1. What do you feel is the most important issue facing HCPSS at the current time? What steps should the BOE take to address this issue?
Insufficient funding for the educational system. Under the current model, the board is being presented with tough choices given the significant shortfall projected for the school budget. As someone who believes in fiscal responsibility and revenue-based budgeting, I fully support HCPSS balancing its budget. And as a member of the OBRC, I agree that there are savings to be had and we should explore these. However, I do not think we will find the savings we need to get to a balanced budget while still maintaining the high educational standards we expect of our public school system. As representatives of the public education system entrusted to give all Howard County students the best education possible, I believe we must strongly advocate for an increase in education spending at the county and state level. We should support candidates and leaders at the local, state, and national level who will prioritize investment in public education at a level that supports the needs of our children. Education is a core value of Howard County residents and a core driver of the economy. Let’s respect this value by allocating a higher percentage of our hard-earned tax dollars to the school system, to reduce overcrowding, increase opportunity, and make this the best public school system possible.
2. How do you think the BOE should implement Dr. Martirano’s Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion (ensures academic success and social-emotional well-being for each student in an inclusive and nurturing environment that closes opportunity gaps) across the levels?
HCPSS has made progress in reducing the achievement gap but work remains. This gap leads to higher dropout rates, lower post-education wages, increased poverty, un-/under-employment, and social/emotional risks. Measurable actions and resources need to be aligned with this plan to make it a success. A number of proven, data-driven interventions could help break this cycle. These include:
1. Pre-K – based on numerous studies, children under five who participate in classroom-based early childhood education programs are less likely to be placed in special education, less likely to be held back a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school compared to peers who are not in such programs.
2. Educator diversification – research shows that when students of color have a teacher of color, attendance, academic achievement, enrollment in GT courses, and lower disciplinary action result. Teachers of color also tend to stay longer in high-needs schools, which bring more stability to the school.
3. Implicit bias training – African American, Native American, Latinx, and special education children are disciplined at much higher rates. Training will help correct these inequitable rates of suspension.
4. Engaging, reflective curriculum – students do better when they see themselves in the curriculum. As a professor, I’ve seen firsthand how transformative this relatively simple action can be in awakening a student’s curiosity, engagement, and academic success.
3. What is your approach regarding school safety plans?
When faced with a tragedy like Parkland, we are shaken to the core. The public understandably seeks quick, visible measures such as the ones mentioned above. Unfortunately, the data does not point to the efficacy of these solutions. Instead, we should take a measured approach rooted in research to implement solutions that actually create safer schools, rather than feel-good measures that leave the community with a false sense of security.
Soon after Parkland, experts gathered to outline recommendations for increasing school safety. Recommended responses included the following: 1) make it harder to acquire guns by implementing universal background checks, banning assault-style weapons, and adopting sensible gun-control measures; 2) invest in efforts to provide social and emotional services for students; 3) focus on a relationship-based model where students are encouraged to report concerns to an adult. (A staggering one-in-four middle and high school kids report seeing a weapon at least once a year, and in a majority of cases a shooter will communicate their intention in some form to a peer;) 4) address the racial biases in disciplinary action so as to reduce suspensions through staff and student training; and 5) have a clear plan in place for assessing a situation when a student is identified as having a weapon or making threatening remarks. Teams should include key administrators, a trained psychologist, and an adequately trained school resource officer (SRO), where appropriate.
4. What are your priorities regarding setting the school calendar?
The school calendar should be set with considerable input from the community and based on the needs of children and their families, not on the tourist economy. The Governor’s original executive order to start school after Labor Day weekend and end before June 15th caused a host of unforeseen issues that negatively impacted the community. The recent state legislation, which allows for five more days beyond June 15th, will alleviate some but not all of these issues.
5. How will you address redistricting and improving the balance of socioeconomic diversity across all schools?
Though Dr. Martirano has taken temporary steps to address overcrowding, a long-term solution is needed. Success will depend on building solid relationships with the community while keeping equity at the forefront so that we don’t unintentionally disadvantage certain communities through redistricting.
In my opinion, the best course of action is to bring the community together early in the process so that we can get to know each other as individuals. Let’s proactively hold forums so that we can hear people’s concerns before redistricting is at their doorstep. When people take part in developing a solution, they are more willing to own those decisions. Not everyone will get what they want, but the community’s views will be represented in the final decision.
Let’s also look to creative solutions. For instance, I recently learned of an effort where two schools are doing a “swap” program whereby one group of students spends time at the other’s school. Efforts like these demonstrate that schools are not just test scores or places vaguely portrayed through social media, but active, thriving environments with distinctive qualities.
The Board should also learn about successful efforts from other parts of the country. For example, we might consider developing specialized academies in schools with excess capacity—e.g., around STEM, the arts, or coding—to draw interested students from overcrowded schools.
Finally, I’d like redistricting efforts to be crafted with Jim Rouse’s Columbia vision of an intentionally integrated community firmly in mind. Howard County is one of the greatest counties in the U.S. and I think this is in no small part because it is diverse and inclusive. Howard’s residents believe that great communities have great educational systems. Advising Columbia Housing Center has reminded me that it is our generation’s responsibility to keep this vision alive—to create a place for families of all races and creeds, spanning the economic spectrum, young or old—to live and thrive. By reviving Rouse’s vision, where we promote inclusive practices and celebrate integrated communities, we will be making the redistricting conversation a much easier one to have and the result will likely be a more equitable one.