Rochester school board candidates share views, priorities

Three candidates are running for two seats in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 for the Rochester City School District Board of Education. Beatriz LeBron and Melanie Funchess were appointed earlier this year and are running to retain their seats. Judith Davis, who is an ordained minister, is the third challenger.

Below is a sampling of questions that El Mensajero Católico asked the candidates as well as their responses. For additional questions and answers, visit elmensajero.com.

Why are you running?

Davis: The main reason why I decided to run for office is because I have learned that good intentions simply are not enough. The ability to organize and apply pressure from the outside to generate political will to implement needed improvements and reform is key to improving not only educational outcomes but the quality of everyday life in general. This is why my platform is Community Organizing for Public School Reform.

Funchess: There are some simple, from my perspective, modifications that could be made to help our processes and system begin to be more transparent and work better for our students, families and community. I am running to retain this seat to work toward making these things happen.

LeBron: I am still a new and extremely energized advocate for families and our children. … I will always speak up, and speak out. In addition, I represent one Latina on a school board of seven. Latino students in district make up 36 percent of the student body, with that number expected to grow with the resettlement of hurricane impacted students from Puerto Rico. … We have the lowest graduation rates of all students in the district, we have the highest dropout rates as well. We don’t even have a translation services process that is universal throughout the district, and these are areas I will be focusing on.

What do you see as the priorities for the board to improve academic achievement in the RCSD?

Davis: RESPECT … (stands) for a list of actions in which the district could engage now to show it highly values its students and their families: Racial Equity Action Plan implementation, equity in funding and staffing, special education in compliance with New York state law, program funding for outside of school time increased, equity in curriculum, common courtesy towards parents and timely completion of IEPs (Individual Education Plans). RESPECT means … honestly answering the question, “When I see a face of color, do I provide that child the same access and opportunities, the same nurture and care as his or her white counterpart?”

Funchess: I see us, as a board, having three priorities: special education, school climate, and culturally responsive education. … We as a system, and as a community, must change our perspective. Special education is not a place. It is a continuum of holistic services and supports to provide students with the necessary tools for them to excel and achieve success. Until we collectively have this basic understanding and our actions are aligned with this understanding, we will struggle. This is why I have made special education my first priority in my work on the board.

LeBron: The board needs to ensure all students have the tools necessary to learn, but we clearly have two areas that are broken and impact the district overall — this is special education and multiple-language students. If we can address these two areas, overall the districts outcomes … would improve. But this should not mean we ignore the rest of our students.

Do you think Superintendent Barbara Deane-William’s Path Forward has been a valuable use of district resources and will have an impact on improving achievement/community engagement?

Davis: No master plan will have an impact unless the district and the community do what each has never done before. You could replace “Path Forward” with the names of the plans brought by superintendents in previous administrations. The district continues to be the worst performing district for a city this size. The one thing we have never done before is acknowledge and seek to thoroughly understand the impact of individual, institutional and structural racism on education across this nation.

Funchess: With regard to school climate, students cannot learn if they are not in school. We must look at all of the reasons our children are not in class every day. We must have a school climate that is affirming and restorative for our students. This means continuing to look at our suspension data and work intently to reduce both in and out of school suspension. This means creating school buildings that our parents want to send their children to and that our students want to come to. This ties into culturally responsive education. Our students need to see themselves in their learning. They need to know the contributions of people who look like them and share a culture with them. They also need people teaching them who not only look like them but share a culture with them and can speak to them in their native language. Part of culturally responsive education is working in a relational way that home, school and community are connected — creating a village for our children that loves, affirms, models and teaches them, preparing them for success both in school and in life.

LeBron: The Path Forward is not a valuable use of the district’s time, resources or money. Community engagement can really happen with simple engagement of the community, in the schools, in neighborhood events, round tables and welcoming all parents — not just the few who are more vocal. We need to engage the parents who also by nature are not vocal but still have concerns and ideas and bring something to the table too.

Do you feel the district needs to do more in terms of hiring teachers of color, providing appropriate professional development in terms of cultural competency? Do you have a stance/response to the Movement for Anti-racist Ministry and Action (MAMA) Coalition’s claims that the district has work to do to overcome individual and institutional racism?

