OP Live Candidate Forum: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education

Welcome to the Orange Politics Candidate Forum for CHCCS School Board Candidates.  My name is Barbara Fedders and I teach a youth justice clinic at the UNC School of Law.  I'll be the moderator.  Shell Brownstein is not participating due to a previously scheduled work-related commitment.  Let's get right into our forum with our first question.

Why are you running for the school board?

My name is James Barrett and I’m running for re-election on the Chapel Hill/Carrboro School Board--I’ve been on the board for two years filling out the unexpired term of a previous board member. I have a long history with this community before that, having grown up here since I was 7, attending the schools of this district as my children do now, coaching my kids’ sports teams, and being a founding member of Justice United, a network of faith organizations in Orange County committed to policy changes for social justice, and an active member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.  I’ve learned a lot as a board member and look forward to continuing to move our district forward in the next four years.  I want to start by saying how much I support the district’s new long-range plan.  It is full of 28 specific strategies across five challenging goals that, if implemented well, will transform our district into a truly great institution of learning and growing for all of our students.  So that I don’t have to post this link in every answer tonight, here it is -- http://www.chccs.k12.nc.us/www/CHCCS/site/Hosting/Plans%20&%20Reports/long-range-plan_2013-18/Long-Range-Plan-CHCCS_%202013-2018.pdf.  I know it sounds trite to say “trust me, it is in the plan”, but our new administration truly has done great work highlighting what we need to change here, and I look forward to ensuring as a board member that those changes happen.

The reason I got involved in working with our local schools is because my wife Kelly and I are big supporters of public education. We chose Chapel Hill nine years ago because we higly valued the quality public schools. So I always wanted to give back to this great community, esepcially since our sons have been enrolled in the disrict. The reason I think I am fit for office is because I have relevant experience. I was on the School Improvement Team at Frank Porter Graham Elementary for three years, and I was the chair for that last year. I've worked with principals, with the administration - including directly with the Supt. - as well as being on the Technology Advisory Committe for the past year. In short, I believe I have the right reasons and the relevant experience to serve on our community's Board of Education.   

I grew up in the public schools system and it started out rough.  I was a first generation student and there were plenty of cultural differences.  A few teachers and administrators took the time to help me and it made a massive impact on my life.  I went from a problem student to a student very passionate about learning and succeeding.  When I read about the major differences that minority students are having here and the massive growth this area has had, I know it is similar to the experience I had.  I think the Board is the perfect avenue to address these issues from a different perspective. 

The state is eliminating teacher tenure and increased pay for advanced degrees. What ideas do you have for retaining and recruiting skilled teachers?

The legislature really put us in a difficult spot with the recent budget they passed. And I applauded our County Commissioners for allowing local property taxes to rise to help stem the budget tide.What I like about our Administration's five-year plan that was just released is the emphasis on Professional Development. It's one of the five main goals - and I think that PD goes hand in hand with Instructional Excellence, the first goal. I don't think we achieve that without both a renewed empahsis on PD as well as new methods for improving it. In the long term, we have to see salaries rise in order to retain top teachers. In the meantime, I think the #1 lure will be the promise of world-class Professional Development - the knowledge that teachers in this district will see top-level training, extensive use of the Coaching Model, creative ways of structuring teams within schools - for example, I like the idea of giving certain teachers leadership positions within schools or within grades, for example. These are qualitative differences that can attract new teachers and retain our top teachers, until we can affect change at the state level.  

Our community is an attractive place to work, even with the high cost of living--we pay a good local supplement for the first few years, and we have great students whom teachers want to teach. Our challenge comes in retaining teachers after 3-5 years, because the state is holding salaries flat, and our local supplement doesn't jump up until about 12 years in--meaning that teachers can go for many years without any raise. One way to address this that I fully support is to allow teachers to earn an additional local supplement based on participating in additional professional development that is run by our local district and specifcally embedded in their everyday teaching. This is a proposal in the long-range plan, and it allows us to differentiate pay without adding to the budget and focus on the teaching methods/behaviors that we really want to see from teachers.

