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School Board Questionnaire: Karen Graf

Patch asked candidates for School Board to complete a questionnaire to shed some light on where candidates stand in issues important to Alexandria City Public Schools. Here's what they had to say.

Patch School Board Questionnaire

District A Candidate Karen Graf

Age: 42
Occupation: Mother/Wife
Incumbent or non-incumbent: Non-incumbent
How long have you been an Alexandria resident? 8.5 years
Which neighborhood do you live in? Del Ray
Website, Facebook page or other contact information: Website 
graf4schoolboard.wordpress.com
Twitter twitter.com/KarenAGraf
Email Address graf4schoolboard@gmail.com; Facebook 
facebook.com/FriendsOfKarenAGraf  
Campaign Headquarters Address — 2308 Mount Vernon Ave. #330 Alexandria VA 22305

What unique perspective, experience or expertise would you bring to the School Board?

As a school board member, I think that I will distinguish myself through the following characteristics:

  • Commitment: As a mother of three, I have a vested interest in successful Alexandria schools. And, as a child of two public school teachers, I have a firm belief in the value of public education. I will work tirelessly to help Alexandria schools reach their potential.

  • Involvement: As an active PTA member, I have contributed more than 750 volunteer hours per year toward field trips, assemblies and events. I have also led a book room initiative project to manage more than 60,000 books to supplement classroom reading programs.

  • Competence: Ten years experience in technical communications, knowledge management, and general management with a Fortune 500 firm in the Silicon Valley as well as fast-paced start-ups.

  • Mission: I actively seek a well-rounded understanding of the issues by soliciting input from stakeholders: teaching professionals, parents, and citizens of Alexandria.

What are top challenges facing ACPS and how do you plan to engage the community to address them?

Here are some of the top challenges facing ACPS:

  • Achievement gap — I would want to assess the critical needs for various subgroups, evaluate the performance of programs, make well-researched decisions towards student-centered solutions, and lastly, engage parents as partners in their child’s educational goals.
  • Capacity issues (space for learning) — I would like to help develop transparent and consistent processes for working with the city and the community to develop or maintain schools with an emphasis on maximizing use of existing properties.
  • Teacher retention/professional development — I would want to contribute to providing resources and fostering an environment that supports teachers in developing professionally and maintaining job satisfaction throughout their careers.

My immediate focus is an immediate and significant shift in three fundamental aspects of the decision-making process. Without addressing these, I don't think we can make sustainable improvements on any specific issue.

1) Performance measurement. Too often, performance is being interpreted through the filter of the administrative agenda. We need to rigorously and transparently evaluate which programs are working and which are not. There can be no more decision-making without accountability.

2) Process: we need to establish—and adhere to—a fact-driven approach for choosing which programs we pursue, and a disciplined methodology for implementation. No more throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.

3) Persistence. After making well-informed program decisions, we need to support our teachers, administrators and students in making our programs work. No more "flavor of the year" decision-making and no more mistaking activity for progress.

What role do the members of the School Board play in ensuring transparency and accountability at the ACPS Central Office?

The school board is accountable to the citizens of the city of Alexandria. The superintendent is accountable to the board. This is the basic and simple relationship. Complexities come into play when the school board has to talk about confidential or sensitive information. However, I believe that the board should have a process for discussing and gaining consensus on how the community will be engaged either in fact finding, decision making, or implementation, as appropriate for each circumstance. With meaningful community engagement, transitions will be smoother and success rates for new programs will rise.

What is your opinion of the superintendent’s job performance?

The superintendent’s vision for the district has been ambitious, but has not seemed to gain the results intended. I agree with many of the superintendent’s goals. However, I feel that in many cases the achievement of those goals has been hindered by a lack of process and a disciplined approach to successful execution. Moreover, I feel that the strategy has shifted too much in response to whatever is the newest, highest profile or most pressing challenge. You can’t build if you are always fighting fires.

People want to rally behind a vision that will enable Alexandria schools to achieve their rich potential. Parents want to believe that they are enrolling their children in a school system—all 13 years of it—that will position them for success in whatever path they choose post-graduation. Teaching professionals want to believe that they are working in an environment that values their contributions and will invest in their development throughout their careers. The community wants to believe that there is a school system in place that will add value for their homes, businesses, and overall living experience.

