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School Board Candidate Responses to CCPTA Questions

In order to provide a balanced view of the candidates for the Arlington School Board (Sally Baird, Cecelia Espenoza), the Arlington County Council of PTAs asked candidates to answer eight questions. Below, we’ve reprinted their answers verbatim.

<cl>In what ways have you been involved with Arlington's schools?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: My family moved to Arlington in 2000 and our son entered Kindergarten in the immersion program at Abingdon elementary, which was our neighborhood school. As an interested parent, I became involved by joining the PTA. Through that organization I became involved in the County Council of PTA’s (CCPTA), as a delegate from our school. I joined the Wakefield PTA when we hosted an exchange student from Mexico. My son is now in middle school and I serve as the Gunston representative to the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI), which receives reports from ACI committees.

I first became involved in county policy issues during the deliberations to consolidate the Abingdon and Oakridge immersion programs into a second full immersion school. I joined the task force evaluating the issue, which led to my appointment to the South Arlington Planning and Boundary Committee and the Immersion boundary subcommittee (2002-2003).

Additionally, I have held many positions in Arlington Public Schools (APS) including: ACI Representative for Claremont Immersion Elementary (2005-2006); Claremont School Management Team (2003-2006); Arlington Public Schools Strategic Plan Committee as a Member of Steering Committee (Feb-April 2005) and the Cultural Competency Task Force (2004-2005); Founder and President of the Claremont Immersion Elementary PTA (2003-2005); Chair of Claremont International Dinner (2005 and 2006); Member of the Silent Auction Team at Claremont (2003-2005); Member of the Claremont Scholastic Bookfair Team (2003 -2005); Member of Wakefield PTA (2003-2004); Member, County Council of PTA’s (2002-2005) and Coordinator of Spring Scholarship Reception (2005); Vice President, Abingdon Elementary PTA (2002-2003); Coordinator, Spanish Parent Immersion Network (2002-2003); Delegate, County Council of PTA‘s (2001-2005).

Through these positions and my membership in the Leadership Arlington class of 2006 and my appointment to the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, where I chair the education committee, I have obtained a broad perspective about the APS school system and its flagship status in the commonwealth.

Sally Baird: As a parent who will have children in APS through 2021, I am proud to have served on the APS Early Childhood Advisory Committee for the last five years, serving as co-chair this past year. I also currently serve as External Vice President of the Drew Model School Association. As a Nauck resident, this role has afforded me the opportunity to build bridges between and within the Drew school community and the Nauck community. As a Board member of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, I am also proud to have helped create the AGLA Scholarship Fund and the AGLA Safe Schools Committee. The scholarships are administered by the Arlington Community Foundation and are awarded annually to two students who have made an exceptional contribution to the APS policies of openness, diversity, and safety. The Safe Schools Committee works with APS and other community organizations to further Arlington's diversity goals and achievements.

<cl>What are the three most important things APS should do to achieve the strategic goals of raising achievement and closing achievement gaps?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: 1) Raise the bar for all students. Tests are, and should be, indicators of the standards desired by the community, but they cannot be the limit of our expectations. Through my experience as a law professor, I understand that there are unintended consequences to high stakes tests that presume to measure all qualifications. Due to the limitations of tests, necessary skills may be completely overlooked. We should help each student to maximize their strengths and recognize that tests are benchmarks, which set forth minimum standards, but they do not define the entire individual. Students come into the classroom with different knowledge and strengths. To raise the achievement of all students, we must evaluate the starting point for each student and monitor progress along the way not just at the end. For example, if a student enters the class with the year-end knowledge and learns nothing new, we have not challenged that child and have failed to educate them. Similarly, when a child enters the grade below grade level and ends the year at grade level, the success is greater than that which will be reflected in the tests. Finally, when teaching students we must assure them that they can meet the minimum and strive to challenge additional “non-tested” learning. Education is successful when our students have developed a love of learning and not an ability to memorize and recite information. In short, the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests should be treated as the floor in the educational mission for APS, which can and must be achieved by every student. Once students reach this floor we can target resources to the learning environment that challenges every student to thrive and achieve their full potential.

2) Re-designate low performing schools as high priority schools. Rather than stigmatize schools with a “failing” designation, APS must re-designate low performing schools as high priority schools. In conjunction, we must monitor and eliminate expectation gaps. Students will rise to the challenge of high standards if they are given the support they need by teachers who have the resources and training needed to get the job done. To assure that the right teachers are in the schools which need their help, APS must allocate and entice high-quality teachers to teach in low performing schools.