 I have worked as a strategic consultant for the State of North Carolina and delivered a report on best practices for many state-run programs to the NC state legislature.  From that experience, I know that no program showing excellence and success would even be considered for cuts.  The BoE has limited influence on the State Legislature, but we do have the ability to showcase the excellence of our schools to the point that it would not be in their interest to cut.  If we continue to strive for best practices on a national scale and market that to the State, I feel it will stop education from being on the short list of cuts for funding. If we continue in this manner, the best and most skilled teachers will continue to seek jobs in CHCCS. 

Do you really think that those running the Legislature right now are willing to listen to Chapel Hill for our ideas on how things should be? I'm afraid that's just not the case with the current leadership; we will continue to tell the Legislature and Gov. McCrory why education needs support, and how education has made North Carolina the great, business-friendly, successful state that it is under forward-thinking education-minded governors and legislators--especially here with Research Triangle. But meantime we must also focus on what we can do as a board to support, attract, and retain great teachers.

 What are your thoughts about the regular administration of standardized tests to all of our students starting in the earliest years of elementary school -- is it necessary for learning? What if any negative consequences come from regular standardized testing? Are we doing enough to encourage critical thinking and a healthy skepticism toward authority in our schools? Are we preparing our students to function well in a democracy?

Standardized testing is a fact of life in the schools. It's necessary to have common measures of where our students stand, so we can ensure adequate teaching. That being said, the measures have to be used appropriately, in terms of specific student, specific teacher, and district-wide changes to be of any value. I especially like that we are focusing more on growth measures; how much a student grows in a school year is more relevant than achieving a basic level of proficiency. The Common Core standards as well as the Principles of Learning that come from the Institute for Learning (IFL), which Dr. Forcella has brought to our district, are focused on the right skills of critical thinking and right teaching methods for children to succeed in the 21st century. If we implement these well, standardized test results will take care of themselves. For example, one of the principles is "accountable talk," which requires students to not just get an answer correct, but be able to explain their thinking and defend their responses.

I was very worried about this when my son entered Ephesus Elementary school.  I am extremely relieved to say that we have had the opposite experience.  It is increasingly evident that critical thinking is spearheading the thought process to teaching.  I believe that has to do with the implentation of Core Standards.  I think standardized testing has a role in education, but it should not be the only measure by which we rate student acheivement.  

You can't manage what you don't measure. Testing is essential because it provides direct measurable feedback on our teaching methods. But of course, anyone with a kid who has been through EOG's understands the stress it places on the classroom teacher, and how that trickles down to the students. And I think one of the problems is with the "all or nothing" end of grade test. If a student does poorly on his EOG's, isn't it already too late to address the issue? This is an issue where technology can help the situation. What if, instead of a monolithic year-end test, standardized testing was conducted more regularly, and in line more with regular classroom testing? Having a "one device per child" approach can do wonders for streamlining students access to testing and removing some of that stress. There's a great NYT Magazine Article about how they're using Tablets in Winston-Salem, I will link to it in another reply.As far as critical thinking and functioning in a democracy are concerned,  my experience with the district so far is that students are placed in a lot of team-based situations that I believe fosters critical thinking. It's a fair question and there's definitely some downsides to excessive testing. Unfortunately if we're going to be a results-based district, we're going to need the data those tests yield to do a lot of things:  **Learn what instruction methods are most effective**Track effectiveness of PD**Identify fragile and under-performing populations**Track teacher performance 

How, if at all, would you improve the redistricting process?

Change is always difficult.  The growth in this area is an indication that people find this area increasingly desirable. The downside is redistricting. However, it's important to provide equity and access to equal resources for our schools.   This is not an unprecedented problem.  In fact, in the long run it will lead to a better overall experience for all students.  If this message was communicated more broadly, I believe the transition would be smoother for those effected.

i think the Board needs to do a better job of articulating its goals when it comes to redistricting. And the goal, frankly, has been away from the "Neighborhood School" model of the past and toward a more controlled way of deciding each school's population. Specifically, the main goal behind the Dual Language Magnet School at FPG was to address the achievement gap for the Latino student population. So in order to pursue THAT goal in an equitable way, we need to show the same focus on two of our other populations who are victims of the achievement gap - the African-American population, and the Karen population.I think those are all excellent and noble goals. But here's what we have to do:1) Communicate those goals more effectively, so parents in communities like Larkspur and Parkside - not to mention the parents from FPG last year - don't think they're being singled out. They'll have a better understanding of the district's long-term goals.2) Actually follow through on addressing our other two neglected communities - otherwise, the entire strategy fails the equity test.   

