Urban Pulse

What’s on the mind of urban school board members?

Michelle Healy​

Teacher staffing, charter schools, student achievement, consolidation—these are just some of the topics that were front-burner issues for school leaders attending NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education 51st Annual Conference in Las Vegas in September.

A record number of school board members and superintendents attended the annual meeting. ASBJ editors were onsite, talking to attendees about issues they are facing in their urban districts.

Allison McCray, board member, Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163, Illinois

We recently completed additions to two school sites with funding from a combination of bonds and grants. One of the schools was transitioning from being a primary building to a middle school, so we had to make it accommodate larger kids. In that school, we also added an atrium and a greenhouse. The goal in both buildings was to create innovative environments for our students to enjoy the spaces and learn at the same time. There’s even a literacy lounge for kids to just kick back and read. Some kids can stand and do their work if they learn better that way. We sometimes get flak from some community members who want to know what we are doing with their tax dollars. We always welcome parents and community members into the schools so they can see what we’re doing. We want them to know that their students are doing great things, and we’re trying to create an environment for them to continue to do that and more.

Sandra Brown, board member, Birmingham City Schools, Alabama

We have several failing schools, and that’s a top priority: getting these schools off the failing schools list. Also, we have issues to address with attendance. I also worry about our career-tech program. You need to have a program that students are really interested in, and you have to learn to keep the kids interested to reduce the dropout rate. My district has been focused on preparing kids for college careers, which of course is important, but we fail to realize that there are other students we need to be focusing on as well. We need to find out what will interest them, benefit them, and make them want to stay in school. If they love sports, we need to find a way to wrap that around their education to help reach that child and keep them in school.

Lori Hershey, board member, Duval County Public Schools, Florida

Our biggest challenge is that the state of Florida is so friendly to charter schools, which peels away students and dollars from traditional public schools. There’s been the desire to set up a state authorizer which, thank goodness, was struck down this time by a judge so that it won’t be on the ballot to change the state constitution. We get a 25-year reprieve. But the struggle is really the reaching for dollars and figuring out how to compete on a level playing field with charter schools. We already have eight charters operating in District 7, but over 30 in Duval County. One of the results is that schools that traditionally are at or close to capacity have declining enrollment. That’s our struggle: to recapture those students. To do that, one of the things we’re working on is building better relations with our state legislators and trying to better educate the public about legislation and how it impacts us. But that takes time.

Jace Kirk, board member, Oklahoma City Public Schools, Oklahoma

We are in the beginning of a long-range facilities master plan to right-size the district, to reimagine what we’re going to do with the spaces we have. Forty percent of our elementary educational space is empty right now. As with many other states in a financial crisis, we are left with some very important but very tough decisions to make this year. Although I’m not looking forward to some of those conversations, they are very important, and this is an important time to be a board member. I came on the board in February. The week before I was sworn in, the superintendent resigned—the 13th in 20 years. The month after, we had a teacher strike. So, I’ve had a strong learning curve as a board member, but it’s been an exciting time. The teacher strike presented an opportunity to come together with teachers and demand the respect from our state that they deserve. It really was a unifying event. Our board came out preemptively and said: We will support our teachers.

Malena Raymond, board trustee, Washoe County School District, Nevada

Our work around equity is targeting not only our board and educating us, but also our community. Reno and Sparks, Nevada, have seen a lot of change and will see even more to come. The demographics of our community are very different than they were even 10 years ago. We have a lot of teachers and principals who have been in their jobs for 30 years, and they are used to a community that looks one way and it doesn’t look like that anymore. And that’s not just race, but socioeconomic status, even how the opioid epidemic is affecting our families. Through equity training, we’re trying to give educators and administrators the tools necessary to look at their school sites and really address those concerns fairly and equitably. I’m proud that we’re also modeling this work at the board level. We’re going to go through it just like any professional in the district, and it really is going to reach everybody.

