School Committee Candidates Answer Some Questions for Acton Forum: Part 3, Ginny Kramer

On behalf of Acton Forum, I asked each candidate for the School Committee three questions based on current topics that concern many voters.

1. Explain your approach and plan to addressing the #1 topic referenced in Superintendent's Report of Entry Findings: tension between parents specific to the balance between wellness and achievement.

My approach is to assist in beginning this very important discussion, and to ensure that all stakeholders feel comfortable providing their honest perspectives. We can all agree that everyone is in favor of student wellness. But we need to recognize that there are different definitions of wellness, some of which are based at least in part on deeply held cultural beliefs. Moreover, we need to acknowledge that learning contributes to wellness for everyone; for some students, achieving at very high levels of academic excellence contributes to wellness. It is also the case that some students experience pressure to take high level classes and achieve high grades and test scores, and that pressure has a negative impact on their wellness. In some cases, that negative impact can be very serious. In short, each student and family is different, and there is no one correct formula or balance.

I support many of the wellness initiatives recently undertaken by the District. For example, I have seen in my own home the very positive impact that later start times at the junior high and high school have on student wellness. On the other hand, I shared concerns about the interpretation of the School Committee’s homework policy as my sixth grader prepared for junior high. Thus, I believe that we must to examine each initiative--or proposed initiative--on its own merits, pay attention to the science, have robust input from our educators and the community, and then reexamine and adjust each initiative after implementation.

2. Do you believe all renovation alternatives have been adequately assessed by School Building Project Committee and explain if you think new construction or renovation will be the best value for the citizens of Acton and Boxborough?

I do believe that all renovation alternatives have been adequately assessed by School Building Project Committee. I support the school building project. When I was one of the four Assistant Attorneys General defending Education Reform in the early 2000’s, I was the point person for both special education and facilities. As a result, I toured almost every school in each Plaintiff school district, which had labeled themselves “property poor districts.” In 2004, I went to every single school in communities like Winchendon. I saw many disturbing things on those tours. In 2008, when I went on the Acton kindergarten tours, I walked into the Douglas School and immediately felt like I was standing in a school in Winchendon. The condition of the building and some of the educational spaces and facilities was, in a word, deplorable.

The fact is that our District has replaced only one school building in decades. No child in our District should have to take classes in a trailer. No educator should be asked to teach in a trailer, or any other “swing space” that is wholly inappropriate to meet educational needs--not to mention basic comfort. The Douglas and Gates buildings, in my opinion, reached the end of their useful lives long ago. There are no repairs or renovations that can bring these buildings up to today’s standards. As a District, in my opinion, we are not giving those students access to an equitable education because of the condition of those facilities.

The School Building Project Committee has been working very diligently to balance educational needs with cost, and I am confident that it will continue to do so. We must always remain cognizant of the impact this project will have on our property taxes. We must also find ways to minimize that impact for low- or fixed-income residents. But this new building is needed. We must do much better for our kids and our educators than “repair” or “renovate” these two obsolete buildings.

3. Please explain your opinion (disagreement or justification) on how state or federal programs, guidelines and mandates affect local school committee decisions specific to a). traditional approaches to education with less technology and b). how much flexibility should principals have on a school's methods or pedagogy. Please provide examples.

Like all School Committees, ABRSC must establish and revise policies and regulations by which our District’s schools are governed that comply with all state and federal laws, regulations, and guidelines. There exists a plethora of such regulations, and it is not clear to which regulations the question refers.

One of the most important responsibilities of the School Committee is to work with the communities to improve student achievement in our schools. Based on our District’s core values, “achievement” is and must be measured by more than simply standardized test scores. In our District, each building’s principal has some flexibility to determine issues like curriculum, budget priorities, homework, use of technology, etc. This seems to be especially true at the elementary level. In my opinion, some flexibility is appropriate, but it needs to be balanced with accountability. Measures of accountability include student performance, not just on standardized tests, but also on the assessments regularly given by our educators. Those results should be carefully examined to determine whether there are any gaps in performance that expose problems with a school’s methods or curriculum delivery. For example, if one elementary school’s students perform at lower levels on the math MCAS and math assessments, we need to assess what is going wrong. For another example, if Junior High teachers note disparities in readiness for junior high among the students from the various elementary schools, we need to look at the adequacy of preparation taking place at those schools. Flexibility only works to the extent that we are giving access to appropriate learning opportunities to all students in our District.

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