Thankfully, with the successful opening of Northside Elementary, this doesn't look like it will be an issue again over the next four years.  But obviously the board gets some of its biggest responses from redistricting efforts as nobody wants to change from the wonderful schools they are in today. This large response shows this is an important process/issue. On last year's redistricting, I was the sole vote against the process at the start, and one of two votes against the final decision. Although the board has strong agreement on the goals of the redistricting (balanced schools), I do not believe the final outcome this year was the most optimal solution, and how we achieved this did not allow all solutions to be evaluated in a transparent manner.  Communication/genuine listening was a major problem here; a refusal to make even small tweaks that would have made a big difference to some of the more fragile groups in our community was frustrating and goes against our mission to serve all students as well as possible. Specifically, the redistricting buses refugee students from Kingswood Apartments all the way across Chapel Hill to Rashkis, and on the silly side sent downtown Chapel Hill students to Carrboro Elementary, while having students living in downtown Carrboro go to Northside. These differences seem silly to casual observers, but they have major ramifications in students’ lives, ones that I continue to hear about from constituents and friends involved in resettling our amazing refugee families--such as how difficult it is for hardworking parents, who often have at most one car, to get across town to be involved in their children’s school, which research shows makes a major difference in student success. We are not a big district too busy to care about the individual lives we affect, but we certainly seemed like it with decisions like this. The lessons around openness that should have been learned from the FPG process were not reflected here, and I hope to change that in the next four years.  On improvements next time, specific areas I'd like to see are:--being more open about our data, which should even allow for crowd-sourcing of solutions.  This is a complex problem and more minds attacking it are better --ensuring there is time to truly listen to good ideas from the community and incorporate them in the final solution.  Some commentary is just based on specific individuals who don't want change, but other is helpful and should be incorporated.

A reader writes to ask you for your thoughts on science education; specifically, he indicates that Chapel Hill Carrboro students have often fared poorly on the science component of the ACT.  How if at all could the schools teach science differently?

One thing I really appreciate about our Supt. Dr. Tom Forcella is that he hold our district to a very high standard. He doesn't want us to beat state averages. He wants us to compete with the top districts in the state and the country. Slate Magazine did a great piece last year about how the top 5 contries in science education - Finland, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Canada - teach science.   http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/06/teachers_from_finland_south_korea_and_canada_on_science_education_.html Here's my experience: At Frank Porter Graham Elementary, we had a dedicated science teacher for many years. And unfortunately, we didn't see any noticeable improvements in our students' acheivement as a result of this classroom. (The position was eliminated after the 2010-11 school year.)  The main focus for science education definitely needs to be at the high school level. And I think that Professional Development is going to be the #1 determiniant for the quality of our science education.  

Historically, North Carolina has not measured schools on science tests; therefore, this district's elementary curriculum for science education has not been a priority, as witnessed by the cutting back on science specialists in the recession. On one level, this will require turning the budget around; we have a needed focus on math right now that continues to pull us away from science. Also, when we've been overcrowded, the physical spaces for science education have suffered -- elementary science labs are used as classrooms across the district.  I'm really glad we're moving forward with space at Culbreth for the needed Science Wing based on the support of the county commissioners.  But as the nation begins to understand how necessary STEM education is (science, technology, engineering, and math), we must do better.  Common Core's focus on nonfiction in the reading instruction will help some -- much science reading can count toward this and get double benefit.  The use of technology in our high schools to offer more variety of classes will also help -- there may only be 10 students per school who are interested in some obscure science, but being able to pool them together for a larger class via telepresence will improve our offerings.  We have great opportunities given the nature of our community here.  It shouldn't be acceptable that our results in this area lag other subjects.