Davis: This is not only the stance of the coalition but it is the stance of the district itself. The RCSD admits that racism plays a major role in the poor performance of its schools but the curriculum utilized by the district continues to not equitably reflect the contributions of all ethnicities, the teaching staff remains predominantly white, students of color continue to be over-suspended for subjective offenses and students of color continue to be over-referred to special education. This phenomenon is not unique. … I am one of the founders of MAMA coalition (that) presented to the superintendent a nine-point agenda for addressing individual, institutional and structural racism. Staff turnover has not been the only problem with maintaining stability. The Racial Equity Action Plan was to be ready by the end of the school year, but the district … scheduled meetings only once a month and declined requests from the community to meet more often. The community must be an equitable partner that holds the district accountable to any Racial Equity Action Plan developed and implemented. Equity in curriculum is certainly one of the coalition’s points, and we invite others working on the same issue to join the REAL meetings.

Funchess: I do believe that the district needs to do more with regard to the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. I believe that we need to expand the strategies that we are using and to take a more long-term view. Everything from partnering with the other upstate Big Five Districts (Buffalo and Syracuse) to work with the state Regents around certification reciprocity to make it easier to get teachers of color from other states to intentionally and deliberately making a sincere effort to grow our own. In terms of professional development for teachers and school staff in culturally responsive practice (both curriculum and instruction), there is much work to be done. … While we need to continue to expand our offerings, we also need for our teachers to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered to them. This work needs all of us to do all that we can to move toward the goal of a culturally responsive system. … We have our values structure known as E.R.I.C.A. — Equity, Relational capacity, Innovation, Coherence and Accountability — which provides the foundation for our work. We also have a constellation of efforts (board committee on school climate, REAL Team, Victorious Minds Academy, Restorative Practices) and dedicated staff at the executive level to collective work to dismantle oppressive systems within our district.

LeBron: The district absolutely has to continue to do more to bring and attract teachers of color and support teacher’s assistants to the teaching path as well. In regards to the (coalition), there are many individuals and groups who have called out the district over the years for their lack of diversity in the teaching profession and that work has not been completed and won’t be until we have a real reflection of diversity in the district. There has to be a real plan of action with accountability back to the plan when goals are not met. But we should never stop fighting for and supporting diversity in the district.

Regarding the many changes in district leadership this school year, is this apparent lack of stability a cause for concern? An African-American studies director has been hired after a two-year vacancy – any progress on Latino studies curriculum as requested by a community task force?

Davis: Not only do I, but the coalition, the district and scholars across this nation have told us more needs to be done in these areas. The District’s Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership Committee was established for the very purpose of addressing well-known facts such as these. The question is, “Can the district be left to itself to implement a Racial Equity Action Plan?” I say, it can’t. If it could, we wouldn’t be the worst performing district for a city our size.

Funchess: There have been some changes in district staff, however, I feel that we are moving towards a stable team. Having seasoned leadership with deep community ties helps to ensure stability. In hiring a director of African-American studies, part of the challenge was finding a high-quality candidate that I am unsure about the current (choice) would be a good long-term fit. I am unsure of the current progress on the Latino studies curriculum.

LeBron: The instability of leadership is an old pattern of the district but it is clearly more evident that we have had more deputies and chief overturns in the last 2-3 years than previous years. This instability absolutely has a negative impact on the district and where it is going. If you constantly have to stop and restart a direction in a different path you will realize that you are going really fast nowhere. We must face this honestly and figure out a true direction for this district. Currently there is no real buy-in progress for Latino studies in the district but I have asked to create a board- sanctioned task force to address the issue around our bilingual and multiple-language students as they no longer can be given the bare minimum of support and expected to have better outcomes. That time must end now and we must have a solid plan of action and clearly identified issues to solve.

Regarding the influx of students from Puerto Rico, are you satisfied with the Newcomer Academy program to serve them?

Davis: As for the … Bilingual Language and Literacy Academy established this past spring, I fully support the needs of the community. The academy provides needed wraparound services for students and their families for which the Bilingual Council and Ibero have been advocating for years.

Funchess: With regard to the overall response, I know that we can do more and do better. I also understand that due to the nature of the sudden influx of families we, as a district and as a community, were in reaction mode. This summer gives us time to look back and assess what went well and what needs improvement and to be more proactive as we move forward in serving our families.

LeBron: I am satisfied that we built the Bilingual Academy for these students; I am not satisfied yet with the structure, leadership (lack thereof) and the space. But I can honestly say I am grateful we have a starting place. Now it is up to all of us — commissioners, superintendent, district staff and community — to ensure this is a solid program for the students and properly supported.

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