Studies that look at the impact of teachers on student learning have found that measures of teacher expertise accounted for more variation in student reading and mathematics achievement in kindergarten through grade 12 than students’ socioeconomic status. Other studies have found that students who are assigned to ineffective teachers for several years in a row have significantly lower achievement and lower gains than students assigned to highly effective teachers. Therefore, we must monitor teaching assignments and transfers and provide targeted expenditures for more staff to reduce class size in schools with greatest needs. In addition, APS should provide incentives for our best teachers to move to the schools that need the most help.

3) Evaluate programs and leadership to ensure a culture of success grounded in mutual respect. Numerous studies conclude that effective school leadership fosters a school culture which supports and implements school programs geared toward high student achievement. The school board must work closely with school communities to ensure that parents and the community have confidence in our school leadership. In speaking with parents, teachers, and students at HB Woodlawn, I have been told over and over again that the key factor to success is that there is a belief in the students’ ability and a culture of respect. H-B Woodlawn used to be referred to as a “model school.” We can learn from this model and replicate this culture of respect and belief in student ability throughout all APS schools.

Sally Baird: First, let me say I believe Arlington has terrific schools; having identified the issues of raising achievement and closing achievement gaps as APS priorities, we have made demonstrable progress in these areas. However, we can, and should, always aim to do more to help all our students succeed.

The keys to raising achievement and closing the gap are targeting our at-risk learners through: 1) high-quality early childhood education, 2) greater community engagement; and 3) consistent identification and intervention throughout their educational careers.

The evidence is so clear -- and Arlington's statistics prove it – that high-quality early childhood education is the best indicator of later academic achievement. And, importantly, parental engagement secured during the preschool years is vital to later academic success.

APS elementary, middle, and high school programs must continue, maintain, and increase those gains first made in preschool. Research shows early education gains can be lost if children aren't enrolled in high-quality follow-on programs. We must apply consistent tools of both identification and intervention for our at-risk students throughout their educational careers. We also must be willing to abandon those programs which do not produce results.

Raising achievement is an issue for our entire community, not simply for those schools with high at-risk populations. Successful students are well-positioned to move into roles as contributing community members. We have successful community programs in place now, but we must further increase public awareness of how achievement gap issues impact the entire community. Then we must expand current community mentoring and tutoring programs, community-initiated enrichment opportunities, and other programs targeted to increasing achievement for our at-risk youth.

<cl>What are the three most important things APS should do to ensure the highest quality classroom instruction?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: We must attract and retain high quality teachers and administrators though a competitive compensation plan that contains a great retirement plan and a model of instruction that uses low class sizes.

We must create a supportive working environment which brings out the best in all staff and minimizes teacher’s stress. One way of accomplishing this is by adopting a policy that allows teachers who live outside Arlington to bring their children to APS schools. This will allow the teachers to integrate into the APS system as both teachers and parents.

We must create professional expectations which promote high expectations of teachers, administrators and staff. Our processes should include collaborative teaching and peer assessments which support and evaluate whether the goals of creating good citizens, critical thinkers, and life-long learners are met.

Sally Baird: The highest quality classroom instruction is dependent upon 1) attracting and retaining the best teachers, and 2) focusing on delivering an educational program that meets the needs of individual students. And finally, we must ensure that our financial commitments do not impinge upon our ability to deliver these things.

With nearly twenty years of experience managing budgets and staff, I understand the critical connection between retaining the best staff and achieving the best results. As a school system, we must remain committed to attracting and retaining the best teachers -- through competitive compensation, professional development opportunities, retirement and other benefits, and by ensuring a supportive teaching environment. We also must recognize how issues such as the cost of housing also negatively affect retention. In addition, we should not focus solely on teacher quality, but also on teaching quality. For example, addressing core infrastructure issues such as failing heating and air conditioning systems will positively affect the ability of our teachers to deliver effective instruction in their classrooms.

In facing the imminent decisions related to new school buildings and HVAC overhauls, we must make choices that reflect education as being our first priority. We must never find ourselves in a position where we are forced to cut back on delivering academic services in order to service debt. As a school board member, I would view the balancing of priorities here as a solemn responsibility to the students and taxpayers of Arlington.

