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04/24 BSD School Board Meeting Transcript

Below is the transcript from the Public Comment part of last night’s agenda. Two students, Alphina Kamara and Alexis Cope, questioned board members about how they plan to increase African American/Latino enrollment in AP/IB courses.

Alphina and Alexis:

Hello my name is Alphina Kamara and this is Alexis Cope. We are juniors at Mt. Pleasant High School. I am currently enrolled in 2 AP classes and Alexis is on the IB track. We both are part of TeenSHARP, a selective college prep program that prepares us for access into the nation’s top colleges. As you can see, we are high achieving students, eager to accomplish great things after high school. But when we look around our AP/IB classrooms, there are only a handful of people who look like us. It’s a very isolating experience, and it is the reason we are coming to you today.

So what do we know? We know that, according to the Delaware Department of Education, 30.4% of students at Mt. Pleasant are African American and 45% are white. And yet, we see that over 85% of students taking advantage of STEM related AP/IB courses at Mt. Pleasant are white. We know that the racial achievement gap is a real national issue, to which Delaware is not immune. And we know that taking AP/IB courses directly affects one’s access to top colleges and subsequently economic prosperity.

Some might say that the reason for this disproportionate enrollment is because minority students are not obtaining the grades necessary to transition smoothly into more rigorous classes. But Mt. Pleasant offers open enrollment to APs, and still this demographic is not applying at equal rates. There is clearly a much deeper, more systemic issue at play.

Many of the 30% of black students at our school will be first generation college goers. Without the advantage of parental guidance, these students may not understand the importance of striving for AP courses. For example, we are both a part of TeenSHARP, and if we hadn’t benefited from their advising, we might have been too intimidated to take Mt. Pleasant’s toughest courses, even though we are certainly capable.

So you see we cannot blame students for this gap. Our schools have a responsibility to place special emphasis on those lacking any sort of guidance around college access.

Therefore, we want to know how this school board is increasing access to rigorous courses for all? But more specifically, given that certain demographics are more affected by lack of access, how does this board intend to substantially raise the amount of African American and Latino students participating in AP/IB courses?

John Skrobot (Board President): Well part of the issue is that, with kids in the city, it’s very important that we build a foundation for academic success at the elementary school level. And we have been implementing this and in these cases it’s been very successful. We have just been recognized by the state for uh…what was it for? (looks to superintendent)

Mark Holodick (Superintendent): For their math growth last year, in terms of DCAS scores in grades 3rd through 5th.

Skrobot: Right. So we’re trying to build from the foundations of the elementary schools to give these children a chance once they progress from middle school into high school. So that when they get to high school, they’re better prepared. I’m sure this board would be open to any suggestions that you might have to guide us on how to help children.

Alphina: As of now we believe we need to be putting in place more and better trained guidance counselors to adequately meet with additional students. I’ve noticed that our counselors are overburdened and they aren’t able to truly guide us in the right directions because they’re too busy.

Skrobot: Well, um, every year you have a student application week, where the students can come apply to colleges in the school. And then, not this year but the prior year, the Education Foundation helped with students that couldn’t afford the application fees. I think we’ll have to reach out to the schools again next year, so that students that may not consider applying due to their financial backgrounds can get the help they need.

Cheryl Siskin: I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. Not just the financial burden, but the emotional support, the mentoring, the guidance and the confidence and…

Alexis: We are advocating for students to have greater access to challenging coursework.

Siskin: Right. So I appreciate very much what you’re saying there. We do have the Achievers Academy which tries to bring kids up. The AVID program we have. The extent to which you guys can help spread the word that it’s better to take an AP class and get a B than an easy class and get an A. That’s a hard message for us to get across and we’ve got to get the word into your communities. So from my perspective I think some of this comes from internally, organically as you would present from inside your community. I love the idea of more guidance counselors and I hope that one day we are able to support this. But you guys can be role models in your community and help sread the word that people need to push themselves harder. And I think this needs to happen as early as Kindergarten, maybe even as early as pre-K. I mean, we’re advocates of education but we need the community to be advocates too. So if you can think of ways we can work together, I’d be amenable to hearing ways that we can share the importance of education from early on. Because it builds on itself.

(quick exchange with board member Kristin Pidgeon asking to know more about TeenSHARP)

Holodick: So Alphina and Alexis, first and foremost, thank you for being here tonight and speaking on this important issue. When Mr. Simmons (sp?) and I investigated TeenSHARP as a program, one of the things that we were interested in was this different approach to empowering students, in particular students of color, who have historically not achieved at the level they should and access college at a rate that’s acceptable. And the idea that you mentioned of adding counselors, is a good one but it’s a very costly one so I don’t think it’s a realistic idea right now…Going back to the conversation that he and I had with the founders of TeenSHARP was the concept of empowering students like yourselves, who would then work with other prospective students that have the potential to take high level academic courses and ultimately go on to college. Because we know, it’s a combination of both skill and will, and if you identify the students who have the skill (and we can do that and have done that), it’s you, the peers, who have the potential to help with the will side of it. To do some of the work that guidance counselors would do with your peers. So we’re relying on you within this program. That’s something we’re going to analyze very closely, is the impact of TeenSHARP. Because as Ms. Siskin and others mentioned, we have AVID, we have advancement in individual determination for years and we know it works for all students. We know the Achievers Academy works. This is a little more focused on a particular subset of students and the concept is more about empowering students to suport one another and push one another and changing the culture and climate within the school through the students than it does the adults. You’re aware of that right?

