District 3 candidates outline platforms

May. 01, 2014 @ 04:58 PM

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles about Durham County Board of Education candidates.

With the May 6 school board election just days away, there doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite in the District 3 race.
The endorsements of Durham’s big political action committees have been spread just about evenly among the four candidates vying to replace Nancy Cox, who is not seeking re-election.
Deborah Bryson was endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Lisa Gordon Stella got the nod from the Friends of Durham and Matt Sears, the only candidate to receive multiple endorsements, won over the People’s Alliance, The Herald-Sun editorial board and the Durham Association of Educators.
In recent days, some of the District 3 candidates, like those in other races, have weighed in on the superintendent search process.
Gordon Stella and Steve Gatlin have emphatically stated that they would like to see the board slow down the search process so the new board seated in July could hire the new superintendent.
Sears has been more diplomatic, urging the board to move cautiously and remain focused on hiring the best candidate.
The Herald-Sun asked the four candidates in District 2 to answer five questions we believe will provide insight into how they might govern if elected to the school board on May 6.
Their responses appear below.

Deborah Bryson
Employment: Head of School, Bryson Christian Montessori School
Education: Degrees in business/accounting and Montessori teacher certified.

1. If elected to the school board, what would be your top priorities?
If elected my top priorities would be to serve as a strong advocate for children and their families. Utilize my 28 years of experience working with children, teachers and parents to strengthen our schools. I want students to experience school as a safe and welcoming place, where everyone is involved in learning. DPS needs to be a place committed to bringing out the best in each child, which I will help advance as an elected board member.
I believe the “Student First” Philosophy should be used to make all decisions for children. As an entrepreneur and small-business owner, I have experience with hiring and evaluating leadership potential, which will be useful when hiring the new superintendent.
Children enrolled in high-quality child care have a higher level of academic achievement, which promotes long term academic success. I also believe that supporting good schools is good business. I possess the leadership skills necessary to meet the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community.
I will be dedicated to seeing that all children are successful in completing their education through high school, as well as opportunities for college completion. I will advocate for decent teacher’s salaries for both beginning and veteran teachers. 

2. Durham Public Schools’ high rate of suspensions, particularly of black and Hispanic males has been the subject of several recent “community conversations.” Share your ideas to curb the suspension rate.
The disparity in the suspensions of African-American males is an issue across the country and in every school system. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that over 3.3 million students were suspended in the 2009-10 school year, often for minor, non-violent misbehaviors such as violating the dress code or talking back to a teacher. Black students were three times as likely as their white peers to be issued an out-of-school suspension, along with almost one in 13 Latino students. Students with disabilities were also disproportionately affected.
I propose to adopt a positive behavioral support system to replace out-of-school suspensions and other severe disciplinary practices.  Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) recognize the broad set of variables that can affect student’s behavior, their interaction with peers and teachers, and their ability to learn. This way of viewing school discipline is built on a more positive, collaborative and holistic framework for understanding how students connect with their school community. It is designed to be student-centered and proactive problem causing behavior. It can also help stop a potential school conflict before it escalates by teaching students behavior management skills. This disciplinary method doesn’t place complete responsibility on students, instead acknowledging the skills that educators need to deal effectively with school conflict.

3. Do you think high-achieving students in Durham Public Schools are sufficiently challenged? Explain your answer.
Yes, I believe that high-achieving students in DPS are challenged through the existing special programs currently in place. There’s the Academically, Intellectually, and Gifted (AIG) program which is for high-achieving students. We know that academically or intellectually gifted students exhibit high performance capability in intellectual areas or specific academic fields, or in both. There’s always room for improvement, therefore I would like to see a study on the AIG programs in the Durham School system. The question is how can we improve these programs?  Academically or intellectually gifted students require differentiated educational services beyond those ordinarily provided by the regular educational program. DPS also has other schools that specialize in specific areas which will challenge the students or cultivate their area of interest. Some of the schools include: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Southern School of Engineering, City of Medicine Academy, Hillside New Tech, Durham School of Arts, and J.D. Clements Early College.

4. What do you think is the proper role of charter schools in the Durham community?
If they are “mission driven” and not set up as pseudo private schools, they can play a role in closing the education gap. 
Durham County is home to 10 charter schools, with the 11th opening in August. It appears that the charters will be a fixture on the education landscape and collaboration will be a necessity.  Let’s remember a rising tide lifts all boats. If the charters are successful in improving education performance within the confines of fair and equitable community access, we need to find a common ground. That common ground should be providing the best education we can for all children without the sleight of hand that sometimes take place when choosing who gets in certain Charters. 