"Science in a box", which is what we use for elementary education today, is not sufficient.

Though testing standards have shown different results for how our district is fairing competitively, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education has gained the most attention for its deficiencies.   I believe this is where innovation in education can have the largest impact.  Technology in education will make sciences a more engaging and interesting topic.  Science is one of the most fun topics for students. The growing emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking, group learning and incorporation of innovative learning tools, hopefully will excite students and teachers alike.

School discipline has become a focus within the CHCCS over the past year. What do you think about the way in which school discipline is handled in our schools? What if anything would you change? What ideas do you have for reducing or eliminating racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions?

We have a district that considers itself enlightened in so many ways, but somehow we have the same issues with racially disparate discipline here that exist in most other communities in America.  This is simply unacceptable to me.  I successfully pushed for action to start immediately on the item in our long-range plan that was written to address this, because it is of critical importance to our students of color -- they cannot succeed academically if they are pushed out of the classroom through suspensions and law enforcement action.  And it is not acceptable for them to be pushed out of the classroom for things that can be fixed in the classroom, such as office referrals for “disrespect.”  I’m not an education expert, and I won’t purport to know all the right solutions here (there are some easy ones, such as we shouldn’t be keeping students out of class through suspension for missing class), but I am committed to pushing the administration for real change here, and I find promise that we will change this in the conversations that have started with community leaders (James Williams, our local public defender, is a great resource for us on this issue) and the police departments that provide our SROs.  I was heartened when I went to the first East Chapel Hill High PTSA meeting (as a parent), and the principal was very up front about how bad the discipline statistics look at East.  Honest conversations about how wrong our discipline results are is the first step toward solving this. But conversation is only a first step--having shown the numbers and discussed this, now we need to hold the district accountable for making adequate changes, and see proof in vastly improved statistics, before I or all those affected will be satisfied.

I've worked most closely with Mr Williams referenced above in the Organizing Against Racism organization (http://www.oarnc.org/) over the past 2 years.  This is a great local organization committed to seeing systemic change in our institutions to fight institutional racism.

First and foremost, I think more minority representation on the Board of Education is crucial.  Being Hispanic, this issue is dear to my heart.  I know that there has been much controversy on how to deal with the issue, but in the end, representation is by the far the most effective.  To bring an end to the disparities, the process needs to be from the ground up.  From educational programs for teachers to programs for increasing communication with the parents, ending the disparities has to come from the whole and not piecemeal.  There  needs to be a more explicit engagement between the administration, parents and the students before and during a disciplinary issue.In the best of circumstances, discipline should become not a punishment, but an opportunity. 

Do you believe that police officers in schools are a good idea? What if anything would you change about the way CHCCS uses school police?  Should CHCCS take advantage of the new state law that permits school districts to use volunteers to serve as armed guards in the schools?

I went to Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. It was a large school - 3400 students when I attended - and racially and socioeconomically diverse. It had gangs, though not what I would call a "gang problem". Shortly after I graduated, they began using metal detectors at all entrances. They have police and armed safety offices. I absolutely do not subscribe to the "arm the teachers" school of public safety and I do not support it as a policy. I believe that police officers are of 100% benefit when it comes to extreme gun-related tragedies. I think it also reduces crime overall at schools - theft, gang activity, drug dealing. I absolutely do not support the use of volunteer armed guards in schools. I am in favor of having more police present at all schools during school hours.  

Andrew, I understand the reasoning involved, but can you clarify "100% benefit" when Columbine had SROs?  Seems to me that we don't have a lot of clear examples where there is benefit--but we do have this one major one where it had no effect. And in the recent Atlanta case, a calming, caring (though terrified) office worker proved more useful than all the guns amassed outside the school doors. It takes multiple solutions to solve this.

