In 2014, 85% of Norfolk residents voted to hold elections for our school board members for the first time. Norfolk citizens did not push for an elected school board simply to maintain the status quo.
They did it to hold our school board members accountable. That is why I am running. As the only candidate on the ballot who is not a four-year incumbent, I am the only candidate who credibly represents a departure from the status quo. And we need to change the status quo.
Over the past four years, Norfolk school accreditations have fallen from 78 percent to now below 50 percent. More tellingly, our teachers are (reluctantly) leaving NPS at a record clip, opting for early retirement or similar positions in neighboring school districts. School leaders have failed to adequately address this decline, just as they have failed to address lost federal grants, resisted opportunities for greater transparency, and passively allowed the growing violence against teachers and students. I am committed to tackling these issues head-on by pushing for policies that improve school safety and discipline, offer greater public accountability and transparent decision-making, engage more parents in the education of their children, and cultivate innovative academic pathways for our diverse student population. While I believe each of these initiatives is critical to the turnaround effort that lies ahead, I’d like to focus this column on our challenge of improving both climate and accountability throughout NPS, as I believe the two go hand-in-hand.
As I talk to teachers throughout our city, their most common concern revolves around school climate, safety and the absence of meaningful administrative support with regard to chronic classroom management issues. Plainly put, there is presently insufficient accountability for the most egregious acts of student violence and disruptive behavior. Consequently, the behavioral problems of a few – and the unwillingness of school administrators to address them – are greatly impacting the ability of all students to learn. I see this firsthand at two of the schools my own children attend. We cannot provide a positive learning environment for our students when often more than 40% of teachers’ time in the classroom is being spent on management instead of instruction.
The solution is multi-faceted. In the near-term, we need to ensure NPS actually enforces the discipline policies it has in place, reform the current tribunal and appeals process to offer a voice to victims, and publicly post and track the discipline data in aggregate form for all to see and monitor. Hiding, manipulating or obfuscating the data does nothing to improve the actual climate in our schools. And longer term, we need to invest in viable alternative academic programs for those students who repeatedly violate safety and violence policies, offering them pathways for remediation and long-term success outside of a mainstream school setting.
Beyond the safety and discipline issue, the lack of accountability from all levels of leadership is a persistent and institutional problem that stifles progress and reform. Our school board’s seven top priorities – listed on the NPS home page – have been unchanged for more than four years despite the lack of progress against each. For example, full accreditation of Norfolk Public Schools has been the number one priority of our board for many years, yet in that time the proportion of unaccredited schools in our system has more than doubled. Another unmet goal relates to improving school climate and safety (board priority #3). Yet the current budget proposal once again earmarks zero new dollars to address this objective.
As an elected board member with a broad business background, I will take steps to match our board’s priorities to the school budget. Our district goals should include concrete steps to see them to fruition, actual funding that ties to the goals, and a transparent dashboard by which everyone can clearly measure our progress. Otherwise, they aren’t goals at all. They are simply wishes. Greater accountability begins with a board commitment to improving transparency by making all information (data, trends, funding, etc.) readily available and easy to understand. Online dashboards, such as the ones used in Arlington County Public Schools, could go a long way in rebuilding community trust and achieving greater parental engagement.
A diverse body of 30,000 students mandates that we not take a one-size-fits-all approach to our public education. If we say we are going to raise the academic outcomes for all (board priority #2), we must expand our resources for vocational and technical certifications, special education and gifted programs alike. Again, it’s not a priority if it’s not funded. School choice in Norfolk today is mostly limited to our gifted students or to enrollment lotteries. True school choice will present viable options for all segments of our student body, including those with aspirations for trade and vocational certifications. Technical and trade schools that equip students to find jobs in the 21st century economy upon graduation are a worthy investment and can be accomplished via public-private collaboration with local industry leaders.
Finally, we must be more accountable to our teachers, because we cannot expect to turn around our public schools until we first begin to retain more of our experienced educators. This means advocating and prioritizing regular teacher pay raises, offering relevant professional development, improving support from central administration, and giving teachers a greater voice before the school board. In addition, identifying and rewarding our best principals – and removing underperforming school leaders – is a critical factor for improving overall teacher retention, school climate and morale.
Norfolk is a vibrant, welcoming city with a rich history and even greater potential. As the proud parent of three children who attend three different Norfolk public schools, I am committed to improving public education in Norfolk. I am not happy with the status quo, and I believe many of our problems can be fixed, but not without greater accountability from top to bottom. I have over fifteen years of experience in management and operating roles and have led successful business turnarounds across industries. I’ll take what I’ve learned in the private sector, as a parent, and as a long-time NPS volunteer, and I will be a practical problem solver in our public schools. Norfolk citizens want positive change and our students and teachers badly need it. Together, we can build a brighter future for our city and our schools.
Candidate, Norfolk School Board Superward 6