What are your top two priorities for the school board and what skills do you bring to the board to help you achieve them?
Campbell: 1. Raising achievement 2. Developing a capacity plan for growth. Closing the achievement gap is not really what we want to do. We want to raise achievement. Our school system has 13,000 students, 30 percent of whom are not meeting the academic mark. These students are not statistics and the school system should know their needs and how to raise their achievement levels. These kids need the best teachers. On school capacity, we need to work with planning and zoning, the City and with demographers to produce a total comprehensive plan.
Graf: 1.Teacher retention and development. 2. Lessening the achievement gap through engagement. Teachers should be treated as professionals and provided the tools to accomplish their goals. Parental involvement in schools must be increased. I bring to the School Board skills as a technical communicator who can develop a process for action and produce results.
Kapsis: 1. Teacher training, development, quality recruiting and retention. 2. Focus on early childhood education. Numerous studies show that the gap starts before kindergarten so preventing the gap has to be a priority. As a teacher and teacher coach, I have the experience necessary to get granular in my focus on these issues. All students need an excellent education, but Alexandria consistently rates among Virginia’s lowest performing school systems. We are not seeing consistent growth in every single school. Every parent should feel confident that they are sending their kids to the best possible school.
Morris: 1. High achievement for all learners. 2. School capacity since Alexandria’s student enrollment is up by 3,000 pupils since 2009. The good news is the City is starting to make needed improvements. We have identified the issues among our students and we need to make sure that we have the right interventions in place. I have three years of experience working through these issues because I sat on the facilities plan committee and helped guide the development of Jefferson-Houston.
Rawlings 1. Engage families who are not in the audience, bring them into the system so they can be heard. Parental involvement should be the top priority. If parents are involved, children excel. 2. Examine how we communicate with families, including things such as how we greet them when they enter the building. That is my priority, to give a voice to those who are not heard. I would bring to the board experiences of more than 33 years living in Alexandria and working with members of at-risk groups. I bring a background in collaboration and efforts to communicate with underserved populations.
What are your two top critiques of the system and how do you intend to address them?
Rawlings: Policies and procedures have not been as transparent as they need to be. Policy changes happen without giving parents/teachers/students time to understand them. We need to do better about bringing teachers and students on board.
Morris: 1. Communications. We need to do a better job across the board of communicating our goals and also balancing the need for quick action with the need to make sure stakeholders understand the rationale for change. We also need to better communicate our successes. We need to find ways to reach different stakeholders in different ways. Supporting our principals, who are key communicators in the community, could be among the solutions.
Kapsis: 1. The inability for real conversations to happen among families, the schools and the school system. Citizens do not feel they get full information or context for decisions. For example, how were families engaged in an authentic way on the roll out of the Jefferson-Houston extended school day role? 2. I have seen in my work that we need differentiation among the schools so decisions such as curriculum are not one size fits all.
Graf: I don’t think that the vision is off. I think it is sound, but I see a massive breakdown in implementation and that is why people feel left out of the decision making. I would like to work on the process of communicating details and involving stakeholders to develop innovative thinking. In order for Alexandria to become a leader, we need to break down the bureaucratic thinking. You often hear after the fact of great ideas that could have improved the decision making.
Campbell: Thanks for the compliment on the vision. I was on the committee that came up with the vision. We all know and like each other and are all qualified to be on the board. As we talk about needing to improve communications, we need to talk about specifics. I have been on committees dealing with early childhood education, park and recreation issues and NAACP concerns. I would use contacts and existing connections to improve communications. I also have a problem with the length of the contract we have given our superintendent.
Parents want to understand how Alexandria measures the success of its schools. They also want to know if they are sending their child to a good school. What measures of achievement are now being used? Are they adequate or are additional metrics needed?
Rawlings: I am not pre-prepping my answers. I just want to get the key points out. We have SOLs, SMIs, all these things. These current tools do not take into account special needs and English as Second Language students. Most of the testing is geared for the typically developing kid. We also need to look at the data. We collect a lot of data, but what do we do with it? We need to do a better job helping parents understand those tools. When report cards come, we need to reach out to families to help them know what they are looking at and what it means.
Kapsis: I think that Joyce is right. Standard of Learning scores are used, but we need to incorporate high school graduation rates, attendance rates and college enrollment rates.
Graf: I would also like to look at rate of improvement as well. We need to look at improvement percentages to see how well schools are addressing issues.
Morris: We have plenty of data and analysis. Our teachers are in a good position for knowing what to do with it, but we need to educate parents how to use that data. We have schools doing great things such as Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, George Washington Middle School Music and Mount Vernon Community School Transformation. The most important thing we need to do is get this information out to families.
One of the school board’s major responsibilities is overseeing and managing the superintendent. What do you believe is the right relationship between the school board and the superintendent?