The second part of this question is easy -- there is no proven benefit to using volunteer armed guards and therefore it only decreases safety--more guns in schools just isn't a good idea.  I also don't want to see use of police officers increased in any way (such as elementary schools where Orange County Schools are paying for them now).The first part is more complicated.  I know that principals insist that having police presence to deal with issues allows them to focus on instructional demands.  I can see that as a benefit on occasion.  But you have to balance that against the issues that arise when we make "crimes" out of minor instances and insert a police presence in the academic environment that is intimidating to many of our most fragile learners, who aren't succeeding today. One suggestion that I've heard in other communities to address this is to have police available "in the area" but not stationed in the school buildings.  This allows them to be called in needed circumstances quickly, but removes them from the day-to-day handling of  discipline issues, including simple altercations between students.  This is clearly something the district is looking at in the long-range plan, and I look forward to the creative solutions that come out of this.  

No.The current program to have local police come to schools and familiarize themselves with the layout and administration of each school is very important. Schools have also updated the key system so that local police have instant access to all doors.  I believe this is an excellent use of local law enforcement.I would like the district to spend time learning from others and gain insights, but stop short of having armed personnel in our schools. 

What ideas do you have for improving graduation rates among African-American and Hispanic/Latino students, and students from low-wealth families?

Dr Forcella has proposed in our long-range plan that we can eliminate our achievement gaps through several specific strategies that will also benefit all the students in our district -- ensuring that every classroom has great instruction every day.  We must have real learning growth every day for all students, enough to close achievement gaps and help all students move ahead, so that everyone has a genuine shot at capturing their piece of the American dream.There is some great teaching in our district (see an inspiring Teacher of the Year speech here -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkKELC041wI) and all of our teachers are working hard, but our results show that we haven’t been focused on all the right things.  Dr Forcella has a history in other districts of changing instruction to focus on deeper thinking and using that to eliminate achievement gaps.  We need to see this change in our district so that we see different results.  We enjoy being the #1 district in the state overall, but we are #46 (almost exactly average) when it comes to educating economically disadvantaged students.  I am not willing to rest on the laurels of our demographics -- we need to ensure every single student is getting a great education every day. One specific thing that has shown real results in our district so far is the Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate program.  Kids who have great community mentors (we can always use more! https://sites.google.com/a/chccs.k12.nc.us/brma/) will graduate. I'd love to see far more mentors get involved with this program. 

When you have involved parents that place a high emphasis on learning in the home, when there's a lot of reading in the home - it's no wonder that correlates with high academic achievement. We've come up with a culturally specific long-term solution for the Latino community, the Dual Language magnet program. I support that program and will continue to help the DL program focus inward and improve. So where does that leave the remaining communities? How can you help those families increase the at-home reading time? How can you make them aware of college prep? The summer gap - there's ample data that the summer recess adversely affects low income students, largely because their wealthier peers are attending enrichment programs. Expanding summer programs to those communities would help narrow that gap. 

Closing the acheivement gap is an issue important to everyone I know who is interested in education.  It's not a simple matter of instituting a program that has yet to be funded, but that of changing attitudes and processes of teachers, administrators and parents.  It is to everyone's benefit that this happen.  The most direct action to keep this gap from growing is funding for our schools.  It is no surprise to see, in national studies, as funding for schools decreases, acheivement gaps increase. These studies in educational policy have not identified a solution with blanket appeal or efficacy. We are currently seeing a massive budget "fiscal cliff" coming next year and this is what worries me the most within our district.  At minimum, we need to maintain the good work that has already been done.  Programs like our Blue Ribbon Mentoring that connects students with supportive adults is one example of how we are stepping in the right direction.  However, financial expertise such as mine will be crucial for working within the future budget constraints to maintain and grow such programs.

There has been some discussion about eliminating the maintenance of class rank in high schools as a means of reducing student stress.  What are your thoughts?

We are an elite school district. We aspire to be among the best in the country. We should always have a larger population of students who is qualified the top universities in the entire world than other districts. So removing that class rank would remove that penalty that some students in our top-notch school district now face. High School students today in surveys say they are highly motivated to get good grades, at the expense of learning.   Eliminating class rank fixes both of those problems.  

