Shannel Roberts — Board of Education Candidate Profile and Q&A

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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 Shannel Roberts’ bio and answers. Roberts is running as part of the Team SOMA 2015 slate which also includes Marian Raab and Elissa Malespina.

Shannel Roberts

Shannel Roberts

Shannel Roberts is a 10-year resident of Maplewood’s Hilton neighborhood with a daughter at Columbia High School.

She brings 18 years of experience in business administration and works in the nonprofit sector. She is a former member of the NAACP Education Committee serving the Oranges and Maplewood.

Shannel founded the Essex County Chapter of Little Sistahs in the Know Inc., a literacy program focused on boosting self-esteem and self-image of young black girls. She co-founded ROSES, a leadership and peer mentorship program that promotes academic excellence.

A former member of Iwa Lewa Heritage Dance Ensemble, she supports dance, music, and sports, activities which support all types of learning. She will work to identify partnership opportunities to benefit our children.

If elected, she will use her experience and collaborate with all stakeholders to change the culture of the district, so that all students have the resources and supports to be successful.

1. 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. What is the board’s single most important responsibility and priority going forward?

Marian, Elissa, and I support the philosophy that for our district to begin the process of improvement, we need:

  1. Better communication between parents, teachers, students, administrators and all our stakeholders.
  2. Common sense to recognize when we are not making good decisions and change course.
  3. Courage to ask the tough questions before making a choice.

We believe in transparency and especially listening to the students, because they are in our schools every day. Students want to be heard and engaged in the process. The Student Forum we held on October 12th was a testament to that. This is something our slate did, and we will continue to engage students when we are on the board.

Many of the policies passed by the Board do not reflect the diversity in our community. We’ve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on the “cure all” IB program that didn’t work. For three years, teachers and parents voiced their concerns about the implementation of the program, and rather than listen, the Board continued with the IB program. The truth is out, and the facts speak for themselves—on many issues.

As a member of Team SOMA 2015:

1) I wouldn’t vote for a budget without having all the information.

2) I wouldn’t have voted for people who didn’t have enough experience in the jobs for which they were hired.

3) I would not have voted for the pool. Then I was stunned that the school board, which said we had no money for Seth Boyden, Tuscan, Montrose and so forth, wanted to buy Marylawn, but didn’t know why. The original plan for Montrose was to keep our students in the district. The parents wanted it, the children wanted it, and Montrose still has not opened. The costs are incremental, with many issues that I have more questions about than answers. For example, there is still back and forth discussion on how to bring in other tuition to increase the revenues in the district. Why exactly are we bringing in a pre-school? How many are enrolled in it? I would have looked at it as a complete plan. Why was the new wing at Maplewood Middle built without air conditioning, which was later installed when it should have been done in the first place?

There are no trade-offs when it comes to our children, and this is why our schools are in crisis. Current policies don’t support their needs, and as parents we are tired of pressing the restart button. I am so passionate about improving education for our children that at times during the debates, there is so much to say, and the complexity of our district issues cannot be summed up in a one-minute response. I have chosen to run with two equally passionate women who share my concerns about doing what is right for our district. We are honored to have the endorsement of SOMEA, SOMORE Radio, parents, and students who know we care about what is going on in our district. Marian, Elissa, and I have had some amazing conversations with many of you since our campaign began, and we look forward to working with our new superintendent and hearing more about his plans for applying the “good to great” philosophies that will lead our district on a new journey toward success.

2. 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?

Marian, Elissa and I have spoken often on the lack of communication in the district, and it’s the main agent for change on our platform. If elected, Team SOMA 2015 will provide transparency so we can rebuild trust with our parents, teachers, students and all of our stakeholders.

This is an exciting time; our district is at a critical juncture with new things underway. The new superintendent has begun the process of listening and taking steps to engage the community by hosting an Education Summit. Make no mistake, the complexities of our district are numerous, as a result of policies that were passed by the Board. But the board has not adhered to the needs or success of our children. For the first time, in a long time, we have the opportunity to all come together: parents, students, teachers, administrators, and all of our stakeholders, at the Education Summit, to move the discussion from “will we?” to “how will we?,” as Dr. Ramos stated.