Morris: The relationship is most effective when it is a strong collegial one. It is also critical that the superintendent provide answers when the School Board asks questions. We have responsibility to hire and fire and to make sure that we have a strategic plan. We should challenge one another. School Board members bring knowledge of the community, systemic issues and formal/informal engagement in the community to the table. We need to gather intelligence and tell the superintendent our vision and we need to trust him to do it.
Rawlings: They should work in partnership with each other. Superintendents should not push things through to be rubber stamped by the board.
Graf: Accountability. The board is accountable to the citizens and the superintendent is accountable to the board, which sets goals and benchmarks the superintendent must meet.
Campbell: The superintendent needs to respect the board. Four to five years ago, Jefferson-Houston met the adequate yearly progress standard under No Child Left Behind, but the superintendent did not think that was an important accomplishment.
Superintendent Sherman stated that, “Our community and students deserve candor and a complete picture when it comes to looking at school and division performance.” On a scale of A to F, how would you grade the school administration on communication, transparency, and candor? If you give a grade less than A, what changes to improve the situation would you recommend?
Kapsis: C-plus. The board and system are well intentioned. Website is up to date and the education digest covers key issues. However, the information that is shared does not always tell the full story. I have been reading everything and one thing that stood out was that when Alexandria highlighted achievements in its “sampling of student results” it showed growth, but did not give the context and the full story. There were improvements, but there were also decreases.
Campbell: C in communication and transparency and a D for candor. There is a perception that a decision is made and then they get support. We need to get people to the table before we make decisions. We have fabulous employees.
Rawlings: D-minus. I am not just looking at communication directed at those with computer access and who are literate. I looked at communications with those who don’t have that access or are not literate. We have to be big enough to have honest and open conversations.
Because of big enrollment increases in recent years, Alexandria’s elementary schools are bursting at the seams. But these enrollment increases appear to be limiting elementary school choice. How would you address the capacity challenges facing the schools and their effects on parental choice?
Graf: We are continuing to grow. We need a disciplined process. Consultants predicted this growth five years ago, but the board did not believe it. We need to continue to analyze new development with the City. Cameron Station is a perfect example. Planners did not think there would be kids there. Now we are going to have to rapidly build to address that. I have confidence in the City in working with the board and building great buildings.
Some parents are raising concerns about the new “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?
Campbell: The data shows it can be successful for certain groups. I would question whether it is for all. What is the real cost of SFA? These seem to me to be focused on great teaching. Why overwhelm them with these programs? I think there needs to be differentiation and good teaching does that. I am also concerned about the age groupings.
Morris: I think we need to look at this in larger context as intervention for reading. Too many are failing in early elementary. We had specific emergent needs. There was a committee to look at these evidence-based programs because we need to move quickly to get kids before third grade. We need to make sure that the teachers know how to intervene with kids who come with high needs. Anecdotally, I can tell you that Jefferson-Houston’s kindergartners came in with wide differences and all ended with mid to high achievement. We had a system-wide look and developed guidelines.
Graf: No, it is not appropriate for a diverse environment like Alexandria. The decision making was flawed and I could not understand the criteria. It eliminates the talented and gifted program and does not address English as a Second Language. The internal measurement system does not correlate with any accepted standards. It is marketed as “teacher proof” which is offensive to teachers.
Kapsis: I have not used it. I think there is a lot of good to SFA, but I agree with Karen. I do not think it is something that can be used in a diverse environment. The whole premise relies on homogenous groups and eliminates the ability of teachers to differentiate.
Rawlings: I read about the program. Like many of these programs, parents need to become more knowledgeable about what is being done in the classroom to be able to reinforce what is going on in school.
Superintendent Sherman said in October 2011that “eliminating academic achievement differences among race, income, disability and language subgroups must be the highest priority.” This, he said, is “an educational and moral imperative.” Schools across America are struggling to close this achievement gap. Do you believe that Alexandria has been making progress in closing its achievement gaps? If so, what are the best examples? Where and in what areas do we need to do more?
Campbell: I find it condescending to be constantly told about this moral imperative. There should be rallying on a daily basis by the people whose kids are failing. Your priorities need to be reflected in the budget and you need to be able to explain and you need to tailor it to Alexandria. We have schools that are successful and some that are not. We need to look at specific schools/families/students. We need to make meaningful connections with these families. We need to stay uncomfortable with what is going on.
After the U.S. Department of Education designated T.C Williams High School a persistently low-achieving school in 2010, significant changes were made. To what degree have these reforms been successful? Do you think that additional steps need to be taken? If so, what?
Rawlings: This board is running fast in getting things done and T.C.’s transformation is one. It is making improvements for graduating students, but not for all. There is a need to address the still failing students and a need to get more ahead of where children are failing. T.C. is a big school and some of our kids don’t do well in that environment.