There is a path forward; I know this to be true. But, it is one that will require a fundamental change in approach. We need to reassess, reestablish, and openly articulate our core vision. Then we must outline—with collaborative input from parents, teachers, administrators, and the community—a practical strategy for attaining this vision. Then we must execute this strategy through data-driven decision making, open collaboration with stakeholders, and a consistent focus on the expressed goal.

How can a School Board member improve communication between ACPS and parents/caregivers?

The board can set the tone for what is the expected level of transparency and communication between the schools, parents/caregivers. This can start with a clearly articulated, general philosophy and then advance to a specific charter for which school administrators are responsible.

I strongly support open communications with parents. I have been on the other side as a parent and know the frustration of being uninformed about staffing or program changes. This is one of the main reasons that I am running. If the district had taken the time to encourage true input and created communication channels for informing parents, ACPS would have better buy-in to the changes they are trying make. Additionally, those changes could be stronger solutions, benefitting from the contributions of the people who would be most affected. At this stage in ACPS history, we need the grassroots contribution. We need every parent, local business, nonprofit organization, teacher, principal and volunteer citizen to be fully aware of, and rallying behind, what we are trying to accomplish. We can’t risk dismissing that level of engagement. We need to work together to save our schools.

What are some of your ACPS budget priorities? For example, do you favor spending more money to keep class sizes low or a longer school year or day? Are there certain areas that should be trimmed financially?

Above all, I would like a chance to review the operational, Title I, grant, special project, carryover and capital improvement budgets against the needs of each school. It is not enough to look at the numbers in the budget; you have to know the programs and the unique needs and cultures of the schools. Then, I believe you have to question whether or not we are serving our students well with the programs or staff allocated. A needs assessment should be done, so we do not subtract programs that are working or keep those that are not working.

Many programs in the district are underfunded or not given the resources to succeed. My hope is that we can find ways to fund programs, both financially and with human resources, in order to ensure success. Without having each school’s individual needs assessment and budget requirements completed, I cannot say conclusively what I would keep or cut. My gut tells me that we should see through large projects we have funded, like the new curriculum and the original balanced reading guidelines that accompanied them. Additionally, I would also like to see a resource management function in order to stop spending money each year on learning products we already have in the district. In an effort to save, I would also like to look closely at the contracts we have with consulting companies and see which are actually contributing to the core vision and making a difference for the students at ACPS.

The next School Board likely will need to address the possibility of boundary adjustments and attendance zone changes. What are your guiding principles regarding economic or racial segregation, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, class and school sizes, busing policies and other considerations?

In my opinion, for elementary school specifically, community is one of the big factors to a school’s success. We need to make sure that schools are drawing on resources from the families and the businesses, and the volunteers in their neighborhoods. My preference would be to make sure that neighborhoods are designated to attend their local schools. Because of the current capacity constraints, this may not be possible in every scenario. But to having students walk to school, making it easy for parents to volunteer, and giving teachers more access to engage parents, can create a strong neighborhood school almost immediately. We have seen schools turn around in a rapid fashion because the neighborhood infused new life and commitment into a school. Maury is a great example of this in recent history.

What role does a School Board member play in helping raise academic achievement for all students and close the achievement gap?

In order to address achievement gaps, we need to understand the different reasons behind *why* this is the case. Once we do the analysis of why, we need to develop a consistent and transparent plan for each student at each school, each year. This plan should involve methods for parent and community involvement, teacher retention plans, professional training for teachers and administrators and appropriate, targeted interventions that can be measured. Additionally, we should work to develop good pre-K programs for early intervention, ELL programs and support for elementary years. For all levels of education, I would want to seek true engagement in academy models, like the International Academy at T.C. Williams. ACPS has done parts of these solutions here and there, but we really haven’t persisted to develop them in order to see results. I would push for good planning and then measured persistence. Persistence is the commitment the district makes to all the stakeholders: teachers, parents and community members.

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