I also applaud the district’s efforts to translate school information so that our multi-lingual community can stay informed. These are all great steps. However, I am not convinced that the Let’s Talk software that Dr. Ramos supports, which will cost the district $11K for the remaining six months of this year, and then cost even more, if approved by the board at next month’s meeting. This program is still in trial use, and according to my running mate Elissa Malespina, who won the BAMMY award for her extraordinary work in technology, School Messenger (which we already use) can actually provide many of the communicative functions that “Let’s Talk” can provide. This is not to say “Let’s Talk” isn’t a good idea, but when Seth Boyden school is in need of a reading program, and the portables there and at Tuscan Elementary School need replacing, and the support services for our children with special needs are not available, then we need to re-think our spending and reallocate funds to support the greater needs of our children. We can’t just say we want to do right by our children. Our actions and our decisions must support them as well.

3. What should a board member’s role be in responding in public to concerns voiced at meetings by parents and staff? Currently, issues raised by public speakers are often not addressed. How should board members respond, both publicly and in private, to stakeholders voicing concerns at public meetings?

Marian, Elissa and I believe that if we are going to have a more open and transparent process, one meeting a month is not enough. Some of these meetings can last upwards of 4 hours, and the “public speaks” portion can take up as much as 2 hours, moving the business of the board into the late hours of the night. We can’t expect anyone to have a clear head for in-depth policy and budget discussions let alone vote so late at night. Bi-monthly board meetings are common in neighboring districts. Increasing meetings to twice a month will allow for more time for community members to address the board, more sound decision-making by the board, more timely action, and most importantly, a better means of addressing issues and concerns before they spiral into bigger problems.

Team SOMA 2015 also believes in respectful engagement with the parents, teachers, students, and stakeholders who come before the board with their concerns. When a community stakeholder takes the time to approach the board with a concern, providing a response or acknowledgment that may rectify a situation at the time fosters trust and demonstrates transparency. We want to encourage — not discourage and dismiss — the people who trust us to advocate for the children in our district.

4. Although the new Access & Equity policy would seem to do away with any need for de-leveling, some programs such as 8th & 9th grade Accelerated English currently have significant racial disparities. If the Administration asked the BOE to eliminate Accelerated English would you support the move?

Team SOMA 2015 would not support the idea of eliminating Accelerated English. Growing up, I was an avid reader, and it was in 8th grade that I was recommended to finish my school year in the accelerated class. My new teacher was an African American woman who encouraged all of us to explore the world through books and to expand our thinking on a variety of subjects. I give credit to my mother who provided me with a comfortable learning environment at home, and the excellent foundation I received in elementary school. Every student should be encouraged to challenge themselves. When the adults showed me they believed in my ability to achieve and moved me up to the accelerated levels when I was in middle school, I believed them and did more. Students who demonstrate the ability and desire to achieve should be encouraged and have “access” to higher achievement.

5. 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?

Team SOMA 2015 is looking forward to working with the new superintendent. The new Access & Equity policy is an opportunity for all of our stakeholders to come together to make true progress. Proper implementation of this policy will require a lot of work. The board will need to thoroughly examine the programs and services that we have and that we will need, to be able to fully support all students. Opening academic placement opportunities will foster an environment for excellence and higher learning. Our gifted and talented students will need to be challenged and provided with the best of the best, so that they can move from stagnation to success. The QSAC report has shown that the district lacks differentiation in instruction. With proper professional development, our teachers will have the skills and the opportunity to make this policy a success. The policy looks good on paper- but it will only work if it is properly implemented, and we have a lot of work ahead of us.

At our Student Forum earlier this month, MAC (Minority Achievement Committee) Scholars from CHS shared some of the ideas they developed to deal with the achievement gap. They talked with us about ways to reduce the number of levels and tracking, to give everyone access to all classes. My running mates and I know that it is essential to talk with the students who are in the schools every day. They need us to diligently work to provide thorough and efficient education for everyone. All stakeholders — students, parents, and teachers- must be fully engaged in the process of implementing the new Access and Equity policy for it to have a chance at being a success.

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