Campbell: My daughter, a 2010 graduate at T.C., didn’t know that it was had been designated a persistently lowest-achieving (PLA) school. To a parent what matters is how is my kid doing. Labels don’t matter. We need more accountability. My kids went to Jefferson-Houston and they are going to be fine.
Morris: Accountability. The focus that we had with the PLA label has started to bear fruit. The interventions such as lowering class loads allow teachers to spend more time with individual students. We put in more counselors and deans of students so that all students have access to supports they need. This year T.C. would have made the adequate yearly progress standard if we did not have the waiver.
Campbell: I was on the transformation team. Principal Maxey did the right thing. She raised expectations and made connections.
One of the board’s major responsibilities is budgeting. How do you restrain costs and still provide what students need?
Morris: We increased student enrollment by 20 percent but only increased the budget by 3 to 4 percent. We have restrained costs. I hope the new board will do that. We have our goals. We have our metrics. We need to look at what worked, what we need to continue and where we need the most supports.
Despite increasing enrollment, there is a perception that some parents continue to question the quality of Alexandria’s public schools and send their children to private school or to a public school elsewhere. Is this perception accurate, and if so, what can and should the school system do, if anything, to convince these families to stay in Alexandria schools?
Kapsis: This is the comment I most get when going door to door. Families want to see results. They want to know what programs are there and what opportunities will there be. I don’t like the word “convince.” We want to inform families and share with them what is going on in our schools.
Campbell: Yes, you can send your kids here and they will be fine.
Rawlings: It is very basic. We have to show that our schools are safe, that are staff is qualified and committed, that we respect parents and that our schools are excelling academically and consistently.
Morris: I’d like to share a question that Principal Maxey asked: When does it become the community’s responsibility to stand and cheer for the school system? Our families, communities, and businesses must be cheerleaders. Know your facts and be part of the solution.
There is pressure on school systems to develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Virginia requires that 40% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student outcomes. Because the state allows districts some flexibility in determining those outcomes, what makes sense for Alexandria?
Graf: It’s complicated since this is fairly new. We need to determine what process we use. I’m not sure that Standards of Learning scores really measure what happens in the classroom. I would like to see some accounting done. I am always going to champion teachers. I have all educators in my family. What I would like to do is be innovative and use the evaluation to identify supports for teachers to help them grow. Strong schools build strong communities.
Is the school system doing a good job at retaining good teachers and principals, or could more be done, such as more generously rewarding high-performers?
Campbell: The perception is that we have really high teacher turnover. We have to remain competitive with salaries. The ideal situation would be for our teachers to all live in our community. That is probably not going to happen. We need to focus on teachers and para-professionals, to look at personnel from top to bottom.
Kapsis: I have asked for data and not gotten it, but anecdotally, we have turnover of about 20 to 30 percent, which is higher than national average. Monetary fixes alone will not solve it. Money helps to demonstrate value, but respect and clear career trajectories also have value with teachers.
What is the one decision made by the board in the last six years that you disagreed with and how would you have voted differently?
Campbell: This is not about winning debates or anything. I’m the only alpha male at the table. What we need you to do is use all three of your votes. One area where I disagreed with was how Alexandria handled the adequate yearly progress standard. It should have been emphasized. Also, I am concerned about the length of the superintendent’s contract renewal to 2015.
Graf: Fundamentally, how we make decisions is a problem. I got involved in this race after Superintendent Sherman announced that intercession would be cut by two weeks. I asked why, but he had no data to back it up. He said we should accept that Mount Vernon Community School would no longer have the money and that it would go to other schools.
Kapsis: My priorities would be to increase opportunities for community/family engagement. The related decision is the one to restructure the adult education program. Lots of people were hurt by that decision. I am excited about the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) program, but would leave the GED portion there. I bring a unique perspective because I’ve been in the weeds on this issue.
Morris: Having served on the board for the past three years, I can say I would not have changed my vote on anything. All of the questions and concerns are handled at the table. I feel comfortable with all of the decisions we have made. For me, moving forward my goals are to make sure that we engage in a collaborative process. We have stumbled with communications and we can always do better. I want to make strong decisions in the best interest of everybody.
Campbell: In 2005, I was the PTA president of Jefferson-Houston and I tried to recruit more people. I was very proud that (Helen Morris) is on the board and that she has worked hard to keep families in our community informed. She is the reason we are getting a new school there.
Rawlings: I've been in this city almost 34 years and the day I set foot here I started getting involved. My children were with me at school board meetings late at night, city hall meetings. I have always been committed. I am not a Johnny come lately. I’ve been a soccer mom, crew mom, all those types of moms. It has given me a broad spectrum of experiences. For students achieve, they need stimulating, challenging projects. I’ve been a parent of a TAG child, vocational ed child, foster parent to special ed students in my home.