Fo­rum eyes di­ver­sity and per­cep­tion in pub­lic schools

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By LEANN SCHENKE lschenke@thekent­coun­tynews.com

CH­ESTER­TOWN — In an elec­tion where ques­tions of school safety and lack of di­ver­sity in the Kent County Pub­lic Schools teach­ing staff have re­peat­edly been raised, the top­ics came to a head Mon­day dur­ing a League of Women Vot­ers of Kent County fo­rum for candidates for the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion.

The league posed ques­tions fa- mil­iar to the candidates of this elec­tion sea­son. Each can­di­date was al­lowed two min­utes to an­swer. The three ques­tions were fol­lowed by ques­tions from the au­di­ence.

Margie Els­berg served as the moder­a­tor for the fo­rum, which was held at the Ch­ester­town branch of Kent County Pub­lic Li­brary.

“What do you con­sider the most im­por­tant pol­icy is­sue cur­rently fac­ing the Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion and what are your rec- om­men­da­tions for ad­dress­ing it?” read the first ques­tion.

Both Nivek John­son, who is mak­ing his third bid for school board, and Wendy Costa, who has served on the board for four years, said the board’s big­gest pol­icy is­sue lies in cre­at­ing poli­cies for cop­ing with or pre­vent­ing de­clin­ing en­roll­ment.

Costa said the board “needs to look in the mirror” and “stop blam­ing the com­mis­sion­ers, hous­ing and lack of in­ter­net” in re­gards to de­clin­ing en­roll­ment.

She said if the school district was rated higher, there would be less en­roll­ment loss. She said the board needs to “hash things out” to find out why peo­ple are leav­ing the schools.

A point Costa has as­serted in pre­vi­ous fo­rums, she said chil­dren need to be en­cour­aged to read at home and dur­ing school breaks. She said par­ents need to un­der- stand that if their child is not read­ing, he or she is “in trou­ble.”

Both Tr­ish McGee, who has served on the board for four years and cur­rently is board pres­i­dent, and Fran­coise Sul­li­van, who is mak­ing her first bid for the board, said they un­der­stood the ques­tion dif­fer­ently and ap­plied it to spe­cific pol­icy is­sues fac­ing KCPS.

McGee, who also is as­so­ci­ate edi­tor of the Kent County News, cited school safety as an is­sue the board needs to be proac­tive about. She said bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment are ad­di­tional is­sues that need to be ad­dressed. McGee ref­er­enced a pol­icy is­sue the board is cur­rently grap­pling with — chang­ing the grad­u­a­tion gowns at Kent County High School to one color as to not force a stu­dent to iden­tify their gen­der.

McGee said she would like to see the board be “open minded” about these is­sues.

Sul­li­van said she agrees with McGee and she would like to “look more closely on how bul­ly­ing is re­lated to trauma.” She said the schools need to find out how cer­tain stu­dents cope with trauma, whether it is shut­ting down or lash­ing out, and train teach­ers on how best to re­spond.

Sul­li­van also said the board needs to ad­dress par­ent in­volve­ment and find more ways for par­ents to par­tic­i­pate.

“Due to de­clin­ing en­roll­ment in county pub­lic schools and the con­se­quent de­cline in fund­ing, what pro­grams are you will­ing to cut to re­duce the bud­get?” read the sec­ond ques­tion.

None of the candidates listed any pro­grams they would be will­ing to cut to re­duce fu­ture bud­gets.

Costa said she is “very sup­port­ive” of KCPS Su­per­in­ten­dent Karen Couch’s ef­forts to keep pro­gram­ing in place while deal­ing with bud­get cuts.

Costa said the board “needs to keep eyes on” the school sys­tem’s cen­tral mis­sion, which is to pro­duce high school grad­u­ates that are “ready for the world.”

She said cuts should come up from the schools and not be handed down from the school board.

McGee said she is not in fa­vor or sup­port­ive of cut­ting any pro­grams.

“I think when we con­sol­i­dated our mid­dle school about five or six, seven years ago and then when we con­sol­i­dated our ele­men­tary schools, I think one of the prom­ises we made to our com­mu­nity was we were do­ing this so that we wouldn’t have to cut pro­grams and I think that’s a prom­ise we need to keep or we need to cer­tainly ex­haust all op­por­tu­ni­ties,” McGee said.

McGee said if a stu­dent starts a pro­gram one year and it is cut the next, it’s not fair to the stu­dent to not see it through.

She said though the school sys­tem has lim­ited fund­ing, the board has to find a way to fund things, whether that be through cre­ative ways or raise funds on its own.

“I’m not in sup­port of cut­ting any­thing. It’s pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. I think that ev­ery­body should get the best that we can give them,” McGee said. “We need to find ways to make our schools stand out and you can’t make them stand out if you keep tak­ing away from them.”