I brought this to the forefront during the last election, but other candidates didn't take it so seriously then ... now, there's more agreement about the importance of dropping class rank, as school improvement teams have taken up this issue.  I fully support the effort to remove class rank from transcripts as this is not helping our students and only increasing stress among our high school students.  The sticking point is not that we disagree about doing this, but that it takes actual legislative change to make it happen (which we didn't realize until too late in the past session).  This shouldn't be a partisan issue, and I am hopeful that we can move it forward as a local bill in the next legislative session.  Senator Foushee will be a great champion for this, with her school board background.The reason this is an issue is that students feel they need to take each and every AP class, regardless of long-term value to their education or any interest in a subject (note that AP Psychology is the largest online class taken in our district) simply to increase weighted GPA and thus class rank.  It isn't healthy for students stress; it isn't helpful for their educations.   Eliminating class rank may not be the only solution to this overall arms race situation, but it is one that we can and should pursue.

It is difficult to want a better program and then not have a measure for it.  Metrics are an increasing dynamic of our society especially with all the gagdets and computers around us.  Parents will always want to know how their children are doing on a comparative basis and as the students get older, so do they.  No matter how hard we try to extinguish rankings of our students another metric will evolve to take its place.   Instead of focusing on these metrics, I prefer to focus on the learning experience as a whole.  By making sure the educational process is innovative and fun for all those involved, the stress from rankings will devolve.  Attacking the symptoms one by one will only distract from the the issue at hand- how to make education the joyful and inspiring activity that it truly is.

You should feel free now to modify or amplify any of your previous answers.  And, for the final question, can each of you talk about your thoughts on the district's long-range plan -- specifically, which elements are you most excited about? We will close the forum shortly after nine.  You will no longer be able to comment once the forum has closed.

Thank you to OP for hosting this forum.I think that the plan speaks well of the administration, that it's well-thought out and hits most of the right points. I also think that it's incumbent upon the board to work very dillegently to come up with measures AHEAD of time, then holding the administration accountable for performance.  Here's my detailed thoughts:A) Achievement Gap should be the top priority.B) Instructional Excellence and PD are highly intwertwined. I've got a lot of ideas and thoughts in using team structures, technology, and better practices to embed Professional Development in all aspects of instruction.  C) Culture. I've got a lot of concern about how to measure the effect of changes in culture. I'm thinking that the board independently coming up with survey questions of students, staff, and parents, but that's just a first thought.  D) Measures: I call it a successful goal if the board has a self-service solution where they can analyze all of the data that is available. I'm in IT professional by trade, I work a lot with data. I will have a very high bar for success on this goal. 

I hope it has been clear already that I fully support the 5 goals and 28 broad strategies for bringing change to our district that will make us a truly excellent district.  We need leadership on the board that will make sure the implementation of those strategies is in line with Chapel Hill/Carrboro values and also that we see real results from the changes.  I have a proven track record of both -- a long heritage of community involvement that aligns with our values and a business background that makes sure I understand and can ensure success in our results.  We have professionals on our staff who need to do the hard work of researching and actually changing our schools, but I make an effective board member because while I support their efforts, I also challenge them to be truly successful.

Thank you very much for your participation!!

Barbara, thanks to you and the OP Posse for having this electronic forum for school board
candidates again.  I’m sure most reading this know that I’m a fairly
constant poster on OP (for good and bad, my wife would say), but the
pressure of writing well in real time is in some ways even harder than
an in-person forum--so we’ll see if I was coherent.  I’m always
available offline if anyone wants to chat over coffee or just email for
more clarification/discussion.  Tweet me at @jcbarr;
my campaign Facebook page is http://facebook.com/BarrettForSchools; my
email is james@barrettforschools.com; and my phone is 919-593-0592.  Or
see my webpage (http://barrettforschools.com) for more info and a
contact form.  Whomever you support for school board in this election,
please vote between October 17th and November 5th -- this is your chance
to voice support for (or disagreement with) the leaders of our

I'm honored to participate in this forum in such a great community as Chapel Hill. Follow me on twitter - @DaveyDavidsonNC - or go to www.AndrewDavidsonForSchoolBoard.com Thanks again everybody! 


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