5. What qualities would you like to see in the next superintendent?
A successful candidate would possess the leadership skills required to respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community. The candidate would have the ability to develop and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship between the business community and the school district. Also, he/she should have knowledge of emerging research and best practices in the area of curriculum/ instructional design, skilled at developing a strategic plan of excellence for children and families, while creating the necessary infrastructure to support student learning.
The candidate should have strong skills in the area of communication, listening, speaking, possesses excellent people skills and present a positive image of the Durham community.

Name:  Steven Gatlin
Age: 35
Employment: History Teacher at Voyager Academy Charter School
Education: Master’s of Education Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from The University of Mississippi.
1. If elected to the school board, what would be your top priorities?  
Teacher empowerment would be my top priority. 
Teachers are not valued or treated as the professionals they are. The current DPS system is a top-down bureaucratic machine that stifles teacher creativity and innovation in the classroom. I believe for DPS to best serve its students and community, teachers must be brought to the table in all aspects of the decision-making process. I would like to create teacher committees to research, enact, reflect, and improve how we handle the issues within DPS. The role of the school board should be one of support to this bottom-up business model. Once this process is properly in place the other priorities that everyone champions such as closing the achievement gap, ending the school to prison pipeline, and literacy would better be able to be addressed.

2. Durham Public Schools’ high rate of suspensions, particularly of black and Hispanic males has been the subject of several recent “community conversations.” Share your ideas to curb the suspension rate.
I propose an overhaul to the current system. DPS should stop suspending students for non-violent/non-endangering actions.  Doing so only accelerates the school-to-prison pipeline. The issue of suspensions in general should be addressed by a district-wide move to eliminate and reduce suspensions by turning to more student-led restorative justice programs. Restorative justice programs allow students to learn from their mistakes and give value back to the community they have wronged. The focus is on growth rather than punishment. The disparity of higher rates of suspension for black, Hispanic and EC students should be addressed on a school-by-school basis where teachers and principals lead the research and action that will address the individual needs and populations of each school within in the larger context of eliminating suspensions altogether. Also, we must not forget to encourage students to participate in after-school activities, sports and other extra-curricular opportunities. The overwhelming majority of students receiving suspensions have zero positive connections to the school beyond their classes. If more students were invested into the identity and spirit of their school we would not see as many disruptions in the first place and overall school culture would improve.

3. Do you think high-achieving students in Durham Public Schools are sufficiently challenged? Explain your answer. 
No, many students are not sufficiently challenged at all learning levels. The current bureaucratic system in DPS, coupled with the disastrous rollout of the Common Core Standards, has created an environment where rigor is confused with complexity and students of all ability levels are taught-tested, taught-tested ad nauseam. A properly challenged student is one who is presented with a meaningful problem or project and given the space and support to achieve and learn. This can only happen inside a learning environment safe for taking risks and overcoming adversity. Properly challenging our students leads to academic growth of the sort that serves them best throughout college, career, and life. Teachers are the professionals in the classrooms who know their students’ abilities best. We (teachers) are the only ones who can properly challenge a student. Equity in education demands that all students be challenged.

4. What do you think is the proper role of charter schools in the Durham community?  
To date charter schools have served Durham’s community by keeping families in Durham rather than leaving for Wake or other neighboring counties. Parents and students deserve to have alternate choices in districts they deem ineffective, and I believe public charters give parents this option. Charter schools have been successful in Durham because they operate free of the central office bureaucratic entanglement that suffocates the efforts and intentions of teachers in DPS. I do believe however that lifting the cap on charter school growth was a mistake by the General Assembly, and I am highly cautious and skeptical toward for-profit charter schools. I do not support school vouchers and believe them to be unconstitutional. The charter schools in Durham and the traditional schools can work collaboratively for the students of Durham. Collaboration should start on a school-to-school or teacher-to-teacher basis such as joint projects or partnerships for community service, as the next role in the Durham community should be actual service to the community.
5. What qualities would you like to see in the next superintendent? 
The next superintendent should have classroom and administrative experience. His/her main qualities should include: leadership, collaboration, communication, innovation and vision. The next superintendent must convey a message to the community that although North Carolina education is under state oppression, DPS values and appreciates the work of its teachers and will continue to create and foster an environment where teachers are valued as the professionals they are and student learning is maximized. He/she must then work to re-establish community trust and the overall reputation of DPS. Finally, the next superintendent must create and foster community partnerships that involve all education stakeholders.

