School board candidates lock horns in forum

School board candidates lock horns in forum

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

With Election Day fast approaching, the 13 candidates for the Alexandria City School Board got their chance to flex their muscles at an October 21 forum and outline their visions for the school district over the next three-year term.

The board is divided into three districts, with three members elected from each. In District A, incumbent Bill Campbell and board chairwoman Karen Graf run unopposed along with newcomer Hal Cardwell. District B pits incumbent Kelly Carmichael Booz against Cindy Anderson, Mimi Goff, Margaret Lorber and Veronica Nolan. And in District C, board vice chairman Chris Lewis and incumbent members Ronnie Campbell and Pat Hennig face Daria
Dillard and Ramee Gentry.

The forum, held at T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus and organized by the Alexandria Parent Teacher Association Council, was divided into two sections. The first saw all candidates outline their platforms and answer several general questions. Then participants were separated by district to answer more specific questions about issues facing the area they wish to represent.

The opening segment was dominated by talk about the capacity issues that face Alexandria City Public Schools, as well as the process of redistricting now underway. ACPS announced last week that enrollment grew by 503 students — 3.6 percent — in line with projections made by city and school staff in the Long Range Educational Facilities Plan.

The need to address the system’s capacity needs was thrown into sharp focus, as several candidates mentioned that the current seventh grade class will not have enough space at the Minnie Howard campus when it reaches ninth grade. There were several long- and short-term suggestions on how to remedy the problem, with Bill Campbell going so far as to suggest strategies like examining the need for a second high school or reprogramming kindergarten
through fifth grades.

“We know we don’t have a blank check,” he said. “It’s not just about saying we need a new school, two new schools, three new schools. … I don’t think we can stay conventional with our thinking, we have to be creative.”

Anderson agreed that officials must identify sites for new schools, while Goff put forth one of the only moments of real criticism in what was otherwise a relatively sedate affair, arguing previous school boards did not plan early enough for a capacity crunch.

“I think we need to get this problem settled now,” she said. “It is something that should have been dealt with before.”

Board member Ronnie Campbell also railed against the often floated idea that class size caps at elementary schools should increase when the city budgets less money than requested by the school board. She said making classes larger still would not solve the capacity issues and would damage the learning environment for students.

The question of how ACPS can continue to improve academic performance and close the achievement gap, especially for students with disabilities, English language learners or the economically disadvantaged, brought varied responses from candidates.

Several spoke of the importance of expanding pre-K offerings, especially as 20 percent of students who begin kindergarten at ACPS come in without any preschool experience. Booz cited the recently-released state Standards of Learning test results as proof that the school system is making progress, especially with Patrick Henry Elementary School and T.C. Williams regaining accreditation and Jefferson-Houston School having made two years’ worth of gains.

Lorber said there should be greater planning across K-12 education as opposed to just at the elementary grades, with greater supports in place for teachers and more early learning support programs. Hennig argued that the biggest priority should be to have each student reading at grade level, and said that reading specialists should be reintroduced in the classroom.

Improving the performance overall of students in ACPS was linked by several candidates to closing the achievement gap, and Lewis noted that a change in culture at several schools coupled with strong leadership shows that progress can be made and accountability improved. A number of candidates said there should be a broadening of ways to involve under-represented students both inside and outside the classroom.

“When there’s a gap in achievement, it means there is a gap in opportunity,” said Dillard. Gentry said students must be given the chance to excel, not just pass.

Cardwell said students must be engaged more in how to be responsible for their own learning, and do more “inquiry-based learning” through experimentation and other such hands-on activities.

Meanwhile, Graf indicated that all three of the major issues facing ACPS could be approached together, especially if officials engage a wider community and take system-wide approach.

“I believe you can achieve academic excellence through everything you do,” Graf said, arguing that addressing school capacity and budgets can have the effect of improving achievement.

With time running out before Election Day, the candidates are now making their final pitches to voters ahead of the city going to the polls.