<cl>What are the three most important things APS should do to engage the parents of our students?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: We must treat each person coming to the schools with respect. We must invite parents, students, and the community to be partners in the educational mission. Every student has unique needs and the APS system must train and support staff, teachers and administrators in skills necessary to listen and recognize the needs of the students. Whether the needs are for an advanced curriculum, a career path, English acquisition assistance, or special services for a physical or mental disability, the goal should be to help students become good citizens, critical thinkers, and life-long learners

Consultation should precede decisions. We must solicit input from parents and the community before making policy decisions. The system must be transparent and open to the great resources we have in the schools and greater community. Listening should precede action.

We must provide training to principals and administrators about relationship building as distinguished from the provision of “events” which speak to the parents and community but do not act with them as partners in the educational mission. Our strategic goal of effective relationship challenges APS to move from a position of “teaching to” toward a position of “acting with” parents and the community. Community and parental involvement is an ongoing dialogue.

Sally Baird: As a parent, I believe that 1) early childhood education, 2) home-school communication and outreach, and 3) supporting parent leadership programs are each critical to meeting our parent engagement goals.

Parents whose children attend preschool have better attitudes toward their child's learning; higher expectations for their child's achievement; and, more regular and positive contact with their children’s teachers. APS early education programs must make parental engagement a highest priority. This is currently not the case in all APS preschool classrooms. We must commit to do better.

Every member of each school community — from principal to parents to front office staff -- plays a role in creating a welcoming environment for parents. All parents, and especially those for whom English is not a first language, must feel welcome in our school community every day. Every interaction a parent has with their child's school community shapes their experience as a welcome participant in their child's education in the Arlington education system. This expectation must be communicated “from the top,” and from every level, such as school administration and PTAs. Significant room for improvement in this area still exists; it must be a top priority for APS.

Similarly, I hear frustration from parents regarding the limited opportunities they feel they have to stay connected with their child's education in middle and high school. The Assets model vividly demonstrates the correlation between the number of adults engaged in a teen's life and that teen's overall success. We must ensure our middle and high schools present a range of opportunities to invite parent’s involvement and to keep them engaged.

We must also must nurture and expand existing parent leadership programs, such as Parent Expectations Support Achievement Program (PESA), Escuela Bolivia, and school-based programs like the Family Involvement program at Barrett. Educating and supporting parents who are already engaged helps them build better bridges as they to reach out to bring other parents into their school community.

<cl>What do you believe is the role of a School Board member in APS? What experiences have influenced your opinion?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: School Board members are responsible for setting the educational goals of Arlington Public School and allocating resources in the budget consistent with the goals. When they accept this responsibility, they give direction to committees working on school issues. I believe the school board should provide direction and seek input in transparent ways. A good school board member is also responsive to the community. The liaison program with schools is one method of allowing school board members to understand what is happening in the schools. In my experience, a good school board member is available to the schools, attends school functions, and uses his or her knowledge of the schools to facilitate an understanding of issues with other members of the board and in turn, the board works with the superintendent to assure that the needs of each school are being met.

Sally Baird: I believe that the members of the School Board set the tone for the school system. They have a dual role to be 1) knowledgeable, informed, and articulate about macro-level school board issues, and 2) accessible and responsive to the concerns of the community as well as personally attuned to our schools' day-to-day realities. Both my personal experience and my conversations with hundreds of Arlington parents and community members indicate that often accessibility and responsiveness are lacking.

As a professional manager and community leader, it has always been my experience that positive change is most likely to happen when one first convinces the stakeholders that a given change is the right one. From this vantage point, I believe that the most successful school board members must be both visionary and in touch with the perspectives of parents and the community, and must bring a collaborative and engaging personal style to the job so as to bring others along in pursuit of a common vision. Each school board member is in a unique position to reach out to many different communities and connect those communities together through a common, resonant vision. As a school board member, I would see it as my responsibility to do so.

<cl>What are the three most important things APS should do to ensure our schools provide high quality education in the most effective and efficient manner?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: Use data to understand the specific needs our students. We must clearly articulate the goals that we want to accomplish for each student and not just to reach some aggregated data goal. We must be able to assess whether the programs used are effective. We should internally monitor students to determine if intervention strategies are working. A limitation of NCLB is that it does not hold a system accountable for longitudinal advancement of students. By only measuring annual progress, we do not know whether students with difficulties in one year and received assistance continue to fail in subsequent years. If the remedy is working, we should be able to measure progress. In fact it is imperative to do so in order to hold APS accountable.

Review practices and programs and replicate those that work. Schools should not be isolated entities. With limited dollars we should build on the success in one school by sharing the model with other schools. Teachers should be encouraged to work together in groups. A collaborative teacher committee that identifies the real problems faced in the classrooms could identify methods that work and create solutions.