Sul­li­van again agreed with McGee. Sul­li­van broke down how cut­ting pro­grams like the ca­reer and tech­nol­ogy pro­gram at the high school or ath­let­ics would ini­tially save money, but would re­sult in a loss of stu­dents.

“Who would want to send their child to a school that doesn’t have an ath­letic pro­gram?” Sul­li­van said. “I be­lieve the loss of any of these pro­grams would hurt our stu­dents by greatly lim­it­ing their op­por­tu­ni­ties and ex­po­sure to pro­grams and con­cepts that they may not oth­er­wise have. I be­lieve that of­fer­ing our stu­dents less would lead to a more sub­stan­tial de­cline in en­roll­ment as par­ents would seek out en­rich­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for their chil­dren else­where.”

She also en­cour­aged vot­ers to vote yes on Ques­tion One, which is a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment “re­quir­ing com­mer­cial gam­ing rev­enues that are for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion to sup­ple­ment spend­ing for ed­u­ca­tion in pub­lic schools.”

John­son said he also is not for cut­ting any­thing. He said to avoid bud­get cuts the board needs to be proac­tive and cre­ate fundrais­ers for the school sys­tem.

“Pre­cisely, what would you vote for as a board mem­ber to im­prove the se­cu­rity of the county schools?” was the third ques­tion pre­pared by the league.

McGee said there are al­ready poli­cies in place that are work­ing to en­sure the schools are safe. She said the schools need to make sure they are fol­low­ing those po­lices.

McGee said she is in sup­port of safety vestibules, or added se­cu­rity at the en­trance to all the schools. The vestibules would re­quire any­one wish­ing to en­ter the school to be buzzed into a se­cure area at the en­trance. The per­son would then need to show iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and give rea­son for their visit be­fore be­ing al­lowed into the school or al­lowed to exit out­side.

McGee said, how­ever, Kent County is get­ting the least amount of fund­ing from the state for in­crease se­cu­rity in its schools. She said the fund­ing will pay for one se­cu­rity vestibule. She also cited tech­nol­ogy Couch is work­ing on ac­quir­ing Rap­tor Tech­nol­ogy, which would help teach­ers know ex­actly who is in their class and where stu­dents are in case of an emer­gency.

“I don’t know that there’s any­thing I wouldn’t sup­port,” McGee said of se­cu­rity mea­sures. “There’s noth­ing more im­por­tant than the safety of your kids.”

Sul­li­van said the se­cu­rity vestibules are a good start, but the schools will need some­one to mon­i­tor them. She said there should be school re­source of­fi­cers at all of the schools.

Sul­li­van also said ex­tra stres­sors in chil­dren’s lives are a rea­son to pri­or­i­tize school safety.

“The re­al­ity is that our stu­dents are deal­ing with stress and fac­tors that most of us did not have to deal with at such an age and pro­vid­ing an environment that not only pro­tects their phys­i­cal well­be­ing but also pro­vides for their men­tal well­be­ing should be our goal,” Sul­li­van said.

John­son said he agreed with what all the other candidates said. He said he was sad­dened to know KCPS re­ceived such a small amount of money from the state for school se­cu­rity. He said he would vote in fa­vor of any­thing that im­proves school safety say­ing that even ele­men­tary schools can be a “big tar­get.”

Costa said she also would vote in fa­vor of any­thing that would sup­port school safety. She also said threats to safety may not al­ways come from an out­side per­son but from the stu­dents them­selves.

She said Kent County is a com­mu­nity with a lot of guns. She said be­cause of this, she is in fa­vor of a restora­tive jus­tice pro­gram and would vote in fa­vor of train­ing teach­ers to iden­tify trou­bled chil­dren as early as pos­si­ble.

She said there also should be a gun safety work­shop for par­ents.

When the candidates were asked by an au­di­ence mem­ber if they were in fa­vor of arm­ing teach­ers as means of school safety, all four said they were not.

When the ques­tions were handed over to the au­di­ence, the topic of di­ver­sity — or lack thereof — in KCPS and pub­lic per­cep­tion of the schools, be­came the main fo­cuses of con­cern.

Air­lee John­son, a mem­ber of the So­cial Ac­tion Com­mit­tee, asked what all the candidates would do to in­crease the good pub­lic­ity of the school sys­tem.

Nivek John­son called the board “the eyes of the school sys­tem.” He praised past ef­forts such as ads and signs in sup­port of the schools. He also praised the school’s re­vamp­ing of its web­site. But he said more can be done in­clud­ing de­vot­ing some of the school sys­tem’s in­ter­nal re­sources and us­ing the stu­dents’ tech skills.

