By Sally Absher
Last week the League of Women Voters hosted a forum for contested candidates seeking election to the Board of Education in the Knox County March 1 primary election. Early voting begins on February 10.
Jennifer Owen, a former English and music teacher in Knox County Schools, and Grant Standefer, executive director for the non-profit Compassion Coalition are running for the Second District seat currently held by Traci Sanger. In the Fifth District, Susan Horn, elementary education coordinator at Christ Covenant Church; Lori Ann Boudreaux, a former school counselor; and Buddy Pelot, attorney, are vying for the seat currently held by Karen Carson.
Each candidate responded to questions covering on a range of topics, including:
Disproportionate disciplinary actions for students of color and disabled. Nearly every candidate cited the need for cultural competency training. Boudreaux said she would “look at the numbers and do some research.” Standefer is aware of cultural differences through work with his non-profit. Owen said the board has looked at cultural competency since 2007, but so far, nothing has been done. Horn and Pelot also suggested looking at what has worked in communities with similar demographics.
Balance between teaching and standardized testing. Owen said, “When I think of ‘balance’ I think ‘equal’ and testing should only be a very small part of the year— test prep measures how well a student can take a test, not what they know.” Horn agreed, and said the long testing window for TNReady means students miss out on valuable classroom learning, and often take end of course tests well before the end of the course.
Priorities in working with the funding body. Building relationships and transparency was a common theme in working with the mayor and County Commission. Standefer pointed out that Knox County has just reached the Tennessee average for public school funding. (He may not know that Knox County contributes the 4th highest amount in local per pupil funding of the 95 counties).
Smaller class size or expanded technology, given limited funding. Horn would emphasize smaller class size: “The key to success for our students is having great teachers in the classroom. Smaller class size allows the teacher to focus on individual student needs, the different ways that students learn…technology is great for research, or teaching students how to use technology, not simply with an emphasis on testing.”
Pelot and Standefer both said technology is essential to student success and Standefer added, “We need additional funding.” Boudreaux said, “Of course I would like smaller class size, but my research has shown that is not cost effective.”
“We need to know what we have before we talk about getting more,” said Owen. “We have a great deal of technology that is not being utilized, because we don’t have enough support to keep that technology running. There are literally computers stacked in closets because they haven’t had time to assign them, figure out what to do with them, or repair them. Knox County doesn’t know what they have – there is no central inventory.”
Familiarity with Teacher Evaluation Rubric. Boudreaux and Owen have personal experience with the rubric, and Horn and Standefer have spoken with teachers extensively about the rubric and are aware of the concerns. Pelot seemed bewildered, saying “I’ve heard about it, I have not seen it or been subject to it, but I do know there are issues with it…as this race goes on I’m on the learning curve for a lot of things.”
Improving education for Special Education students. Owen said Community Schools improve opportunities for all students, including special needs students, and stressed the importance of following the IEP and ensuring the student is in the best possible environment. Horn said it is important for all students to be with special need kids whenever possible in the regular classroom. She added, “Make sure the IEP is followed, that all accommodations are being set up and followed so that students can experience that success.” Pelot suggested his background in law would help the BOE understand the legal requirements of special education. Standefer spoke of his experience working with disability ministries.
Ensuring students have equitable share of the resources. Candidates in both the 2nd and 5th district agreed that resources are not being equally shared among all schools, but said it’s not always the schools in more affluent areas that have more resources. Owen said some inner city schools have projectors, computers, and Smart boards in every classroom, and Horn and Boudreaux said schools in Farragut are behind many other schools, and what technology they have is often purchased with PTA/PTSO funds. Horn said, “As a Board we need to encourage our General Assembly and governor… to fully fund the BEP.”
One thing KCS can do in next two years to improve college/career readiness. Horn focused on improving ACT scores, which are the benchmark of “college and career readiness.” She said one problem is the amount of instructional time lost due to the greatly expanded TNReady testing window, adding, “Teachers need autonomy to teach the curriculum and organically review in a spiraling method throughout the semester so that students get to the end of the term, have a couple days of review, and take the end of the course test.”
Pelot agreed with improving testing situations to avoid disruptions in the classroom, but also reiterated that we need increased funding and technology. Boudreaux said, “The whole testing thing is not a good predictor of a whole lot of anything.” She said kids need everyday life skills, like how to set up a bank account. But she agrees with Pelot about the need for more technology.
Standefer cited the statistic that five states determine the number of prison beds they will need based on third grade reading scores. He supports expanding the number of Community Schools, getting the community involved in the earlier years.
Owen agreed that students need more instructional time in the classroom. “But,” she said, “for students to be college and career ready, we need to stop trying to make our students college and career ready. We don’t know what careers are going to be available 5 years from now—In our continual focus on making students college and career ready, we are forgetting to make students society ready. We need to focus on the whole child… the learning, and being able to function with other people… It doesn’t matter what they score on a test, if they go to the work place and can’t get along with other people… they’re not going to keep that job.”