Eliminate programs that impede student achievement. We must target expenditures towards our strategic goals and we must be willing to re-evaluate and eliminate projects, which are not cost effective or successful.

Sally Baird: Sound fiscal management at all levels is the key to delivering effective and efficient high-quality education — including examining current system expenditures and pursuing creative community partnerships. We must put our money first and foremost into ensuring quality teaching in each classroom.

At this time of increasing fiscal constraint, budget costs related to planning factors or resource/specialist staffing allocations must be examined in the context of the tangible benefits attained from those investments. Similarly, ancillary costs — e.g., paper, janitorial, or cafeteria supplies, and outside service contracts — must be examined to ensure that our resources are always being wisely spent.

There are also exciting opportunities to engage our local business community in schools partnerships. The business community is motivated to help. The connection between strong schools and a strong workforce is undeniable. Whether funding grants for preschool programs, creating internships for our high school students, forming public-private partnerships on affordable housing issues, or providing volunteers for mentoring or enrichment programs, we must pursue greater involvement with Arlington's business community.

<cl>What is your position regarding the opportunity for parents to move their children to different schools under the No Child Left Behind Act?

<bt>Cecelia Espenoza: I question whether the policy is effective in raising academic achievement. Reasons for this include the fact that so few of the underachieving students from the failing actually transfer and most often it is the students with higher scores that tend to leave. The departure of those students places the sending school at an even greater disadvantage the next year because we aggregate scores and not individual student progress.

Further, the mere fact that a school met AYP and is not overcrowded, (which is the criteria to be a receiving school) does not demonstrate that the receiving school is capable of addressing the needs of students who did not make sufficient progress. In fact, the sending school may already have better strategies for success in place.

Finally, the transfer requirement imposes greater stress on an already burdened transportation system and the cost of transportation may be more useful if the money were to remain in the sending school to provide additional support. In light of these factors, it seems preferable to understand why the students are not making sufficient progress and promote solutions in the home school. Regardless, the student’s success must be the goal whether the student stays in the home school or leaves and the central administration should be held accountable for measurable progress.

Sally Baird: I believe that AYP is a poor measure of whether a school is actually making progress in educating children. The Bush Administration’s method for implementing AYP results in undue administrative burdens and financial penalties on schools with diverse student bodies. One such burden is requiring that parents be offered the opportunity to transfer their children to different schools. In fact, some of Arlington's strongest academic programs and most committed teachers, staff, and parents are in schools that struggle with AYP issues. Unfortunately, it is difficult for those schools to overcome the perception issue created by the "failing AYP" label. As a school board member, I will work to take advantage of the positive elements of the No Child Left Behind Act and ensure high performance from all groups of students, but de-emphasize misguided measures and penalties prescribed by AYP.

<cl>What is your opinion regarding student transfers within APS?

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bt>Cecelia Espenoza: The policy (which can be found at: http://www.arlington.k12.va.us/schoolboard/sbp/

Student%20Services/25-2.2-enroll-trans.pdf), is comprehensive and generally balanced. It encompasses, admission processes for program schools and places a limit on transfers to minimize overcrowding. However, notwithstanding the fact that the policy is neutral on its face, it is the role of the school board to monitor the reports provided by the superintendent to determine if there are trends necessitating shifts in curriculum and delivery models such as the creation of additional program schools.

Sally Baird: APS student transfers trends are very disturbing. Certain groups of students transfer more often and to certain schools; other students transfer less often and only within a more limited range of schools. The cold reality is that these numbers largely break down into clear demographic categories.

When one attends a very well publicized Kindergarten Information Night and observes the dramatic under-representation of minority and second-language parents among the hundreds of parents present, the palpability of the problem becomes dramatic. As a schools community, we must confront the underlying reasons for this reality in an honest and forthright manner. There is no doubt that many of these transfers are the result of the perception problem created by AYP/NCLB statistics. But there are other factors at work, too - and the transfers themselves then fuel further negative perceptions.

Of course, not every school environment may be the right one for any one child, and student transfers will always be an option that some parents exercise. Nevertheless, our school board should always work to ensure that each and every school offers a positive, successful learning environment for our children.

As a long-time active resident of one of South Arlington's most diverse neighborhoods, and as parent with children in one of Arlington's most diverse schools, I well understand the impact of these issues. As a candidate, I have knocked on thousands of doors and have heard community members share their perceptions. We have a problem, but we also have a community committed to addressing this problem together. As a school board member, I will work to make this a community issue that resonates with all Arlington voters, not simply with those in the affected schools and neighborhood communities.