Alphina: I’m aware but the purpose is to be advocates, so we advocate in our schools just as we advocate here for them.

Holodick: I think that’s wonderful. Continue to advocate. Please note my message is in support of you advocating. But it’s also in support of you helping other students achieve the promise that they have as well.

Siskin: So be leaders in your own community,  your school community, your residential community, and other communities that you’re a part of. You have the courage to talk to us, you can talk to others too and be leaders and model the examples of success. I think that’s great. Is Brandywine High School on the list of schools that TeenSHARP accepts?

Alphina: Yes we have students from Brandywine.

Holodick: The people that run TeenSHARP, Atnre and his wife Tatiana, when we met with them there were specific walkaways and deliverables that we are relying on through this program. And it’s wonderful to see two of the “deliverables”, so to speak, tonight with the courage to come and speak. So I thank you.

Alphina: No, thank you.

Something to think about:

Students are encouraged to be a part of the solution, but cannot vote for the school board members that represent them. If we expect these students to solve the racial achievement gap on behalf of the district, why are they not given the same amount of influence over policy decisions?

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Attendance at School Board Meetings Could Increase Voter Turnout

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Only 42% of eligible voters in the US showed up to vote for the 2016 presidential election. While it may seem shockingly low, this year’s turnout was not an exception when you look at historical averages. In fact, a large population of disengaged citizens is actually pretty commonplace in the US, and can be traced directly to the lack of effective civics education within our school systems. Many schools offer government and civics courses, but rarely offer valuable lessons around how to run for office, testify, vote, or protest (e.g. how to utilize the democratic process as it was originally intended). So it makes sense that a student who has not been taught the value of civic participation will likely evolve into an apathetic voter as an adult.

“…a student who has not been taught the value of civic participation will likely evolve into an apathetic voter as an adult.”

To address this, I am in the process of building a Youth Advocacy Council in Delaware, which will equip students with the skills to advocate on their own behalf at school board meetings, and ideally down at legislative hall in Dover. The goal is not necessarily for the kids to secure any major policy wins (yet), but moreso to get them comfortable being involved in the democratic process at the local level. 

That said, I realize there are many adults who have never been exposed to this process, so I am sharing an easily digestible, step by step process for testiyfing at your school board meetings:

1. Explain the specific policy you would like to change 

For those of you that have never seen a school board’s policy manual, it is a behemoth. Thousands of policies are listed, and you can’t expect school board members to have them all memorized. Therefore, identify the specific policy you would like to repeal or amend. 

Ex: “I would like to amend Sec. 3 clause 2, which currently states that teachers need to submit all grades before the end of the marking period.”

By defining it for the board, they are reminded of the purpose for that policy. 

2. Explain the deficiencies of the current policy

Before explaining how you would like to change the policy, you need to let the school board members know why it is insufficient as it currently stands.

Ex: “This policy currently gives teachers too much time to submit grades. As a result, some students don’t have time to contest a grade or make an appeal until the marking period has already passed.”

3. Propose an amendment to the current policy

Make sure your suggestion matches the SMART goal format: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive. Then explain the benefits of changing it in this way.

Ex: “I propose amending the policy so that it reads “…teachers must submit all grades within 2 weeks after the assignment has been returned by the student.” This will hold teachers more accountable for submitting grades in a timely manner.

4. Address/ reject any counter claims

Before the school board has the opportunity to question you, make sure you address any possible arguments that could be made against your proposal.

Argument Example: Some people might think that teachers are inundated with assignments that need grading and that it’s unrealistic to expect them to produce grades in such a quick turnaround.

Counterargument: “But I have teachers who facilitate 5 separate classes and are able to submit grades within this timeframe.” (It’s always good to invite an expert, or in this case the teacher you are referring to, to testify with you).

5. Summarize your proposal but give them no way to opt out

Summary: Therefore, I request the school board amend Sec. 3 clause 2 so that it reads “…teachers must submit all grades within 2 weeks after the assignment has been returned by the student.”

No opt out: “Is it reasonable to expect this change to be made by the end of the month or at the very least before the beginning of the next school year?” (By making the assumption that the change will be enacted, it removes the possibility of the school board denying your proposal).

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You can use this method for virtually any policy. Some will require more in depth research than others. But it’s imperative that we cultivate a sense of responsibility within students and adults to participate in this process, especially if we want to see a reversal in the way our society views civic involvement.

We can’t complain about the inefficiencies of our democratic system if we aren’t simultaenously willing to get involved.