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District A Candidates Discuss Improving Communication, Achievement

Five of the six candidates running for Alexandria School Board in District A attended a forum Monday night at Mount Vernon Community School.

Five of the six candidates for Alexandria School Board in District A attended a forum Monday evening at Mount Vernon Community School to discuss issues of student achievement, school capacity and community engagement, among others.

Concerns about communication—between Alexandria City Public Schools and parents, Superintendent Morton Sherman and teachers and from the school board to the citizenry—emerged as one of biggest issues in the school district according to the candidates.

“We need to do a better job across the board of communicating our goals and also balancing the need to move quickly with the need to make sure that our stakeholders have an understanding of the changes we need,” said Helen Morris, the lone incumbent running in District A. “We also need to better communicate our successes. We need to find ways to reach different stakeholders in different ways.”

Stephanie Kapsis, a former department director at Teach For America and elementary school teacher at P.S. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she senses an inability to create real conversations between families, schools and ACPS. She said a recent example was the roll out of an extended day calendar at Jefferson Houston School.

“How were families engaged in an authentic roll out process?” she asked.

Joyce Rawlings said that some new policies and procedures have been adopted in a way that was “not as transparent as it needs to be,” including changes to the city’s adult education program. She said her three decades in the city and experience working in places like the Ruby Tucker Center and with teen moms, single parents, English language learners and foster children have given her a wide array of experiences that will help her reach families that aren’t always brought in to the discussion.  

“Policy changes happen without time for parents, teachers and students to understand them,” she said. “We need to do better about bringing teachers and students on board.”

Karen Graf, an MVCS parent, said last winter Sherman told parents at the school that intersession would be cut by two weeks without providing data as to why the decision was made.

“He said you need to accept that you have had this money and now we are giving it to others,” Graf said. “I want buy in from all stakeholders. … I would like to work on the implementation process—communicating the details, involving the stakeholders. All that is leading to innovative thinking. … Every time a change comes down, we hear about it after school at the playground and then you hear great ideas that could have been done.”

Bill Campbell, who has served on the Alexandria PTA Council and on many ACPS boards and commissions, put an emphasis on increasing achievement in city schools. He said that getting the right information is a part of that.

“Closing the gap is not really what we want to do. We want to raise achievement,” he said, adding that ACPS has roughly 13,000 students and about 30 percent are not meeting their marks. “Those kids are not statistics, those are students. We need to know what do they need, where are they, how can we support them. They need the best teachers.”

Campbell drew one of the bigger applauses of the night when he said he would not have extended Sherman's contract through 2015, something the current board did last year.

Campbell and Morris both spoke of a need to manage growing capacity issues. Campbell said the city doesn’t just need “more schools,” but needs to develop a capacity plan with Alexandria’s Department of Planning and Zoning, demographers and others.

Morris said her experiences serving on the board working with the facilities plan committee, development of a new Jefferson-Houston and the addition of modular classrooms give her an understanding of how to deal with the school system’s capacity issues in a sound way.

“We have increased of student population by 20 percent but only increased the budget by 3 or 4 percent,” she said. “We have restrained costs. I hope the new board will do that.”

Campbell, Kapsis and Graf were all highly critical of the Success For All program that ACPS adopted to boost improve reading achievement.

Morris defended the program, saying that it was adopted because of reading failures in early elementary students. She said anecdotally she noticed students entered Jefferson-Houston with wide differences but ended with “mid to high achievement.”

Campbell said he had issues with grouping students by ability, saying that putting a fifth-grader in a group with first-graders could have a negative impact on a child. Graf said the “decision-making was flawed” in adopting the program, which she said doesn’t address English language learners.”

“I think there is a lot of good to SFA, but I do not think it is something that can be used in a diverse environment [like Alexandria],” Kapsis said. “The whole premise relies on homogenous groups and eliminates the ability of teachers to differentiate.”

Kapsis said early education was a major emphasis of her platform and is a proven way to reduce any achievement gap before it begins.

Heath Wells was unable to attend the event because of a previously scheduled vacation.

Voters in District A will vote for up to three candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Monday’s forum was hosted by the Del Ray Citizens Association, the Upper King Street Neighborhood Association and the Warwick Village Citizens Association.

Former ACPS School Board member Eileen Rivera served as the moderator.

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