Name:  Lisa Gordon Stella
Age: 45
Employment: Attorney/Mediator/Truancy Court Program Director
Education: University of California at Davis, A.B. (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa).
University of Minnesota Law School, J.D. (magna cum laude, Order of the Coif).

1. If elected to the school board, what would be your top priorities?
My top priorities are:

  • Promoting fiscal responsibility, transparency and clear accountability throughout DPS, which includes the school board and top administrators be committed to understanding how public education money is spent and ensuring money is spent effectively and responsibly. DPS should perform a thorough cost analysis for every line item in the budget. There must be regular evaluation of all existing programming and clear standards of performance and meaningful reviews of Central Office and administrative staff.
  • Facilitate system-wide culture shift at DPS that will recognize that our education system’s purpose is to educate students.  The focus must be on students, providing and supporting strong teachers and principals rather than on Central Office.
  • Create a unified school district through collaboration between our traditional public schools and charter schools. Working collaboratively we can leverage resources and expertise to benefit all Durham’s students.
  • Promote strong Support Services with dynamic and committed leadership that understands the challenges facing our most at-risk students and is dedicated to serving students effectively and swiftly. Strategically address through evidenced based programming (such as restorative justice programs) suspension, student behavior and the school-to-prison pipeline.

       2. Durham Public Schools’ high rate of suspensions, particularly of black and Hispanic males has been the subject of several recent “community conversations.” Share your ideas to curb the suspension rate.
As the director of the Truancy Court Program, I have seen how many of our youth are facing serious personal and family challenges daily, which impact their education and behavior. My specific proposals on how DPS must rethink and address student discipline include:

  • Promote strong Support Services beginning with motivated leadership and a clear understanding of the problems with a strategy for addressing the issues.
  • Emphasize and fund restorative justice programs and social emotional learning.
  • Create district-wide policies that mandate no arrests or out of school suspension for minor offenses.
  • Fund school-based mental health services or collaborate with mental health providers.
  • Staff our schools with a dedicated qualified social worker.
  • Provide regular training and support to all school personnel (teachers, principals, and SRO) on how to engage in positive student behavior and apply school discipline policies in a fair and equitable manner.
  • Re-examine Lakeview to see if it is serving its purpose.
  • Cultivate creativity in finding ways to hold students accountable for their mistakes while not suspending them from school.

3. Do you think high-achieving students in Durham Public Schools are sufficiently challenged? Explain your answer.
As a parent and in my work as the Truancy Court Program director and on the board of Maureen Joy Charter School, I have seen how DPS often does not provide challenging programming for high-achieving students. Parents throughout the district are concerned about the lack of rigorous work and that their children are not receiving an education that will prepare them for college and beyond. When my daughter attended a DPS middle school, I found most of her classes did not challenge her and AIG is disappointing. Through my work as the Truancy Court program director, I have also seen that there is a lack of consistency in whether students, high-achieving or not, are challenged. I have spoken with school personnel, students and parents and learned that in many classes, students need only to show up to pass. Many parents attending charter schools have also expressed concern that their children are not challenged in traditional Durham Public Schools. Recently, a parent expressed concern that her middle school child (in traditional Durham public school) was actually doing work that was close to the level of work her much younger elementary school child was doing at a charter school.  

4. What do you think is the proper role of charter schools in the Durham community?
All public schools, traditional and charter, must work together to create a strong educational community for all Durham’s children.  As the vice president of the Maureen Joy Charter School and through my work in DPS as the Truancy Court program director, I believe continuing to engage in an ideological discussion regarding charter school propriety will not improve student education in Durham. Our focus must shift to charter growth and collaboration.  I have spent the past year working on collaboration between DPS and the Durham charter schools as well as collaboration among charter schools in Durham, which has resulted in bringing all Durham charters together in what is now called The Durham Charter Collaborative. The purpose is to identify ways charters in Durham can work collaboratively to reduce costs, increase student achievement, and better serve students and the community. In March, I went before the Durham County Commissioners with a two-hour presentation and Q/A on charter school achievement, funding, spending and accountability and recommended the creation of a task force to study district-charter collaborations. We must look at what is working in education and not ignore it because of ideological differences. Working collaboratively rather than competitively we will better serve our students and our community.