Costa praised Couch’s work a spokesper­son of the school sys­tem. She said, how­ever, pub­lic re­la­tions only goes so far and that she would rather spend the money on pro­gram­ing that keep stu­dents in the school sys­tem or at­tracts new stu­dents.

McGee said when fund­ing wasn’t an is­sue, the school district used to have some­one who han­dled pub­lic re­la­tions. McGee said that she thinks the cur­rent board and Couch do show their sup­port of the schools although it may not be as demon­stra­tive as some of the out­side groups.

McGee said that “she’s not sure it’s our job” to be overtly prais­ing the schools. She said the pub­lic needs to hear the good things about the school sys­tem from the ground level and that KCPS could do a bet­ter job in pub­lic re­la­tions.

Sul­li­van agreed that KCPS does not have the per­son­nel to run an ac­tive cam­paign in sup­port of the schools. She said Kent County has “less than half the staff of the next small­est school district in Mary­land” mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to gen­er­ate good pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial for the schools. How­ever, Sul­li­van said the school sys­tem could do bet­ter.

The Rev. Robert Brown Jr. of Bethel AME Church in Ch­ester­town asked what the board could be do­ing to at­tract the best qual­i­fied mi­nor­ity teach­ers. Cheryl Saun­ders, a re­tired teacher from KCPS, also said it is “not fair” to the African Amer­i­can stu­dents to not have a teacher that looks like them.

“Some kids are go­ing to learn re­gard­less of the color, and some need to see them­selves. Some African Amer­i­can kids — espe­cially the boys — they need to see them­selves,” Saun­ders said.

Saun­ders said she’d spo­ken with an African Amer­i­can woman who had been re­cruited to work in the school district, but the woman said she was not hired be­cause she was “too qual­i­fied.” Saun­ders said this gives the per­cep­tion that African Amer­i­can teach­ers are not wanted in the school district.

Costa said the school district is “try­ing very hard to hire mi­nor­ity teach­ers,” but she said the district needs to of­fer the high­est salaries it can in or­der to do so.

She said the district also needs to pro­vide good work­ing con­di­tions and a cli­mate that is “invit­ing to new ideas.”

Costa said though there is a na­tion-wide teach­ing short­age, it is an ar­ti­fi­cial one be­cause teach­ers should not have to be cer­ti­fied in or­der to teach.

“I think the real so­lu­tion is to change the laws so that you get qual­i­fied teach­ers the way pri­vate schools do,” Costa said. “We should get rid of ele­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion de­grees. They’re stupid de­grees. Most peo­ple don’t re­ally learn much about any­thing in them. So, that’s the ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion to this prob­lem. They’re plenty of peo­ple who would like to teach but they don’t want to go through that Mickey Mouse stuff and that is the way to get more mi­nor­ity teach­ers.”

One of the au­di­ence mem­bers sug­gested call­ing on re­tired mi­nor­ity teach­ers in the county to help in the re­cruit­ment process.

Sul­li­van praised the idea, say­ing it would be an ex­cel­lent way to show that teach­ers can “live and grow in Kent County.”

John­son also was in sup­port of the idea and he said if elected he would hold Couch and Ed Sil­ver, su­per­vi­sor of hu­man re­sources for KCPS, ac­count­able.

Costa said “it’s a num­ber one pri­or­ity” to hire di­verse teach­ers.

“I think one thing that could put a lit­tle bite in it is if the school board would come out and say, ‘We’re mak­ing re­cruit­ment of African Amer­i­cans and mi­nori­ties a pri­or­ity.’ And I don’t know that we’ve done that,” McGee said as a first step in in­creas­ing re­cruit­ment.

She said the com­mu­nity also can play a role in re­cruit­ment.

McGee said the board is work­ing to im­prove teach­ers salaries, but that money alone is not enough to at­tract new teach­ers. She said the school sys­tem has to find other ways of get­ting new teach­ers.

Sul­li­van agreed, say­ing salaries are a big part of at­tract­ing new teach­ers, but lack of af­ford­able hous­ing in the county is a big fac­tor too.

Sul­li­van also brought up KCPS’ sta­tus as a Ti­tle I school mean­ing be­cause of the level of poverty of its stu­dents, the school sys­tem gets ex­tra money. Sul­li­van sug­gested pro­vid­ing new teach­ers with a break in their stu­dent loan payment in ex­change for liv­ing and work­ing in the county.

John­son said he agreed with the other candidates state­ments. Ad­di­tion­ally, he sug­gested work­ing to con­vert Kent County’s stu­dents into teach­ers by pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives for stu­dents.

He also said the lack of op­por­tu­nity for pro­fes­sional growth in the county can be a de­ter­rent for prospec­tive teach­ers and a fac­tor in why he is teach­ing in Mont­gomery County as op­posed to Kent County.

He said it is pos­si­ble to have a lot of di­ver­sity in the teach­ing staff be­cause in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an in­flux of African Amer­i­can teach­ers work­ing here.

