BOE Candidate Baker: Rigor and Opportunity for All Students

by The Village Green
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BOE Candidate Elizabeth Baker

BOE Candidate Elizabeth Baker

Elizabeth Baker is one of six candidates running for the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education in November.

Baker is an attorney and mother of two children in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

The Village Green interviewed Baker by email. Here are her responses.

What are the most critical, long-term priorities the district should focus on in the upcoming years?

In both the short and long term, our District needs to focus on rigor and opportunity for all students, developing a coherent and effective model for special education, ensuring that our schools are safe and secure, prioritizing our facilities work to maximize educational benefits and obtaining sufficient funding from the State to meet these goals. 

To achieve educational excellence for all students, we need to take a hard internal look at what steps we are taking – within the administration, within each school, and within each and every classroom — to ensure that we provide a high quality and rigorous education for every student. We need to support and strengthen the rollout of major initiatives such as the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and ensure that we are developing and supporting our teachers as both our curriculum and teaching methods adapt to the demands of the Common Core.

We must also develop a coherent and effective model for special education that reflects best educational practices, adopts effective quality controls, and ensures that our special needs students receive necessary interventions in a timely manner.

I fully support our District’s commitment to inclusion of special needs students but we need to develop a consistent and effective co-teaching model that builds on the successes we have had within our District as well as those of other districts. The process for identifying children with emergent needs and meeting these needs should be easy to navigate and timely. We have all heard too many stories of delay, misinformation, and inconsistency. We can and must do better. 

The recent security incidents at Tuscan and Marshall Elementary Schools underscore the importance of making sure we are providing a healthy and safe learning environment for all students and staff. We need to make sure we have the necessary expertise in school safety, conduct an audit of our security initiatives, and make sure we are taking all appropriate steps both to reduce risk and have a state of the art emergency response plan in place. 

While we seek to do more with limited resources, and obtain maximum educational benefit from every dollar we spend, we must also work with other districts and elected officials to address the State’s failure to provide our District with sufficient and reliable funding. The lack of state funding forced the elimination of 14 teachers for the upcoming 2014-2015 school year – at the very time our enrollment is growing and we are facing the demands of Common Core and PARCC testing. While money is the not the solution to all our challenges, the lack of adequate funding from the State will affect the quality of education we deliver. 

With the many transitions ahead for SOMSD – administration turnover, hiring a new superintendent, implementing IB, Common Core and PARCC assessments — what would you as a new BOE member bring to the equation? How would you engage stakeholders and work with your fellow board members to reach consensus?

As a school community we face big challenges, finding a new Superintendent and a new principal at Maplewood Middle School, to name a few. To realize our District’s goals of excellence, we need great leadership and strong educational vision from whomever we hire.

In the coming months as we operate under an interim superintendent, and over the long term, we need to ensure that our leaders at Central Office and at each school are effective at driving implementation of major initiatives in a manner that is consistent with our District’s values and that there is effective coordination and communication between facilities managers, technology managers, curriculum leaders and principals. Close coordination will be critical to the success of the initiatives we have underway throughout this period of transition. The hiring of a new superintendent and so many new educational leaders at our schools presents us with an opportunity to step back and look at whether our District’s delivery of all programs and services is structured to ensure both efficiency and consistency. 

I think the District needs to improve its feedback loop with parents, enabling it to more quickly correct what may not be working. I’m going to use my campaign time to seek input on where we need to improve communications and become more effective in delivering our educational program with increasingly tight resources. If elected, I want to make sure that I am hearing from parents across the District on a regular basis. I have a focus on outcomes and I bring with me experience in how to get all the players to the finish line. Making sure we are listening and learning from what stakeholders have to say is the best way to get there. 

The district will be hiring a new superintendent. What are the most important factors the BOE should look for in candidates? How specifically would you engage various stakeholders in the community in the search process? 

Our next superintendent must be an educational leader who is committed to rigor and opportunity for all students. To achieve our goals, the superintendent must bring the strong management and communication skills needed to implement our District’s educational vision. A commitment to transparency and dialogue, particularly dialogue with parents, is essential. 

Our new superintendent must work with teachers to weave collaboration and professional development into the daily life of our schools, and provide training that will allow teachers to feel confident that they can meet our District’s objectives and the demands of the Common Core. 

