East Africans focus of School Board forum

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September 7, 2012 by southwestjournal

//By Dylan Thomas//

The candidates for School Board met for their first post-primary forum Sept. 6 and responded to a series of questions that focused on the district’s immigrant students and families.

The concerns of the local East African community represented by the New Americans Political Action Committee, the event’s host, were front-and-center at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. It was a lightly attended event, with only about 25 people watching the six candidates who will appear on the Election Day ballot, plus one write-in candidate invited to join in the discussion.

Two candidates arrived late at the event, but it shouldn’t hurt the election prospects of either; Kim Ellison and Tracine Asberry are running unopposed in districts 2 and 6, respectively.

That gave District 4 candidates Patty Wycoff and Josh Reimnitz the chance to speak first during a round of brief introductions.

Wycoff, who has emphasized the need to involve neighborhoods and school communities more in district planning, described her background as a school volunteer and community organizer in Bryn Mawr. Reimnitz said the School Board “converges with [his] passions” as a Teach for America alumnus and current nonprofit leader, and pledged to bring a “sense of urgency” to issues like boosting the district’s graduation rate.

Write-in candidate Eli Kaplan, a longtime district observer who also served more than two decades on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, said he would emphasize goal-setting and long-range planning on the board. Kaplan is challenging current School Board member Carla Bates and Doug Mann for the lone citywide seat on the November ballot.

Mann, who says the district’s teacher-hiring practices and “watered-down curriculum tracks” hurt minority students the most, has previously bridled at the “perennial candidate” label, but this time noted past election attempts with some humor.

“This is — what — my seventh time running for the board?” he said. “I think I’ve set a world record here.”

Bates, who is seeking a second term, opened by describing her “love” for the job, and perhaps anticipated the theme of the evening when she said: “The achievement gap is not going to be solved unless we specifically address the needs of English language learners.”

A multipart first question asked the candidates to reflect on the new state accountability system replacing No Child Left Behind in city schools, a system that still doesn’t provide the district with achievement data broken-down by the language students speak at home.

The candidates — including Ellison who, just arrived, took her place at the table — generally agreed dumping No Child Left Behind for a state system that better accounts for year-to-year student growth was a good move. And several agreed strongly with the premise of the question: that acquiring student achievement data for individual language groups is crucial to tracking how immigrant communities are faring in city schools.

That was the position Reimnitz took, adding that community members with language skills should be recruited and trained to work in city classrooms. Kaplan said community outreach should focus on getting all parents — and even grandparents — more involved in their students’ educations.

Mann’s response attempted to put No Child Left Behind in a historical context of failed federal reforms, tying periods of increased school segregation to lower achievement rates for minority students. Bates, returning to the question’s specific focus on student data, noted fellow board members Alberto Monserrate and Hussein Samatar were leading the push to get language-specific data from the state, an effort both she and Ellison, who spoke next, support.

Wycoff said she, too, was “in full support” of efforts to more finely parse student data, but added that factors like strong principal leadership in schools and early childhood education are also key to reform efforts.

Another multipart question followed, this time asking candidates to touch on three issues: equitable education for English language learner, or ELL, students; district hiring and retention of staff for whom English is not their first language; and the awarding of district contracts to minority-owned companies.

Kaplan started, noting that the district’s English Learner Commission in late 2011 presented a three-year multilingual strategic plan, and said it was best to let that plan “play out.” Moving on to part three of the question, Kaplan said better communication with minority communities could boost their rate of participation in district contracts.

Mann responded mainly to the second part of the question; it gave him a chance to reiterate his oft-stated argument that the district for years routinely laid-off many non-tenured teachers each school year, contributing to the concentration of inexperienced teachers in low-performing schools with large populations of poor and minority students.

Bates said she advocated a district policy to rehire those laid-off teachers with foreign language skills first, but said more needs to be done. She spoke of her “renewed commitment” to drafting a bilingual teacher recruitment strategy.

Ellison, whose mother was born in the Dominican Republic, seconded Bates’ call to step-up bilingual teacher recruitment. She also noted the district met its goals for the participation of minority vendors in the construction of its new headquarters.

Wycoff said she would hold the superintendent accountable “for building a more inclusive work force,” adding that the district needs to improve its support for new teachers.