5. What qualities would you like to see in the next superintendent?
The selection of Durham’s next superintendent presents the opportunity to transform Durham Public Schools. Our new superintendent must be:

  • Dynamic, intelligent, entrepreneurial leader willing to make difficult decisions targeted at improving and reviving education in Durham.
  • Committed to creating a unified school system where traditional public schools and charters work collaboratively to improve public education for all students in Durham.
  • Committed to fiscal responsibility and transparency including conducting a line-by-line analysis of the budget and regular evaluation of all programming.
  • Committed to creating a strong leadership team and regular comprehensive evaluations of Central Office, administrative staff and leadership team.
  • Committed to creating and fostering a culture at DPS that values honest feedback, thoughtful yet timely decision-making, best practices and creativity in approaching challenges where mistakes and undesired outcomes are openly recognized, critically examined, and understood.
  • Committed to creating a child and school centered school system rather than a focus on Central Office, recognizing that great teachers and strong principals are the heart of a excellent education system and they must be the center of Durham’s education system.

Name: Matt Sears
Age: 35
Employment: Director of School Services at the public education nonprofit North Carolina New Schools
Education: B.S. Mathematics with Computer Science, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, Masters of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) from UNC Chapel Hill

1. If elected to the school board, what would be your top priorities?

  • Investment in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I have been researching and attending conference sessions on SEL for the past year and believe it to be a investment the district can make to help students better engage and participate in school. SEL teaches students self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision making skills, among others.
  • Deepen the community’s engagement in our schools and the work of the Board.  This community has so much intellectual capital embedded in it and getting more of that power focused on the schools would help the board and schools make more informed decisions that affect students and families.
  • Teachers are the most important factor in student learning. A great teacher can teach a student a year and a half worth of material in just a year. A poor teacher can set a child back a full year, meaning it will take two subsequent years of great teachers to catch up. We can do more locally to retain our great teachers and attract new teachers to Durham.  Be it in the Triangle, NC, or nationally, I want Durham to be known as a great place for great teachers.

2. Durham Public Schools’ high rate of suspensions, particularly of black and Hispanic males has been the subject of several recent “community conversations.” Share your ideas to curb the suspension rate.
At a recent conference in Austin, Texas, I attended a session moderated by Timothy Shriver on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I have spent the last year investigating SEL and I came away from that session with statistics and examples of ways in which focusing on purely academic teaching does not prepare students to navigate our education systems effectively. Shriver and his panelists articulated two of the issues surrounding suspensions/success. First, all students do not innately come to school knowing how to manage their social and emotional needs and frustrations.
But those skills can be overtly and covertly taught to students and the work being done by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is proving that teaching students those skills is effective in increasing student performance and reducing risky behaviors.
Second, the panel discussed in depth the need for adults to be trained to teach SEL skills to students. Doing so will further students’ abilities to self manage, but will also further educate adults on child and adolescent psychology.
As a board member, I will seek to assess our district’s use of, knowledge of, and plans for growing SEL. I will work build community support for SEL with families, teachers and school administration.

3. Do you think high-achieving students in Durham Public Schools are sufficiently challenged? Explain your answer.
Durham Public Schools offers all levels of academic environments that challenge students to achieve and push them to maximize their education. That said, our community, in partnership with the board, needs to invest time and effort into ensuring our students have the best and most personalized opportunities for growth. I did this as a teacher, providing 15 students the chance to spend a year inventing as a part of the first Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam in North Carolina. Our individual teachers and schools do this extra work daily to challenge their students. But our community needs to learn about and advocate for additional access to supports, higher level classes and higher education while in high school. Durham has four Cooperative and Innovative High Schools which provide high school students access to higher education. Maximizing these types of programs will be a priority of mine on the Board. 

4. What do you think is the proper role of charter schools in the Durham community?
The responsibility of a member of the Board of Education is to create the best educational environment possible for the 33,000 -plus students that come through our schools’ doors every day. While charters are a valuable part of our community, I will focus my work as a board member on DPS students.
That said, I do not want to see charters grow further in North Carolina in areas that are becoming saturated with charter schools (like Durham), and I oppose for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). Charter schools are designed to be places of innovation and experimentation in education and they serve that role in their current capacity. Charter schools were not designed to be competitive alternatives to Local Education Agencies.

5. What qualities would you like to see in the next superintendent?

Among the qualities I hope the community will identify in partnership with the board are:

  •  Integrity.
  •  The ability to recognize and develop talented principals and central office staff.
  •  The ability to effectively supervise/evaluate principals and central office staff.
  •  The willingness and ability to engage with community partners that results in tangible quality outcomes for students.
  •  The ability to focus on student achievement and student need by both addressing immediate needs and long term planning.
  •  Is respected by teachers and the community in their current district.