Village Green asked each of the nine candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to submit a short biography and answer at least 5 of 11 submitted questions, which candidates could respond to individually or as a team with their running mates. Below are Dorcas Lind’s bio and answers.
Dorcas Lind, a 12-year resident of Maplewood, is a strategic communicator able to find common ground and secure consensus in a vastly diverse and complex school district.
While at the San Francisco Foundation she worked to identify interventions to increase academic achievement for K-12. She is President and Founder of Diversity Health Communications, a consultancy focused on diversity and inclusion. She’s held leadership positions at global communications agencies, and while at the NYC Mayor’s Office, conducted research on school intervention programs geared towards reducing absenteeism and the academic achievement gap.
Her experience managing complex programs and budgets can be parlayed to tackle persistent and intractable challenges within the SOMSD. Dorcas earned a BA from Brown University, and a MPH from University of California, Berkeley. She is married to Dharmvir Gehlaut, a 10-year veteran NYC high school math teacher and champion cricket coach. Their two daughters attend Kindergarten and 4th grade at Clinton Elementary School.
What do you think of new Superintendent Dr. John Ramos’s ideas for improved communication including KIVA and Let’s Talk? Do you think the costs of the programs are justified? What do you think should be addressed at the district-wide summit on November 10?
Recent efforts to improve communications from the district have been encouraging. The Let’s Talk online tool has been implemented to solicit feedback, but this pilot comes with associated costs when alternatives for engaging the district in ongoing meaningful dialogue for the long-term may be available. KIVA appears to solicit multilevel input from all critical stakeholders across the district and may prove to be instrumental in fostering high-quality content and idea/solution generation during the Education Summit.
The larger issue is the lack of a master communications plan. Currently, communications are piecemeal, with letters, emails, web posts and mobile texts used to communicate district and school level information. We need a master communications plan that focuses on:
- Increasing transparency and streamlined access to all district academic policies
- Establishing and supporting consistency and timeliness in district responses to community inquiries with follow-up available to all parents
- Standardizing district communications to reduce inconsistencies in how different sets of parents receive information based on which side of Springfield Ave. they live on, which school their child attends, or what language they speak
- Identifying key traditional and social media channels to disseminate information more aligned with when and how parents need to receive it, including opportunities for in-school educational fairs with critical updates and translators as needed to make the connection
The district’s most critical challenge is communicating the new Access & Equity policy to families and implementing the policy at the school and classroom level. What will these supports and alignments look like that are different from what exists today? The new board must be accountable for ensuring key changes are taking place that are different from how we’ve proceeded as a district thus far.
I also propose the board consider implementation of a SOMSD Access & Equity Champions Network to serve as ambassadors to the community to ensure all elements of the policy are shared, understood and acted upon.
Access & Equity Champions would:
- Have neighborhood specific responsibilities
- Be selected based on being credible in the eyes of their peers
- Serve as ‘eyes and ears’, and creative deliverers of information (e.g. distributing updates or changes)
- Support full communications roll out of the master communications plan
- And serve as bridges from the community back to the district to report candid feedback on ways the district can communicate better
Specific to Education Summit topics, I am in agreement with all that have been put forth by the district; specifically, innovative approaches to learning, the Achievement Gap, Gifted & Talented programming, school safety, and special education. I would also encourage us to also consider the topic of a quality school lunch program which continues to be a culinary and dietary disappoint and often not considered a viable option for many district families.
The new Access & Equity policy promises access and supports for all students to higher level classes. Do you think this can be achieved? And if so how? How do you think it will impact the budget, and what programs/services would you be willing to cut to make funding available for the academic supports the policy calls for?
The new Access & Equity policy is symbolic and a powerful indication that we are serious about reducing the achievement gap and affording all of our children the educational pathways they deserve. We need to be clear that while this policy has the backing of Dr. Ramos and the board; our district has a similar access to choice policy already in place. What we have been missing is the district-wide cultural competency required to address and enact change around the profound achievement gap we face.
A district that values cultural competency is a district that takes a systemic, school-wide approach to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, and cross-cultural sensitivity. It also places a high value on its staff and administrators having cultural awareness, and an understanding of intracultural variations, an individual’s culturally shaped values, beliefs and perceptions, and reactions to people whose culture differs from their own.
