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The following remarks were made by Dr. Qawi Telesford upon his election as President of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on January 4, 2024. Telesford was elected to the BOE in 2021. He is a graduate of Columbia High School, Class of 2000. Read more about Telesford here. 

Thank you. I guess I’ll just have a few words. Good evening everyone. First I’d like to express gratitude to my colleagues who are trusting me to serve as your board president. I’m committed to serving all our students, families and staff with dedication and integrity. My journey with this board began in 2022, inspired by two defining moments that I would call my best and worst experience as a student in this very school district. In my more negative experience, I worked on a group project and received a full letter grade lower than my peers. Despite having done all the work, completing my case, the teacher would, the teacher told me I didn’t do the assignment and accused me of copying someone else’s work, feeling unheard. I did what any kid would do. I shut down completely and disengaged from the class entirely. This is a fate I would never wish upon any student in our school district.

It is my utmost goal to ensure that every student is provided with the tools and support they need to succeed. But it’s not all doom and gloom. I had another teacher that inspired me with a simple challenge who was a friendly wager. I would try to get a hundred on a test while he would find a way to take points off. As you can imagine, I worked really hard, 94, 98, 95, always close, but never quite there until one day I was sure I succeeded. And when the test came back, he pointed out, you’ve reduced this fraction and provided the decimal equivalent, but you could have reduced the fraction more half a point off. In my academic career, I’ve had a lot of highs, but that was probably one of my best experiences. It wasn’t about the grade, but the challenge and inspiration that fueled my growth.

This is the feeling I want every student to have in an environment where challenges ignite potential, support nurtures confidence, and students feel empowered to believe in themselves.

So where does that leave us?

As a board, recent years have brought challenges with some suggesting that internal divisions and dysfunction hinder our ability to serve our children. Having spoken to each board member, I can confidently say that this perception is inaccurate. I see a board eager to collaborate, find common ground, and work together for the benefit of our students. As your president, I’ll actively cultivate this spirit of cooperation. While we won’t always agree, I pledge to dedicate myself to working together, fostering a one team, one goal mentality.

The new year brought me a powerful lesson. Treat your family, your team, as one unit. When you’re down, they’re down. When you’re up, they’re up. This philosophy resonates deeply with me, and I believe it should guide our board too. We are many voices and those voices enrich our discussions. But remember, we are one board, one body united. We stand firmly behind Dr. Gilbert, our acting superintendent, as he leads this district. He is our partner in this process and shares with us one single goal, providing the best possible tools to improve outcomes for all our students.

Thank you.

Dr. Qawi Telesford address the BOE and South Orange-Maplewood community upon his election as BOE President. Photo courtesy of Paul Brubaker.

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