With respect to the search process for a new superintendent, all phases of the process must be clearly communicated. Starting with focus groups of parents, teachers, and administrators and the district-wide survey was a good beginning, but we need to make sure that stakeholder input is considered at every stage of the process so that our community has confidence in both the process and the candidate who is ultimately chosen. 

The next Board will also face the challenge of ensuring that our new superintendent succeeds. To do this, the Board needs to be proactive and have clear metrics in place for ensuring that our District and our schools not only stay on track during this transition but thrive. 

What do you think about Brian Osborne’s tenure and what are his most important legacies? Where did you disagree with him? 

My children and thousands of children throughout the District are directly benefiting from recent initiatives such as universal full day Kindergarten, the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program, and expanding access to AP and other rigorous courses at Columbia High School. 

There is much work that remains to be done. Our District has struggled with consistency from school to school, and classroom to classroom, and we still have a long way to go in making sure that our schools are welcoming to parents and responsive to the individual needs of our children. 

Much of the anxiety that parents feel stems from inconsistency, unclear management structures, and breakdowns in communication. Communication needs to be meaningful and mutual– where our District and educational leaders share information with parents and teachers in a timely and clear manner, ask “how are we doing?” and learn from what they hear. 

Right now, short of the public comments portion at a BOE meeting, there are too few vehicles for parents to provide meaningful input to the District and the BOE about life in our schools, or for their feedback to inform the District’s work. I’d work to promote true partnership between the schools, parents, and teachers.

You said in your statement that SOMSD needs “leaders with the experience to implement our educational vision with consistency across the District while at the same time making sure our schools are safe and secure.” Can you explain more specifically what you mean and how you as a board member would ensure the district is addressing these issues?

In order to achieve our educational goals and obtain maximum value for every dollar we spend, we need to take a hard look at our District’s operations to make sure that we are structured for efficiency, consistency, and accountability. The District’s operational structure needs to be reviewed. With 17 positions all reporting directly to the superintendent, and few lines of coordination from school to school, or across instructional and operational lines, we have too many operational black holes and inconsistencies.

While it is not the Board’s role to dictate organizational structure to the superintendent, it is reasonable for the Board, in its oversight role, to ask the next superintendent whether our operations are structured so that he or she can effectively mentor our administrative and educational leaders and better implement our District’s goals. 

We must also structure life in our schools in a way that develops and supports great teaching. Master teaching requires both subject matter expertise and an opportunity to hone one’s craft. Our teachers want to make a difference in the lives of their students and they are our most valuable resource. In each school and each grade, and from one school to another, we need to identify what our best teachers are doing that makes them successful in the classroom, create meaningful mentorship opportunities for new teachers, and foster collaboration that allows teachers to learn from one another. We need to structure school schedules and teacher assignments to make this happen. 

How would your experience as lawyer “with experience in financial oversight, negotiations, and public policy, as well as advocacy” influence how you would serve as a board member? Given the looming fiscal deficit approaching our district, how would you, as a BOE member, work to reduce that deficit?

In my professional life, I have worked on oversight committees and coalitions to turn around struggling organizations. To do this, I have worked with other stakeholders – including stakeholders with opposing interests — to achieve financial and operational solutions. In these situations, and in my experience at the bargaining table, I have learned not only to listen but to identify areas of mutual agreement and build upon these commonalities to get things done. I have also learned that reaching agreement on a policy or a contract, is really just the beginning and not the end of the work – that in order to achieve the agreed upon goals, we need to plan, pay attention to detail, listen, and work collaboratively as we implement. 

The financial pressures facing our District are severe. After years of outsourcing support staff, budget cuts are directly hitting our classrooms. 

While we can and must do more with our limited resources, our operations are already very lean. We need to make sure that all of our major initiatives are strategically aligned and operationally in sync. For example, it is not enough to say we need to achieve one to one computing. We need to be sure that our technology plans are operationally supportable, financially sustainable, aligned with our curricular goals and include enough teacher training to ensure maximum benefit in the classroom. This is the integrated approach we must bring to both our multi-year planning and budget process.

While we exact maximum value out of every budget dollar, we as a District must also confront the source of our budget crisis – which is the substantial underfunding of our state aid entitlement under the law – a shortfall of around $15 million annually. After a roller coaster ride over the last decade, our funding from the State is essentially the same as it was 10 years ago, when our enrollment was lower and before we had the demands of Common Core, PARCC and multiple teacher evaluations. Our Board must lead our 
community – and help mobilize the considerable resources and human capital we have — as we work with other impacted districts and our elected leaders to ensure that we have sustainable and adequate funding from Trenton.

