On Saturday, the League of Women Voters held a candidate forum for all of the Atlanta Public School Board of Education At-Large seats. For the At-Large seat 7, incumbent Courtney English and challenger Nisha Simama answered a series of question and made closing statements.
The following is a recap of the At-Large 7 session. Please note that there were several questions posed and answered prior to my arrival at the event. Additionally, I will recap the At-Large 8 and 9 sessions in a later post.
What kind of relationship should a Board member have with the community?
Mr. English said, “…One of the four commitments that this school has said is that over the next five years the community is critical. We need to break down the central office budget – that involves giving our parents more of a choice and giving teachers more of an opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect our kids. Education reform has to be done with people… teachers have to have a seat at the table.”
Ms. Simama responded, “The Board is in a partnership with the community. …As a Board member it is my responsibility to be in the community educating people – and that is what I have done over the years … having been the Head Start Director for the largest program in GA. And so I understand what it means to have community connections and connections with the business community as well…. As a school system, the partnerships we develop are very important as well… It is very important that we look to those individuals in this community to help to guide the kind of policies that we would develop as Board members.”
What is your vision for education in the Atlanta Public School system?
Ms. Simama said. “I believe the first and foremost thing we have to do is have faith in the ability of our children to learn. How do we do that? We have to have qualified teachers in all our classrooms… we have a lot of qualified teachers in the system… We also have to talk about accountability in the school system – and that means that I have to be accountable for my behavior and as a Board member. It is my responsibility to set policy that the bottom line of that policy is the quality of the education each child receives. It is not about the adults, it is about the children…. We have to have first and foremost the change that it takes in order to give the highest quality possible education to every child – and that means across the board.”
Mr. English responded, “Every single child in this school system – every kid that walks through the door – to leave our school system ready for life, ready for a life of service, ready for a life of leadership and ready to give back to the community which they serve. I want a school system that not only prepares our kids to reach their dreams but dares them to go far beyond. I want a school system in which every single parent [is close] to a good school. … Last, I want a school system that believes in the power of our teachers and our principals and make sure they have a seat at the table when the Board decisions are being made.
With one or two meetings a month all school boards are limited in what they can do. How should the school Board decide what is most important for consideration?
Mr. English said, “The beginning and ending of our governance process should start with our strategic plan. … you then figure out what is the best direction to take. Then it is the Boards role … to make sure the resources are there to support our strategic vision. And then we have to hold folks accountable. As the Chair of the Accountability Commission, we overhauled the superintendent’s evaluation, we overhauled the balance scorecard initiative – to place ourselves in a position that when we hire a new superintendent we are ready to take off.
Ms. Simama responded, “We have to look at the structure in which the Board operates. Number one is … to build a strong committee structure so that we can get the priorities together and not have do everything done in the Committee of the Whole and have the public waiting for hours and hours until we do that. So we need to build a structure that gets the priorities straight for what we are going to do. I think that we also have to look at what we are charged to do. Our charter is very clear – our charter states that it is our responsibility to make sure that every student in this system gets the tools that they need in order to have a high quality education, so that every school can meet the needs of the students. So what we are talking about is what we can do on the policy side that gets the priorities together. We do have to look at our plans and our vision and the vision has to be very clear. When we went through the visioning process I was on the Board – it was very important that we talk about what we represent.”
Do you support the Common Core standards and why or why not?
Ms. Simama – That is a complicated question … well Georgia has opted out. Let’s talk about what [Common Core] that means. If we are talking about bringing to the school system ways for the students to do critical thinking and have a base level of skills, I support that. … But I think we should take them further. The biggest problem I have with the Common Core standards is we haven’t worked out the details of the Common Core standards. We have not come up with the tests that would be a part of that. … the Common Core gives us a baseline of where each and every student should be, but that is a minimum and we have to go further than the minimum. So when you are talking about Common Core, were talking about all these different areas where children need to have these skills. And one size does not fit all. The trouble we have been in this country is that we have tried that one size fits all.”
