Alexandria School Board debate digest

Alexandria School Board debate digest

Compiled by Melissa Quinn

On Tuesday night, school board candidates from districts A, B and C met at George Washington Middle School to discuss the most significant topics facing Alexandria City Public Schools. The debate, hosted by the PTA Council, addressed hot button issues like capacity, city council and redistricting. [Editor’s note: The Times limited coverage to the competitive races in Districts A and B only.]

Every available classroom in the ACPS is being used yet enrollment continues to rise. Additional schools beyond the three that are already planned and budgeted for will take years to construct and are not a solution to our immediate pain. Possible short term solutions mentioned by ACPS include increasing class sizes, creating a staggered schedule with some students arriving early and others late, creating satellite centers, additional online learning opportunities, moving from a neighborhood elementary school model toward one in which some spots are reserved for the neighborhood but the rest are open to the rest of the city, and adding modulars to existing buildings. What do you think is the best way to address the capacity problem?

Bill Campbell (District A): We can’t just keep talking about it. We have to come up with a realistic plan that looks at what’s happening in terms of construction, and what our projections are. In terms of more short range [solutions], the student to teacher ratio [could be tweaked]. If you have socially and emotionally competent kids, you can have a higher ratio.

There are things you can do. I’m not absolutely married to the lower class size, especially if we have room for modulars. … Certainly, we can have modulars in the short term but in the long run we’ve got to develop a more comprehensive, long-range plan for capacity. And that also includes looking at rezoning.

Marc Williams (District B): We have 2,600 more students now than we did in 2008. That’s a 25 percent increase. … Thankfully, it’s a great problem to have that we have lots of students coming to our public schools. We do have some short-term fixes — the modified open enrollment [and] we have the modular units — but we are going to have to build and I think that needs to come through in the city council election. … We are going to have to build new schools and we will probably have to go to a different type of enrollment system. I would like to look at a parental choice system that would emphasize diversity and proximity: living near your home and going [to school] where you live.”

Describe one program in place within ACPS that has particularly impressed you and that you are committed to continuing should you be elected? And conversely describe one program that you believe should be eliminated?

Heath Wells (District A): “I am very proud of the success of the AP programs and the AP tests that have been coming out of the Alexandria school system. We have more kids taking the tests; we’ve got more kids in the classes than any others in the school system. I’d love to see that expanded because I think kids will stretch to meet the challenges. [If] we get more kids in AP programs we’ll get more kids that [will] learn what they need to learn. The one thing I’d like to see pulled back is this flavor of the month club that I see going through much of Alexandria. For example, at [Jefferson-Houston], they’re talking about starting the International Baccalaureate [curriculum] at the grade school level. And while I’m all for the International Baccalaureate at the high school level, at the grade school level it’s not as well known and it’s already supposed to be a music and arts school [at that school]. We need to let them be what they’re intended to be, not keep changing it so the kids keep trying to figure it out.

Kelly Carmichael Booz (District B): “There are a number of programs that I have been impressed with in Alexandria but in particular I really like the AVID program that has been implemented in Alexandria. It’s a great way to get students to tackle the achievement gap — students that are going to be perhaps the first students that are going to college in their family or perhaps students who are lower performing students, [this will] let them know that they can succeed, that they can do this, that they can take these honors advanced classes. I think it’s a really great program.

I’d also argue that the individual achievement program plan is a really great program in Alexandria. I’d like to see it expanded.

In terms of programs that need to be eliminated, there have been a lot of programs that have been instituted in the last three to six years. In fact, I feel like I’m learning about a new program every day. So I’m hoping to come to the table with my experience in education, my experience of developing curriculum and evaluating curriculum and do an inventory of those programs.

For example, Success for All and some of the reading programs. I’ve heard some of the people rave about that program and then I’ve heard people that are saying ‘this is not great, this is not good for my student.’ I really want to get to the bottom of that and evaluate those programs. The IB program, I’m a huge supporter of that program, but I’m not sure if it’s been implemented fully, and I want to evaluate that.”

Dr. Sherman has raised the issue of racial imbalances between our middle schools. Hammond has roughly a 10 percent white population and [George Washington’s] white population is about 37 percent. He has suggested that ACPS may need to take steps to address this with the implication of re-districting. What is your opinion on this issue?

Justin Keating (District B): “I think everybody in this room and everybody that has a child in ACPS, we comprise the diversity of our schools. That said, I think it doesn’t make sense to focus on getting our two middle schools exactly the same in terms of black percentage and white percentage. There’s a lot more diversity than simply color of skin and it doesn’t make sense [to focus on] the need for that parity there.

Are there any educational innovations you have read about or seen in action that you would like to see brought to Alexandria schools?

Michael Brookbank (District B): “Well I actually brought two. You know I like STEM so I’m particularly fond of this program. The Charles R. Drew school in Atlanta adds an A to the STEM program for arts. Partnering with two local universities, it has brought in local writers, illustrators, painters and other artists to provide instruction to the school. And I think that is an excellent example of how we can bring an initiative into the system that we already have.

The second one is at Saddlebrook elementary in Omaha, Neb. This is a community school or multi-purpose building, it’s initially a [kindergarten through fifth grade] elementary school but it’s also a public library, a parks and recreation rec center with elevated walking track and during the school day, one wing of the library is closed off by a magic book case. At the end of the day, the school opens that for use of the entire population. It is also school clinic, with the staff to screen students for glasses, hearing, nutrition, vaccinations and other health issues. In this city where we’re very tightly space, a multi-use buildings make lots of sense.”

How would you describe the relationship between the roles of city council and the school board? If elected, what would you do to make this relationship as collaborative and effective as possible?

Chyrell Bucksell (District B): Well it’s very important that when we have our work sessions with the city council that we honestly bring every effort and everything that we’re working on to the table. It’s important to be honest and open with city council to let them know the ideas that we have to improve our school system. It’s important the city council supports the school system. I’m sure a lot of people that don’t have kids in the school system heard a lot about the school superintendent this year because of a city council member making comments about [him]. So it’s important that those kinds of things don’t happen. We want the city council to support our efforts and we want to support the city council as well in their efforts.

How would you work with the superintendent if there were a disagreement about the [value of individual] programs?

Karen Graf (District A): I have seen programs implemented where [the program] doesn’t match up with the audience’s needs. I think it’s a waste of money to spend on kids who don’t need different types of instruction and it is taking from the children who need the instruction. We need to analyze the finances behind the programs and, like I said in my intro, to meet the goals and have clear measurements in place to know whether we’re succeeding. It seems lately we’ve been on an 18-month cycle where if we’re not seeing progress we change it. It takes a long time for change [to happen] and to see change … and that’s frustrating. It’s part of the job. We have to work with the superintendent.

Joyce Rawlings (District A): “There has to be open and honest dialogue when there is a disagreement. We need to hear from the community so we can address them so we don’t keep keeping it inside. I really think there needs to be open dialogue, respectful differences of opinion, with eyes open to it on all sides.

What would you do to change about special education scores if you were on the board?

Stephanie Kapsis (District A): “I worked with a principal who had all teachers refer to students as students with special needs, putting them as students first as you would do with any other student. I was always impressed with [the principal] putting them as students first and foremost.”

What is your view regarding whether ACPS should participate in the Thomas Jefferson High School program for science and technology?

Helen Morris (District A): “We would have the opportunity to allow 13 students who live in Alexandria and attend Alexandria City Public Schools to have the opportunity to apply and put their application into a pool. Even if we got 50 percent of our kids in — seven — that’s not 13 spots. [It’s just the] 13 who can apply. I don’t know what the right answer is.