In re­sponse to Saun­ders ques­tion of the cur­rent lack of di­ver­sity in teach­ing staff, John­son said be­ing African Amer­i­can him­self, he un­der­stands the ben­e­fits of be­ing taught by a teacher that looks like you.

He said it helps him re­late with stu­dents at his job in Mont­gomery County Pub­lic Schools. He said he will do “ev­ery­thing in his power” to en­sure there is a di­verse staff.

McGee said “the ob­vi­ous an­swer is yes” in re­gard to seek­ing more di­ver­sity for the teach­ing staff. How­ever, she said peo­ple of color are not ap­ply­ing for the job in Kent County. She said that does not mean the school district can’t go out and do a bet­ter job of re­cruit­ing those teach­ers.

She said peo­ple who grow up in poverty usu­ally do not want to be a teacher though be­cause it is a typ­i­cally low­pay­ing job. Ad­di­tion­ally, she said the school district should re­cruit at his­tor­i­cally black schools.

Sul­li­van said re­cruit­ing teach­ers is a chal­lenge in a ru­ral area and dou­bly so be­cause mi­nor­ity teach­ers may not feel com­fort­able com­ing to a ru­ral area.

Sul­li­van said ev­ery year the Na­tional Mu­sic Fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers find peo­ple will­ing to house mu­si­cians for two weeks. She said the school district should do some­thing sim­i­lar and hold a re­cruit­ment week­end where peo­ple can come and see the schools and what the county is like.

When asked if the candidates would be will­ing to hire some­one to do re­cruit­ing in other states, specif­i­cally South Carolina, John­son said he would want to work with lo­cal com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness to send peo­ple to other states.

Costa said re­cruit­ment does not have to come from south­ern states.

“I don’t know what the magic of the South is, I’d rather go to states with bet­ter school sys­tems like New Jer­sey,” Costa said. “I think we should re­cruit wher­ever we can.”

She said the school district should be re­cruit­ing from school sys­tems with higher rat­ing. She cited Mas­sachusetts as an ex­am­ple.

She said re­cruit­ing teach­ers from other states can be an is­sue be­cause those states may not have the same cer­ti­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ments as Mary­land.

Costa also ac­counted for John­son’s state­ment that there were more African Amer­i­can — fe­male — teach­ers in the 1950s and 1960s be­cause “they weren’t able to do other things.”

“We are com­pet­ing against peo­ple who want to be doc­tors and en­gi­neers and you know, all sorts of other pro­fes­sions,” Costa said of the chal­lenges in re­cruit­ment.

Jodi Bortz, a found­ing mem­ber of Sup­port Our Schools, asked what the candidates would do if the schools were fully funded? In her ques­tion, she ref­er­enced rev­enue from casino gam­ing, which has been redi­rected to other parts of the state’s bud­get away from ben­e­fit­ing pub­lic schools.

Bortz said KCPS is un­der­funded by $4.5 mil­lion.

Ques­tion One on this year’s bal­lot amends Mary­land’s Con­sti­tu­tion so gam­ing rev­enues go to pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

All the candidates gave a laun­dry list of things they would do with the money.

Costa said she would hire so­cial work­ers for all the schools as well as help­ing teach­ers for all the prin­ci­pals.

McGee said she would raise teach­ers salaries and “pay them what they are worth.” She said she too would hire so­cial work­ers, bring back the late bus, buy more buses so stu­dents do not have to en­dure long bus rides, in­crease pro­gram­ming and cre­ate be­fore and af­ter school pro­grams.

Sul­li­van said she would cre­ate more pro­gram­ming for stu­dents who are English-asa-sec­ond-lan­guage learn­ers. She said she would uni­ver­sal­ize the school’s start­ing time to 8 a.m. so teenagers can get more sleep.

John­son said he would of­fer more pro­fes­sional growth for teach­ers, im­ple­ment a late bus and of­fer more men­tors and con­sult­ing teach­ers for new teach­ers.

“I do think we’re mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” McGee said. “Just the way ev­ery­body rat­tled off those things, that was the eas­i­est ques­tion to an­swer was that last ques­tion, ‘What would you do with more money.’ So that shows you money is so im­por­tant.”

In clos­ing, all the candidates thanked the league for the fo­rum and thanked the au­di­ence for con­sid­er­ing them as candidates.

PHO­TOS BY LEANN SCHENKE

Board of Ed­u­ca­tion candidates Fran­coise Sul­lizan and Nivek John­son par­tic­i­pate in a League of Women Vot­ers of Kent County fo­rum Mon­day night.

Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in­cum­bents Wendy Cost, left and Tr­ish McGee an­swer ques­tions Mon­day at a League of Women Vot­ers of Kent County fo­rum.

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