For me, a fundamental measure of cultural competence is one’s ability to seek and participate in meaningful interactions with people of differing cultural, socio-economic and religious backgrounds.
My philosophy around culture competence is aligned with the National Multicultural Institute which stipulates that districts should explore and provide:
- Numerous opportunities for skill-based training
- Education around the intersection between ethnicity, socio-economic status, culture and race as equally important dimensions of diversity
- Management and training around issues of unconscious bias and assumptions held by district employees
- Training on communications styles, cultural cues, cultivating diverse allies and unpacking issues around unearned privilege
As a board we need to push for culturally responsive curricula, and communicate the highest level of expectation to school staff, encouraging discussions and expectations around relevant professional development that helps build this competence. Professional development priorities must include budgetary commitments that allow realization of the necessary training for all teachers in the district to perform through a lens of cultural competence.
Specific to the budget, current funding decisions are not necessarily aligned with our Access & Equity policy priorities. A first step is assessing the close to half a million dollars the district has allocated for PARCC readiness, a statewide test that has proven to be a complete failure. We also need to make hard decisions about serving our children in the district TODAY, vs. supporting Pre-K programs such as the Montrose initiative – that while important, do not support children within the K-12 immediate purview of the district.
The first step in cutting costs is to have full transparency and understanding of what those costs are and how they add value to overall learning in the district. Clarity of budget allocations and spending will enable the board to identify where costs can be saved, where there is over spending, and where there are gaps to be filled.
In conversations with parents and families across the district, even those with a fairly sophisticated sense of finance and a comprehensive understanding of the budgetary process, are often at a loss for how to make sense of our district budgetary process. We need to create a community/user friendly document that provides meaningful information in real time.
Immediate reduction areas to address include:
- Spending on consultants
- Spending on communications band aids vs. a master plan
- Spending on multiple, sometimes overlapping professional development that is not focused on areas specific to decreasing the achievement gap; for example, cultural competence
Opportunities for cutting cost without jeopardizing learning is to recruit, hire and cultivate qualified, talented and diverse teachers with dual certification in content and either special education or athletic co-coaches (an effective approach under pilot in several other tristate districts). Such an approach supports the belief and evidence that students are engaged and succeed in school when they experience connection and relationships with teachers and coaches who follow them from the classroom into the field. Finally identifying public and private partnerships with industry where corporate social responsibility programs look to support STEM and the arts through sustained programming are first steps in identifying alternate funding sources.
In the past year several local Boards of Education and Administrations, such as Montclair’s and Livingston’s, came out against testing and more or less encouraged students to opt-out of the PARCC exams. Is opposition to standardized tests a statewide cause our Board of Education should take on?
With the recent frenzy and focus on focus on standardized testing, there has been a disconnect in our district between what counts versus what matters, which is frustrating for students, parents and educators trying to find a balance.
Recent news coverage of the first PARCC results confirms that PARCC is a disaster. It does not measure what it should and steals time away from inspired engagement and learning in the classroom. With respect to testing, the role of the board should be to identify those mandates that are tied to funding, and help clarify “mandates” that are more flexible and have lesser impact on allocation of district resources.
In collaboration with the Superintendent and school leaders, the board should lead the effort in determining the appropriate amount and level of testing and assessments in which students should participate, with the least amount of time and resources spent on teaching to – and preparing for – unnecessary, unproductive and sometimes harmful testing. The board’s role must be to identify and implement proven, effective ways of learning and mastery that go above and beyond teaching to and administering the test.
How do you feel about the district’s current arts and music education offerings? If cuts are needed to the budget to cover, for example, extra support programs related to the Access & Equity policy, would you vote for cuts to the arts? What specifically would you cut?
The Arts program within our district is truly exemplary and serves as a real incentive for school engagement for new and veteran families within our community. The NYC Broadway star’s tribute last year to the students at my daughter’s school, Clinton Elementary, serves as an example of the vast talent and creative resources we have at our fingertips.
A glance at the Fine Arts and Media Awards for 2014 -2016 on our district website offers an impressive testament to how critical and successful our arts program is. Arts programs offer opportunities for students to make deep and lasting connections with teachers and often support students in their efforts to improve and flourish within their academic classes.
In order to ensure Arts programs continue, the board must advocate for continuing these successful enrichments, and make a commitment to identifying and securing additional sources of funding for maintaining these critically important learning experiences.
