On Money and Students in Alexandria

On Money and Students in Alexandria

School Board candidates discuss spending, student disparities.

School Board candidates addressed the concerns of Alexandria’s parent-teacher associations and public housing tenants at two forums in the last weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 elections.

The PTA Council hosted its forum on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus.

Asked what they’d fund first on the school system’s “wish list” if they won the $1.6 billion lottery, most said something about facility maintenance or capacity. Several said they’d boost teacher pay or supports.

Marc Solomon (District A) said: “$1.6 billion might sound like a lot of money, but our current 10-year [Capital Improvement Program] is about $500 million, and that only gets us to 2,000 seats short in 10 years.” He’d fund capacity needs beyond the 10-year horizon so that “we finally have zero [student seat deficit].”

Heather Thornton (District C) said: “After we fix our buildings and after we pay our teachers what they should be getting paid, I’d like to get all of our kids some unique opportunities to study abroad.”

Incumbent Bill Campbell (District A) said: “I’d find out what’s the maximum amount I could give to the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria. … I’d try to set up something for everyone that comes out of T.C. Williams.”

Incumbent Margaret Lorber (District B) said: “Since my colleagues have taken care of construction and facilities, I want to have a massive training … [for] everyone in the school system to understand the impact they have on others.”

The public housing resident association hosted its forum on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Asked if they’d make “any changes to [the elementary grading system] that would reduce how subjective it is and make it easier for parents to know their child’s progress,” all candidates said yes.

Asked if they’re “in favor of the use of ‘restorative practices’ in our schools’ disciplinary system,” only Abigail Wacek (District B) said no. She thinks restorative practices “sound quite interesting” wants to see more evidence of their efficacy before committing greater resources to expand the program.

Asked if they support the provision in public schools of trade certification programs, all said yes. Several said they want to return certifications that have been cut, or otherwise expand the program.

Michelle Rief (District A) said she wants to include “the building trades, like plumbers, construction workers, sheet metal workers, … electricians — those are great paying jobs.”

Incumbent Cindy Anderson (District B) agreed, saying: “The building trades is one [program] I didn’t like seeing go away.”

Thornton said: “I want us to be creative and think about jobs that don’t even exist yet.”

Asked if they see it as an issue that “it seems that [public housing] children get [districted] to certain schools, regardless of how close they might live to another school,” most said yes, although several incumbents equivocated, suggesting the issue might be more nuanced.

For example, supporting the current districting, incumbent Veronica Nolan (District B) said: “If one school is in a higher concentration of poverty and another school is [in] a high-resourced area, you have a complete imbalance. I actually think the purpose is for balance.”

Answering a question from the audience about why the candidates think black and Hispanic students are suspended at higher rates than white students, Campbell said: “Disproportionality is a function of not having the same expectations for all children. That ends up being the bottom line.”

Solomon said: “I think it’s bias, both conscious and unconscious.”

Meagan Alderton (District C) said: “Our best tool for managing student behavior is high-quality instruction. … [Most] of our kids are misbehaving because they’re not engaged. … Most kids want to learn.”

Another audience member asked why the candidates think minority and low-income children aren’t placed more frequently in talented and gifted (TAG), honors, and advanced placement (AP) courses.

Several candidates suggested that parents may not know about these opportunities, or are otherwise unable equitably to advocate for their children.

Alderton said: “The reason isn’t very pretty. … The loudest voices get what they want, period. And those are usually … white, affluent families. … There are a ton of white kids in TAG and honors who don’t belong, because they’re not really TAG and honors quality students. Their parents have asked for something and they’ve gotten it.”

W. Christopher Harris (District A) said that having to work multiple jobs prevents some parents from being able to engage more on their children’s behalf through PTAs and parent-teachers conferences.

Jacinta Greene (District A) said: “We have parents out here that don’t feel comfortable coming into our schools” — for example because “they don’t speak the language.”

Jewelyn Cosgrove (District B) and Christopher Suarez (District A) both suggested a need to help teachers better identify exceptional students. Likewise, incumbent Ramee Gentry wants to develop teachers to be better “talent scouts.”

Dianara Saget (District C) said: “Some children are not really good at testing. … Who’s recommending our children to these talented and gifted programs? We have to also look at that.”

John Lennon (District C) indicated that the disparity starts early. He wants to beef up counseling, especially between pre-k and third grade, in order to ensure student “literacy and numeracy at grade level all along the way.”

Echoing this, Wacek said: “Maybe [students in advanced courses are] just had a leg up from the get-go. So I think we need to level that playing field … through pre-k programs that are accessible to all.”