current School Board member, said she hopes to bring more transparency and facilitate more open communication between parents and schools in a second term, in essence debunking what some might hold as preconceived notions about how the school board works.

A lot of people think that as board members we are only supposed to be concerned with policy, but I think theres a human side of it and we need to be involved and we need to listen as much as talk, Campbell said.

A single mother of three living in a West End apartment community who has enjoyed coaching youth soccer in the past, Campbell thinks her situation helps her bring the voice of a single parent to the School Board, a voice thats significant in the community but underrepresented on the board.
And thats not to mention the experience she brings to the table as the parent of two current ACPS students and one recent graduate.

I think thats important, because the decisions that I make are going to affect my own children, Campbell said. And that makes a big difference, because were not just making decisions for other peoples children.

Campbell cited Alexandrias dropout statistics as the biggest issue facing the schools right now, saying that there are a lot of different areas that need to be addressed.

Among those other areas, Campbell listed pre-school and the achievement gap.
Any effort to remedy the achievement gap is also the same thing thats going to help us with the dropout rate, she said. If we have the pre-school in place for all of our children, especially the at-risk children, theyd be prepared for school, theyd have a better chance to be successful.

Blanche Maness

Occupation: ACPS Principal, Ret.
Alexandria Resident: 34 years
Children in ACPS: One T.C. Williams graduate
Education: B.S., Virginia State Univ.; Masters, Univ. of Northern Colorado
Neighborhood: Cameron Station
Incumbent: 3 years

Blanche Maness may be known by many names Blanche, Dolores, Cookie, Mrs. Maness or Mrs. Hutchinson but after 34 years as a part of Alexandrias school system, nearly everyone knows her as an educator.

Running for reelection in District C, Maness says her past as a teacher and administrator is the foundation for the work she has done and wants to continue as a part of the School Board. That is, serving as a champion for children.

Whatever I do as a school board member should certainly have a positive impact toward the achievement of our children, Maness said. I always have that magnifying glass to see just how things are going to look for all of our children.

Because of her background as a longtime educator and the daughter of two teachers, Maness said she is equipped with that magnifying glass and can look at issues differently than most of the other candidates.

I think I see and understand educating children from a different perspective, other than just doing the policy, she said, adding that growing up in a house full of educators instilled certain values that continue to help her in the school community to this day.

According to Maness, the biggest issue facing the schools right now is getting all student groups to succeed, something that will require everyone coming together to make sure students operate at a very high level of learning. The key to this process starts early on, getting kids to want to go to school and learn starting a healthy cycle that continues throughout their school careers, she said.

Charles Wilson

Occupation: Financial planner
Alexandria Resident: 26 years
Children in ACPS: One graduate
Neighborhood: Landmark/Van Dorn
Education: B.A., Southern Illinois Univ. and Maryland; M.B.A., Webster Univ.
Incumbent: 6 years

The longest serving current School Board member, Charles Wilson is seeking his third term in District C and keeps his end goal a plain one: do no harm, everything should be done in the best interest of t
he kids.

Having served in the Air Force for 20 years, traveled around the world and risen to the level of lieutenant colonel, Wilson thinks he brings a global perspective on education that other candidates probably do not have.

As a military officer, Ive traveled around the globe and Ive had four kids go through public schools in different parts of the world, and Ive served as education director for the U.S. Air Force in China, Wilson said.

The other thing is that I bring no political ideology to the Board. I am there for the right reasons and that is to pay back the education system that saved me from poverty, he said.
Wilson has been a civil servant at different levels and in different areas for more than 30 years and also brings to the table some experience as a teacher at nearly every imaginable level elementary, middle and high school, as well as a previous job as an adjunct professor.

He is quick to point out that what some label an achievement gap he labels instead a preparation gap, and the graduation and dropout rates it creates are what he thinks is the most pressing issue in Alexandrias schools.

Education is an investment, not a cost, Wilson said, explaining that two major factors in lowering the preparation gap is creating more quality pre-school opportunities and hiring teachers that are confident, competent and comfortable motivating all types of students.

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