Such funding considerations include:
- Grant Opportunities In Arts Education through the NJ Dept of State
- These are Co-sponsored Programs in partnership with numerous private and nonprofit organizations that place teaching artists in schools and after school settings
- Arts Education Special Initiative Grants (AESI)
- Arts Basic to Education Grants (ABE) and
- Arts Education Cosponsored Programs
- Which offers Annual placement of professional artists in classrooms throughout the state
In what specific ways does your platform and your philosophy differ from those of your opponents? Regarding the incumbents, give a specific example of something you would have voted differently on had you been on the board. If you are an incumbent, give an example of a specific vote that clarifies the difference between you and your challengers. What is the board’s single most important responsibility and priority going forward?
I believe our public schools have the potential to serve as a role model of academic excellence for the state and the country. I believe ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I am prepared to work on behalf of the community to help our district enter a new era, and thrive under the leadership of our new superintendent Dr. Ramos, who encourages all of us to think about how to prepare for a world and careers yet unimagined.
We must, as a community, confront head on the systemic and community wide issues around unconscious bias that leads teachers, administrators and everyone in between to make assumptions, decisions, and evaluations of our children based on a set of beliefs or attitudes that are not aligned with respect and dignity for all people. Only when we pay attention to this fundamental issue, will real progress be possible to fulfill the Access & Equity policy.
The data show that the majority of our general education children enter the district at or around the same level. There is something happening between Kindergarten and 3rd grade that is not allowing all students within our community to achieve their best potential. We need to have difficult and candid conversations about what factors are leading to these results; why we continue to have 1/3 of our schools on a state watch list for the highest within-school achievement disparities; why we are dealing with a response plan to a civil rights grievance showing significant disparate impact in our African American and Special Education student’s achievement. That, in part, is what the Access & Equity policy is trying to achieve. But we have to have the courage to do the work that moves the needle on these intractable issues.
In my professional life, I work with corporate and educational institutions to break down deeply rooted systemic processes that block diverse and inclusive cultures. Inclusion is hard work. It does not happen overnight. If I am elected to the board, I will work tirelessly to ensure that our teachers – those individuals on the front line and some of our most valued assets in connecting with and engaging students along their academic path – have the training and skill sets needed to transfer knowledge, open minds, and transform our children into curious, creative, analytical problem solvers needed for the complex future we know is ahead of us.
As far as board administration, some candidates have suggested increasing to two meetings per month to avoid late actions. Our community has been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness in and after meetings to public inquiries. If I am elected to the board, I would first assess the current processes and procedures that are in place to determine the underlying causes for unresponsiveness, late actions or complete ball dropping that has occurred. There are several critical questions that need to be addressed. For example:
- Why has the once-per-month schedule been inadequate? Are there current behaviors or dynamics within the board that are hindering effective collaboration and decision-making?
- Is access to critical information cause for delays in decision-making?
- Is the board resourced properly as far as a divide and conquer approach in order to present, assess, debate and act upon issues in a timely fashion?
- What are the consequences for late actions?
After assessing the context in which late actions have occurred, I would then suggest moving to a pre-read scenario where all board members have increased opportunity to review topics and presentations in order to best utilize discussion and decision making time during monthly meetings. If late actions continue to occur, I would support a reevaluation of the board schedule.
Our district faces serious challenges around access and equity. We struggle with incomplete, ineffective, and sometimes contradictory communications. Critical pieces of information, including budget details, district and school level policies around special education and placement, and decisions around testing and leveling, are often complex and buried within district documents that are inaccessible to most parents. We’ve gotten in trouble because we stopped paying attention to what matters.
Given this context, my priorities for serving on the board include collaborating to:
- Effectively shepherd implementation of the Access and Equity policy across all schools in the district
- Identify a fiscal approach that will address the $20 million projected deficit without diminishing quality education in the classroom, in the art studio, in the field, or on the stage
- Establish a district wide master communications plan to ensure transparency, accuracy, timeliness and access to all relevant district news across and within district schools
- Efficiently assess which indicators and what outcomes matter most and securing funding to deliver against those outcomes
- Safeguard that all students are being academically challenged and engaged in order for them to reach their fullest potential and,
- Ensure teachers across the district have the core competencies needed to effectively engage students in learning that leads to new ways of thinking and mastery inside and out of the classroom