Angie Taylor, board trustee, Washoe County School District, Nevada

We’re in a period of economic growth, more like a boom in our county. We have more jobs than people, frankly. In 2016, we had a $781 million bond pass to build new schools and do renovations. We’re anticipating growth at the same time we alleviate crowding in some areas. We’ll be opening three schools in 2019; 15 schools over the next decade. One of the challenges, however, is the nationwide teacher shortage. We have a new human resources team in place and they’ve done a tremendous job filling openings. The other part of the challenge is accountability: making sure the community can see where every dollar is going. We created the Capital Funding Protection Committee and have agreed that the board will go to this committee for its recommendation on how to spend every dollar.

Juanita R. Jordan, board member, Prairie-Hills Elementary School District 144, Illinois

The teacher shortage and finding qualified candidates who can deliver effective instruction to our students. I brought this up (recently) with our state legislators and they are saying that there are 40 percent fewer applicants for education majors at our state colleges. Nobody wants to be a teacher and those that are coming out are not sufficiently trained: Theory is a whole lot different from practice. And then three or four years after being on the job, they decide this is not the career for them. That’s our biggest challenge right now. One suggestion is that the state ease the transference of credentials because that appears to be difficult in Illinois. Another suggestion was recruiting people entering a second career, but I’ve seen that people coming from different fields have no idea what education is about. So, I don’t know what the answer is.

R. Stephen Green, CEO and superintendent, DeKalb County School District, Georgia

I’m a strong advocate for early childhood education, and we just this year opened an early learning center for 3-year-olds. We opened with 200 students and 150 on the waiting list. It’s a free, all-day program, with a 1-7 student teacher ratio. There are two certified early childhood educators in each class. Those teachers will loop with their students for a second year, and we’ll bring in another set of 3-year-olds. We’re changing the game across the state in terms of setting a new model: not only earlier education, but we’re raising the quality. Early learning is priceless. It’s also a community school model in which we have various community partners that provide wraparound services and have satellite offices in the school. We’re trying to push the envelope legislatively for the state to begin funding early learning for 3-years-olds.

Henry N. Jenkins Sr., board trustee, Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five, South Carolina

Our local legislative delegation passed a law in the Statehouse to consolidate the county’s three school districts into one countywide unit. That consolidation is scheduled to take place July 1, 2019. In the meantime, there is a school board race for nine school board positions representing the new Orangeburg County Public Schools. Elections will take place Nov. 6, 2018. Board members elected will have to immediately put in place a new administration for the consolidated district. The first order of business will be to hire a superintendent. The contracts for current superintendents will have to be honored. The community is supportive of the consolidation. The justification for the consolidation is to bring about a more equitable opportunity to educate and provide services to all our children.

Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District No. 5, Arizona

Isaac is a K-8 district with about 6,400 students;
95 percent free and reduced lunch; 90 percent Latino;
32 percent English Language Learners, so our challenge is student achievement; getting kids to where they need to be by grade level. We know from our assessments that in kindergarten we’re already playing catch up. We’ve been working on a new strategic plan and one of the things I was proud of is that we were able to incorporate the voice of the community. We had a lot of focus groups, we had a lot of web-based ways for people to give their thoughts on the way the district should go. We have a lot of immigrant families and often, because of the language barrier, they are not given an opportunity to express themselves. From that experience we developed a group of 30 parents called Promotores who act as an extension of the district, establishing relationships in the community, helping get information out. Some of our parents really prefer that face-to-face communication or they may not have the ability to come to school functions or access information, so this is important.

Christiane Buggs, board member, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee

Equity and funding are the two most pressing issues for us. We can’t think past those two because I think once we get those right, everything else will fall in place. We have a phenomenal superintendent who is doing great work, transforming leaders, and developing a pipeline. A win for the district has been our district scorecard, a dashboard that allows anyone from the community to go on to the website and gather any data and information they’d want or need about district schools—funding, demographics, capacity, test scores, building renovations. As a very large district with 168 schools, 87,000 students, 11,000 employees, we’re doing better when it comes to engaging all sectors of the community in their schools, but we’re not there yet.

Michelle Healy (mhealy@nsba.org) is associate editor of American School Board Journal.

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