The November election is less than two weeks away, and for the four at-large candidates for the Minneapolis school board, it’s candidate forum time.
This past week, on Oct. 20 and Oct. 24, candidates Iris Altimarno, Rebecca Gagnon, Ira Jourdain, and Don Samuels appeared at forums where all of the questions asked came directly from the audience, on the spot, and were not pre-determined.
The Oct. 20 forum was sponsored by a handful of southwest Minneapolis neighborhood associations, such as Fulton, Kingfield, and Lyndale, and held at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Minneapolis City Council member Elizabeth Glidden hosted the Oct. 24 forum at Turtle Bread in south Minneapolis.
Both forums touched on some familiar topics, such as how to keep students in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) in an era of school choice and competition and how much influence standardized test scores should have.
One of the frustrating aspects of these candidate forums is the lack of time for follow-up questions. To remedy this, I asked each of the four candidates to expand upon a point they made during the Oct. 24 forum. Here are my exchanges with them, in alphabetical order:
During both of these recent forums, Iris Altamirano, who shares the DFL endorsement with incumbent candidate Gagnon, said, when asked, that she believes in tenure rights for teachers, but also believes that “flexibility” is necessary.
In the Minneapolis Public Schools, teachers can achieve tenure after three years, which then means they cannot be fired at will.
After the Oct. 24 forum, I asked Altamirano to explain further what flexibility with tenure would look like. In response, she talked about the need to diversify the workforce by attracting more English Language teachers, for example. Altamirano spoke about tenure being “long-term,” and touched on teacher turn-over rates, saying “70-80% of teachers of color leave in two years.” When pressed further about how this connected to flexibility with tenure, and what that would look like, Altamirano said that was “all I have.”
When pressed for more details about how this connected to flexibility with tenure, and what that would look like, Altamirano declined to answer further.
During the forum, all candidates were asked for their thoughts on current MPS policies, such as the “SHIFT” initiative and the district’s new strategic plan, “Acceleration 2020.” Rebecca Gagnon said that she “supports these plans and voted on them but they don’t engage educators enough.”
After the forum, I asked her to explain more about her support for recent district initiatives, which have proven controversial or at least a little fuzzy for some MPS parents. Gagnon said, “There is one slide from the Acceleration 2020 plan that gives me great hope, where it describes all of us, doing this together.” Gagnon went on further, saying, “If this is truly the intent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, then I have a lot of hope.”
However, she acknowledged that if the plan amounts to nothing more than a “pretty picture,” then “we will need a leadership change.” In reference to the Acceleration 2020 plan, which calls for a “5-8-10” annual scorecard to track increases in student test scores and the district’s graduation rate, Gagnon said this: “I am not afraid of the aggressive goals, but I am afraid we won’t follow through.” She also noted that she “needs to see authentic engagement, collaboration, and shared decision-making” from MPS’ leadership team.
While I spoke with both Altamirano and Gagnon right after the forum, Ira Jourdain had to leave for work, and so we caught up later over the phone. I asked Jourdain more about his thoughts on whether or not teachers should be evaluated with student test scores, which is a question that came up at both forums.
Jourdain has said he does not support using student test scores this way, based on his work in the social services field: “I don’t support evaluating teachers on test scores al all. I work in Human Services with families facing issues outside of the classroom that directly affect what happens inside the classroom, which in turn influences their test scores.” He then went on to explain what kind of evaluation he does support: “I favor a more hands-on assessment based form of testing, where students can directly show what they have learned and can also demonstrate creative thinking, critical thinking, and social development skills that are not part of a standardized testing culture.”
When asked how he would get around the new requirement, based on Minnesota’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, that up to 35% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on test scores, Jourdain said he didn’t see an immediate way around this, but reiterated his commitment to advocating for more broad-based forms of assessments.
In both the Oct. 20 and Oct. 24 forums, candidate Don Samuels offered his thoughts on how proper parenting plays into student success rates. A question at the Oct. 24 forum, for example, asked the candidates how they would address racial disparities in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and Samuels had this to say: “There is no one solution…but relationships with parents is important. If a parent doesn’t know how to create a successful student, then we must get that information to the average parent. The Minneapolis Public Schools should become an informer of those things.” He then said, “I know what those things are more than anyone else on this panel.”
Because Samuels frequently talks about parenting, I sent him an email after the forum, as he left before I could catch him, asking him to expand on how, as a school board member, he would help parents become successful.
In his response, Samuels touched on his experience as a single father and then had this to say about how the Minneapolis Public Schools could work with parents:
“MPS needs parents to be active partners in student achievement, so I think it’s important that the district does a good job educating and engaging parents on how to help their student succeed. That might mean deeper outreach, or making learning opportunities more accessible or more useful to parents.
It’s also important that the School Board does a good job overseeing the district to reach meaningful and measurable goals around parent education.”
There are several more forums before the Nov. 4 election including an Oct. 29 session at Waite House in south Minneapolis. This forum will be hosted by the League of Women Voters and will include a Spanish translation.