Four candidates vying for the District 6 school board spot had a chance to make their pitch on Monday night at the District 6 School Board Candidate Forum, sponsored by the Minneapolis DFL and Minneapolis Parent Forum. Held at Burroughs Community School and moderated by Barb Nicol, the forum gave Tracine Asberry, David Weingartner, Curtis Johnson, and Alex Phung a chance to make their pitch to District 6 voters.
The Uptake live-streamed the forum and TCDP participated via Cover It Live blogging (both below).
The candidates were allowed to make introductory statements, followed by questions, both prepared and submitted to the moderator from the audience as well as online.The candidates come from diverse backgrounds. Tracine Asberry grew up the youngest of 8 children in Detroit, Michigan, was a Minneapolis Public School teacher for nearly 10 years, and two of her three children attend Minneapolis Public Schools (the other is one year old). David Weingartner is also a parent who has been involved in the Lyndale Site Council and other parent groups. Curtis Johnson is a business owner and coaches at Washburn High School, with a five year old daughter who will be attending Burroughs Community School next year. Finally, Alex Phung is the oldest son of Vietnamese immigrants, and is a lawyer for Cargill.
One of the key issues that emerged throughout the forum was the challenge of drawing students, particularly high performing students, back into the district. Most of the candidates were critical of charter schools, outlining the need for accountability and oversight. On the other hand, magnet schools were seen to have value, on a limited basis, according to Johnson and Phung, with Asberry saying they needed to be examined individually to find out what is working. The notion of reserving spots in low poverty schools for high poverty students was generally seen as a good idea by all the candidates, as it increases diversity, which benefits all students, and, according to Asberry, comes down to a social justice issue.
The first question posed to the candidates was what they see as the key issues of concern for the District 6. Weingartner, the first to answer, said that creating capacity in our schools was important, as well as equity in programming high schools. Weingartner also cited budget concerns, and making sure that all schools offer academic rigor.
For Curtis Johnson, rationalizaing programs across schools in the district was a main concern. As an example, he spoke of the recent outcry over curriculum offerings at Washburn High School. His nephew, he said, attended Anwatin, where he took pre-IB courses, which weren’t offered when he attended Washburn. (That will change, as MPS announced yesterday, with plans to implement a pre-IB program at Washburn.)
Alex Phung said the biggest issue was making sure the district has programs that engage the higher performing students. He’s spoken with parents who have taken their kids out of Lake Harriet and sent them to a Gifted and Talented program in Bloomington. “We should have all of our residents attending local schools,” he said.
Tracine Asberry said the three issues she felt were most important were collaboration, making sure high ability students continue to thrive, and being intentional about bringing students together.
Another question posed to the candidates was whether the Changing School Options program was working. Johnson responded that some parents felt severely limited in their options for their children. In District 6, parents particularly see inequities in comparing Southwest High School and Washburn, where Southwest has both AP and IB options, among other programs. “I like the notion that people are staying in schools close to home,” he said. “But we must rationalize programs across the district.”
Phung said the CSO has been positive, as it has built relationships in neighborhoods, and had students spend less time on the school bus. Phung said the proper approach is to balance a couple of perspectives — that it’s good to have neighborhood schools but it’s also good for parents to be able to choose among schools within the district. “We need to make changes in concert with those impacted,” he said.
For Asberry, CSO works great so long as all the schools are places every student can thrive. When schools don’t have excellent offerings, that’s when parents advocate for their children to go elsewhere, she said.
Weingartner challenged the notion that we have reduced choice. Rather, we still have choices, via magnet, schools, and other options, but we also have inequities. “The reduction of school choice has brought the inequities to our attention,” he said. School choice “is the easy way out,” he said. “If Southwest held 3,000- 4,000 students, no one would be talking about the inequities at Washburn right now,” he said.
Three of the four candidates said they would have voted “yes” on the teacher contract that the current Minneapolis School Board recently signed. Asberry declined to say how she would have voted, as she was not there, but she said there some positives about the contract, in particular aligning professional development and providing additional planning time for teachers. Her criticism of the contract had to do with the upper grades, saying that often grades 6-12 get left out of discussions. Asberry said that more discussion needed to revolve around looping, and building interdisciplinary instruction.
Johnson said he was concerned about the rhetoric surrounding teachers that has emerged recently, especially surrounding the teacher contract, equating it with rhetoric about soldiers returning from Vietnam. “We found a way to differentiate,” he said, “to raise up soldiers who served our country,” despite being critical of the war.
Phung (who is endorsed by Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lyn Nordgren), said he liked the process that was used, saying its collaborative approach was similar to those used by major corporations and organization. “They negotiated in good faith,” he said of the stakeholders.
Weingartner, who also said he would have voted for the contract, said the district is needs to look ahead, when it will be gaining more students in elementary schools. The contract, he said, needs to be focused on incentivizing great teachers to come to the district.
A similar question got at the issue of seniority more directly, as all of the candidates were asked to explain their views about the practice. Phung said any changes to seniority should be made at the local level, and that it is important to garner input from teachers themselves. Asberry said she believes seniority should define teachers’ time to perfect their craft, but made caveats that teachers should teach what they are licensed for, and in no way did years in service equal perfected craft.
Weingartner said that as enrollment increases, seniority is not as important as when the district was losing students every year. “We need to have effective teachers in our schools,” he said. “We want teachers to come to Minneapolis… seniority is a part of the big picture.”
Johnson seemed the most critical of seniority, citing a MinnCan survey that found 92 percent of the population believes teacher effectiveness should be taken into consideration for layoffs. Johnson said that it was important to look at how evaluations were being done. “We have diverse teaching models,” he said. “We have students with disabilities, and students with English as a second language. There are complexities that come into play,” he said. His concern is that if seniority is taken away, the highest cost teachers would be laid off. “We need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
The forum also addressed the achievement gap and inequities both within District 6 and across Minneapolis as a whole. To combat these issues, Asberry said teachers need to spend more time in the classroom, with smaller class sizes. Schools also need to address the opportunity gap, she said. Weingarnter stressed engaging students in critical thinking, as well as experiential learning and physical activity, while Johnson agreed with Asberry that more teacher-student contact time was important, and also stressed that the district needed to find a way to wrap around social services. It’s unrealistic to think that students who don’t know where their next meal is coming from will be able to perform at their grade level, he said. The district also needs to develop a comprehensive disciplinary policy, he said.
Phung stressed the need for great teachers, great principals, and parent engagement to address the achievement gap, as well as the need to collaborate with nonprofits and programs that can address poverty issues.
In his closing statement, Phung said that trust and communication were vital to producing world education. Asberry closed with a comment about the importance of working collaboratively as key in improving schools, while Weingarter said families in District 6 have the social capital to effect change in Area C, and indeed in the whole district. In Johnson’s closing statement, he stressed the importance of involving the community, as well as strong governance and leadership to attract the right teachers, as ways to keep families in the community.
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