School Board Candidates Lay Out Positions on Disenfranchised Students
By Susan Reines
October 5 -- Fixing the district's special education program
and closing the "achievement gap" were the top priorities spelled
out by the four School Board candidates during the race's first public
forum last week.
The two incumbents running for re-election -- Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez -- emphasized that the district has made strides in supporting struggling students, but they agreed with their challengers that special education students, students of color and students from poorer families still need more support.
"Our schools have made tremendous progress," Escarce said in his opening statement. But theschool board president was quick to point out that the "achievement gap" that typically separates the performances of students from more and less nurturing environments, and white from minority students, has not been completely eliminated.
Asked to name the biggest challenge facing the district, other than its tight budget, Escarce answered, "Engaging and fostering achievement and intellect of disengaged students."
The board, Escarce said, should make a greater effort to encourage families to become involved in students' education. "I don't think we've done as well as we could have," he said.
Fellow incumbent Leon-Vazquez suggested that teachers could be better trained to ensure that they all understand how to deal with students from different backgrounds.
"We need to assure that we hire the best teachers that we can, that they are well trained and that they understand the needs of students," she said, adding that the district has lost numerous teachers of color over the past few years and should make an effort to recruit more.
Leon-Vazquez did emphasize that students participating in the free/reduced lunch program scored better on standardized tests given last year than they had in past years.
Challenger Kathy Wisnicki said communicating with parents, teachers and students at every school was key to improving education for all students.
"One of the problems I've heard over and over again is that the board needs to communicate more and better with the community it serves," said Wisnicki, the only candidate from Malibu. Wisnicki pledged to visit school sites and stay involved in the affairs of the district's 16 schools.
Challenger Ana Maria Jara focused on the need to figure out why students of color were over-represented in special education. She said identifying special education students early -- and ensuring that students of color were not referred simply because of language barriers or other issues -- was "probably the most important thing we need to do right now."
Jara also emphasized communicating with parents of disenfranchised students.
"I understand what it feels like to be disconnected from the process," said Jara, a single parent of four who resides in the Pico Neighborhood, Santa Monica's poorest and most diverse area.
Jara said she would reach out to parents and students who were not succeeding in or enjoying the public education system and bring their concerns back to the board.
While Escarce and Leon-Vazquez agreed that the board could do more to support poorer students and students of color, they did not concede to allegations of disenfranchisement that have come from another minority group in the district -- Malibu parents.
Malibu students make up less than 20 percent of the district, and parents have recently begun an initiative to form their own district because, they say, they have little control over affairs in the joint district.
"I realize that Malibu is far away; Malibu is smaller," Escarce
said. "And as a result I think it is inevitable that Malibu parents
believe they are not being heard. However, I do not believe that is the
case. I hope the parents realize that we do, in fact, go out of our way
to listen to and
Leon-Vazquez, too, said she rejected the notion that Malibu parents' voices are discounted. She said the board has tried to hold meetings in Malibu whenever possible, though she suggested more meetings could be held there and board members could visit Malibu's four schools more often.
Wisnicki and Jara seemed to accept that Malibu parents might lack power. Both answered a question about Malibu parents' complaints by suggesting how the board could better communicate with all parents.
The Malibu issue was one of the only issues the candidates failed to agree on.The four candidates agreed that the board should continue to push the parent-written plan to revamp the district's flagging special education program and that budget cuts, if the board is forced to make any in the future, should be limited to staff and administrative cuts so that student programs could be preserved.
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