Reimnitz said he was “excited” to see the district launch its multilingual strategic plan but, noting ELL students comprise roughly one-fifth of the district, added that the district must invest more in planning for their needs.

Asberry arrived (directly from parent involvement night at Barton Open School) as the candidates responded to the third question, which asked if they supported charter schools, and if they would support a district Arabic- or Chinese-language immersion school.

Mann stated strong opposition to expanding charters, but saw no reason why the district could not expand its immersion offerings, which currently include just French and Spanish.

Bates zeroed-in on the night’s target audience, recalling how, during a recent period of declining district enrollment, many Somali-speaking teachers were laid off and left the district for culturally specific charter schools. Reiterating an earlier point, she said those were exactly the teachers the district must do a better job of recruiting and retaining.

Bates didn’t stake out a strong position on charters, but Ellison was clear in her support. She added, though, that they function best as small laboratories for testing innovative educational strategies.

Wycoff said she wasn’t against charters, but also noted they don’t “assure success.” She was enthusiastic about expanding the district’s immersion offerings, a move she said was “long overdue.”

Reimnitz said he “support(ed) schools that work,” whether district or charter, and also expressed support for diversifying district offerings.

Kaplan was “not exactly in favor” of charters because he said they compete for district resources, adding the district could simply adopt successful charter strategies.

Asberry recounted a decade of teaching in a North Side school and specifically recalled her work with ELL students, but ran out of time before she could respond to the question.

Next, the candidates were asked about their ideas for recruiting minority teachers and staff.

All agreed that more could be done, and most suggested outreach to minority communities would help, including encouraging the district’s diverse student body to consider teaching as a career. Ellison and Reimnitz also specifically mentioned pursuing partnerships with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Leading into their next question, forum moderators noted a significant number of ELL students score below average on state tests for years after they join the district and, while early childhood education programs could be one part of a solution, immigrant communities like the one in Cedar-Riverside lack access to quality preschools — not to mention after-school programming for students already in school. What would the candidates do to close the gap?

Asberry said the lack of access described in the question was a “real issue,” and one ELL teachers know well. As a School Board member, she said, she would push for assessments that examine how well the district is working with specific communities, including both ELL and special education students.

Ellison largely agreed with that response, and echoed Asberry’s call for community members to show up at School Board meetings and demand change.

Wycoff envisioned collaboration between the district and its East African community, adding that creating new programs in the area would likely require seeking city or county help with funding. Reimnitz picked up where she left off, saying the district could do more through partnerships with local government, and also said the district could do more to collaborate with parents from immigrant communities.

Kaplan noted older ELL students need help, too, and proposed they take a lesson from his mother-in-law, who emigrated from Hungary: start reading books in English and don’t stop.

Mann described a 20-year-old study he was familiar with that found quality preschool experiences boosted academic outcomes later in life.

Bates said she would work with the Cedar-Riverside community on bringing an early childhood center to the area. She also expressed support for a longer school day and school year for all students.

The final question of the evening referred back to a painful recent chapter of district history: the Changing School Options (CSO) plan that in 2010 redrew school attendance boundaries to cut transportation costs. How would the candidates respond to the “nagging” concerns of parents, especially those whose students were cut off from former school pathways?

Ellison, whose younger daughter lost her pathway to South High School under the plan, said the School Board needed to reexamine boundaries that, in some cases, made schools less diverse.

Wycoff was a leader in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood’s successful efforts to fight CSO and preserve school pathways for area students. Not a fan of the plan, she said communities must “insist” on greater involvement in any future district restructuring.

Reimnitz agreed it was important to involve parents in any plan that would change their attendance options. He said CSO seemed “like a Band-Aid to a much larger problem”: the sense that not all areas of the city have quality public school options.

Kaplan blamed “top-down decision making” for the lingering angst over CSO, and also advocated for greater community involvement in district planning. Mann echoed Reimnitz’ concern that the real issue was not all families have access to high-quality public schools.

Bates, who was a part of the School Board that approved the CSO, admitted it was a flawed plan, but said painful trade-offs were a part of governing. Bates successfully fought to keep Pratt Community School open during debate over the plan, maintaining a pathway she said was critical for ELL students.

Asberry brought the discussion back to issue of parent choice in a district with uneven offerings. Every district school, she said, “should be a school of excellence.”

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