Five candidates are vying for three seats on the 9-member South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on November 2, 2021: Shannon Cuttle (incumbent), William Rodriguez, Qawi Telesford, Arun Vadlamani and Kaitlin Wittleder. Terms are for three years. The following candidate statement is from Qawi Telesford:
Why I’m Running
I am proud to say that I am a product of the South Orange/Maplewood School District, having attended Clinton, South Orange Middle, and Columbia High schools. When I look at some of the issues we grapple with today, such as equity and inclusion, I don’t have to look back far to remember encountering these same issues as a student.
As a student in middle school, despite having good grades, I was not recommended for upper level classes. It was not until individual teachers recognized my aptitude that I was moved up to a higher level. I continued to have similar experiences through high school, where incorrect assumptions about my aptitude resulted in missed opportunities. Nonetheless, my education was bolstered by teachers that did recognize my potential. In high school, a chemistry teacher, Dr. Bennett Hershfield, encouraged me to take the advanced placement exam in chemistry on my own, offering to help me study after school. He also encouraged me to continue in science and pursue it to its highest level. With his guidance, I earned a high score on the exam and received college credit, and I would later go on to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering, eventually earning a PhD in the same field.
I now conduct research in neuroscience and brain imaging, helping to expand and contribute new knowledge to the field. When I look back at my time in school, I am reminded that each of my successes was due to encouragement by a teacher. I would like to see every single adult in our school system looking for that spark of interest present in every child and encouraging our students the way Dr. Hershfield encouraged me. Likewise, I would like to see our system, as a whole, continue its transformation to one that is oriented toward creating opportunity for every child.
I am encouraged by the district’s plan to move forward with the Intentional Integration Initiative this fall, as I believe diversity and equity are the backbone of ensuring that our children receive an excellent education. As a Board member, I hope to offer my analytic mind to ensure that our policies, financial decisions and oversight meet the needs of our community. More importantly, as we shift to a post-pandemic landscape, it is vital that we engender an environment that not only pursues academic excellence, but also works to rebuild any extracurricular areas that may have been hurt by the virtual learning environment. My participation in sports and the arts was key to my self-esteem and feeling of belonging when I was a student. We must ensure that all of today’s students have equitable access to these experiences, which are not just “extras,” but are fundamental to child and adolescent development.
Improving equity for our students is not a zero-sum game and pursuing those goals does not only benefit some children while removing benefits for others, but rather provides benefits for all of our children. As a scientist, I am encouraged by Dr. Taylor’s adherence to research-based, data driven and student-centered policies, as I believe our district should be focused on what works. In addition to being student-centered, we should also include teacher input when developing our policies and curricula as they have first-hand, professional knowledge of the students.
As a research scientist and biomedical engineer, working in a collaborative environment is an essential aspect of my work. As a Board member, I will serve alongside other Board members to foster an environment that encourages collaboration, robust discussion and camaraderie. I also wish to advise and provide assistance to our Superintendent so that he can perform at the highest level. I work with neuroscientists, statisticians, and psychologists to uncover the complex underpinnings of the brain. While a school district is not the human brain, it too contains many complexities, and it needs a collaborative team to help it grow.
Qawi is a lifetime resident of South Orange. He attended Clinton School and South Orange Middle School and is a proud graduate of Columbia High School. In high school, Qawi participated in art, athletics, music and science. He was a member of the cross country team, a captain on the fencing team, played saxophone in the jazz band, produced multiple films for the animation club and was active in the science league. At Rutgers University, Qawi obtained a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering with a focus on medical imaging. He then went onto Columbia University where he obtained a master’s in biomedical engineering, which sparked his interest in studying the brain. He later earned his PhD in biomedical engineering through a joint program at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University. His research focuses on brain imaging, neuroscience and the emerging field of network science. He continued his postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania and as a contractor with the Army Research Lab in Aberdeen, MD. Qawi currently works as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute in Orangeburg, NY, conducting research that combines electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to uncover the basic function of the brain.
Qawi’s education in the South Orange/Maplewood school district has been fundamental to his success. He and his family continue to call South Orange/Maplewood home and he is committed to “paying it forward” by volunteering for the Board of Education to help ensure that every opportunity is opened to the next generation of our community.
Find out more about Qawi Telesford and his running mate Arun Vadlamani at arunqawiboe.com.