I want to put my legislative and policy experience, and my ability to build and work in coalitions with diverse stakeholders, to work for our District. While we cannot solve this problem on our own, the underfunding of our schools is becoming increasingly urgent. We need to begin to organize local parents now to help lead a statewide effort. 

Where do you stand on further implementation of the IB program? Would you vote to continue the program as it is, to scale it back, to wait before implementing in other grades? What would successful implementation look like? Do you think it should eventually be brought to CHS, and at what point?

I support the IB Middle Years Program. It is a proven model that is consistent with our District’s goals and the demands of the Common Core – where we will have independent external assessments that our community can rely upon. 

With a child who just completed 6th grade at Maplewood Middle, I have seen firsthand the intellectual rigor, collaboration, and energy that IB has brought to our classrooms, and I have spoken to many parents and teachers who are pleased with what we have accomplished so far. However, as a Board member, I would never base my decisions on my personal experience or even anecdotal experiences from those around me.

We are still in the early phases of implementing IB – we are going into the second year of IB in the 6th grade and first year of IB in the 7th grade. By the end of this school year, we need to assess how we are doing. The community needs to understand the benchmarks IB has in place for evaluating our progress and how we are meeting these benchmarks. As with any major initiative, especially one of this magnitude that we are rolling out over a number of years, the District needs to ensure that our work plan is continuously informed by both our successes as well as our struggles. Again, the feedback loop needs to be created.

That being said, I don’t believe we are near the point where we can consider bringing IB to Columbia High School. We have our work cut out for us in making the IB Middle Years Program a success. We need to make that happen before we consider whether expansion of IB is desirable and/or feasible. 

What should a board member’s role be in responding in public to concerns voiced at meetings by parents and staff? For example, there has been dissension between SOMS staff and Principal Uglialoro, and concern among Marshall School staff about the “Code Red” incident, both of which were raised by parents and staff at recent board meetings. How should board members respond, both publicly and in private, to stakeholders voicing such concerns?

The leaders of our District – whether it is the Board or the Administration – need to make sure that there are clear channels of communication and a flow of information at all times. Problems should not have to reach a boiling point at a monthly Board meeting to be acknowledged or addressed. The incident at Marshall School was troubling on every level, particularly since it followed the security incident at Tuscan School in December. We can do better. 

There are a number of steps that the Board can take to be informed about what is happening in our schools and ensure that the concerns of parents and teachers are being taken seriously. For example, at one point, individual Board members were assigned to be liaisons to each of our schools. At other times, Board members held office hours, a model that Maplewood Township has adopted with considerable success. Making sure that we are talking to parents and teachers before things go wrong, and being proactive about solving problems is key. While one Board member alone cannot set these policies, this is a top priority for me. 

What do you think of the BOE’s current proposal for a Gifted & Talented program, and what would a successful G&T program look like to you?

I think the Board was correct in requesting that the Administration do more work on developing G&T models that were substantive and clear – rather than merely conceptual. We are legally mandated to adopt G&T programing and we should have a clear plan for doing this both throughout the school day and through extracurricular programming. 

You said in your statement the district should “ensure that we provide all children in South Orange and Maplewood with the educational opportunities they deserve.” How would you rate the current board on this, and what would you do differently if elected?

I strongly support our District’s vision and its commitment to rigor and opportunity for all students, but I think there is still much work to be done to take our vision out from Academy Street and into each classroom. 

In addition to our work on major initiatives, I want to bring focus to the issues of informational barriers and transparency as parents and students navigate our schools’ policies and procedures. Two specific examples where information could be clearer are the 504 plan process and the math placement process, but there are others. Asking questions of the administration on communications as it rolls out initiatives and incorporating parental feedback are ways the Board can help ensure that we are achieving our goals. 

However, removing information barriers will only get us part of the way.

Ultimately, educational excellence boils down to great teaching. We need to develop better models for training, supervising, mentoring and supporting new teachers. We need to identify what our best teachers are doing that makes them successful in the classroom and create collaborative professional development opportunities that allow teachers to learn from and support one another. This is how we will consistently achieve excellence and create schools that are truly communities of learners.

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