Mr. English responded, “I am a 110% supporter of Common Core standards. I think far too often in recent years … we teach kids what to think instead of how to think. The Common Core is designed to raise our level of thinking. Our kids never are forced to answer the question why? Why does this matter? Why is this important? … It gets us to a higher level of thinking, and I think those are the actual skills that are kids are going to need to be successful. First and foremost, Georgia has not opted out of the Common Core standards – Georgia actually opted out of the tests. What we need everyone in this room to do is call our legislators and make sure we do not opt out of the Common Core because we have made a significant investment inside of the Common Core and I really think it is going to be able to position our kids to think and ask the question – why?”
Do you support charter school expansion in your district?
Mr. English said, “As citywide representative I support replicating and going to good schools… Our [charters] are founded by our members of our teachers union the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] years ago – and they were designed to be laboratories of incubation. They were designed to be laboratories of innovation. And what was supposed to have happened is that is that we took those good lessons we learned in our charter schools and apply them across the school district. I support growing and replicating what works – charter or traditional or otherwise. If you tell me it is working …and that is what gets my kid to graduate and get them to Harvard or Princeton or where ever else – let’s run that play. I am for going and replicating what works and making sure that our teachers have a voice at the table and our principals have school autonomy. That’s why I keep coming back to that point – but the downtown bureaucracy does not work. Charter schools are able to work because they can turn on a dime. We need to do that everywhere else – [including] inside our traditional schools.”
Ms.Simama responded, “I support good schools. …We have to look at the data and see what works. If a school works, then that is a good school and we keep that school. We cannot go for some ‘system’ that we actually believe will be a panacea to what the problems actually are in education. We are addressing the problems in the Atlanta Public School system with Atlanta public schools that are not charters and some of the charters are doing a good job. But we cannot go to the idea that one idea will solve the problems of this school system. So yes I support good schools, I support good projects, I support good programs, I support projects and schools that get students ready for life and for college, ready for being critical citizens in Atlanta.”
What is your opinion of the use of standardized multiple choice tests to rate students, teachers, schools and districts?
Ms.Simama said, “… and so when we talk about measuring a person’s skill, capability, ability to learn, a multiple choice test do not work. So I think we have to look at every level – one size does not fit all…. when we talk about standardizing, we have got to talk about a way at looking at individual differences. So when we talk about standardized multiple choice [tests] – I think we need to get rid of it as a tool.”
Mr. English responded, “First and foremost, I have actually called for – and I think I am one of the few if not the only Board member or local education leaders – I have called for the abandonment, or I should say the obsession that APS has with standardized tests. …we do a lot of teaching kids what to think instead of how to think…. And the questions of “why”, standardized tests never actually get to. I think we have to be teaching our kids why things are important as opposed to less on the “how” side. We have to come up with innovative ways to do that, but just sticking to bubble sheets on standardized tests – that is not going to get us there.”
Ms.Simama – “Let me say a couple of things. One, I will be very strong in believing that Atlanta deserves a first class school system and that we have suffered because we haven’t had one. Part of the issue is that we have to bring in a first class Board to make sure – business cannot continue as usual. One of the things we must ultimately do is to make sure the Board is a policy making Board; that a Board is cognizant of the issues and is connected to the community of Atlanta. And when we do that we begin to say that we are a city that produces citizens. And … I have a responsibility as a Board member to be accountable to you the citizens of this city and to the children of the city….I can promise you that if you hire me on November 6 I will always take decisions based on …what is best for every child in this city. And what it takes for us to bring to this city a first class school system once again. That is not negotiable for me. That is what we have to have.”
Mr. English – “Education is critical because when you fix education you fix crime; when you fix education you fix poverty; when you fix education you fix health care; when fix education you improve economic development and bring more jobs to our city. And so this is a watershed moment for us in the city of Atlanta – right here right now. This is a city that time and time again has shown the world how to turn challenge into triumph. This is a city that has shown the world that by banding together, we are greater than our differences – we can work together to tackle the biggest problems of the day. Today that problem is education. I am the candidate in the race with the track record of standing up for kids in our own communities. I have raised about $2.5 million to help address our city’s drop-out rate, we have overhauled our teacher’s evaluation system, we made unprecedented levels of investment in professional development to make sure our teachers have what they need inside of our schools to be successful.”