Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oral Exams For School Board Candidates

The Council of PTAs and League of Women Voters sponsored a forum for Richardson ISD school board candidates Tuesday evening in the RISD administration building auditorium. Six candidates for three seats participated. I don't intend to endorse or oppose any candidate, but I do want to make some random comments about what was said at the forum. I won't be mentioning names. If you want anything more specific, check out the recorded video of the forum when it's posted at the RISD website.

After the jump, my impression of the forum.

All of the candidates appeared to be serious. All appeared to have the best interest of the district and the students in mind. None appeared to be running on a single issue. Most (all?) expressed support for the current position and direction of the district. For the most part, criticism was in the form of wanting to do even more in different areas, not that what the district is already doing is wrong.

It's not likely that a "talented and gifted" magnet school is in RISD's future. Candidates expressed support for programs like REACH and AP classes. Only one candidate endorsed the idea of creating a separate school for talented and gifted students, along the lines of Garland ISD's academic academy. If I understood correctly, this candidate suggested that such schools allow teachers to get high-performing students "out of their hair" so they can focus on other children in need of their attention. Maybe I heard wrong, because I've never heard before that teachers are eager to get rid of the high-performing students in their classes.

It's not likely that extracurricular programs like athletics or fine arts are going to be scaled back in RISD's future. Not only did all candidates express support for extracurricular activities, some candidates said there should be even more emphasis on them.

Low-performing teachers might want to pick up their game. The four challengers all said RISD should be willing to terminate teachers who consistently fail to demonstrate effective teaching methods. The two incumbents didn't disagree, but put more emphasis on setting goals for teachers, evaluating their effectiveness and offering support and mentoring to raise their standards.

What can be done to keep so many students entering community college from needing remedial help in one or more subjects? There were no silver bullets offered. One candidate pointed out that TAKS is designed to ensure students reach a minimum standard of education, not necessarily to be college-ready. One suggested schools need to offer more real-life experiences like internships to impress on students just what skills are necessary beyond high school. The best answer, in my mind, was by the candidate who said that reading is key and better assessment of reading skills at an early level is needed, with remedial action starting then, not after the student graduates from high school.

All candidates agreed that there's a need for more parental and community involvement, but none offered any silver bullets here, either. One pointed out that 85 different languages are spoken in the homes of RISD students. Another said that cultural barriers exist -- that some parents do not feel it's their place to monitor what happens inside the schools. One candidate said the board itself could benefit from more diversity in membership. Another said some international experience was needed. Looking around the auditorium, I was struck by just how lacking in diversity the audience was. How the RISD can become more inclusive is a big and growing problem that no one seems to have many ideas how to solve.

Advice to candidates -- what not to do: You probably won't win votes at a candidates' forum sponsored by the PTA and the League of Women Voters by saying that PTAs sign up parents at the beginning of the year, then for the rest of the year, the same bunch of mothers run the show.

Advice to candidates -- what to say: Thank the audience for attending. Thank the sponsors for hosting the forum. Tell the audience you have the knowledge, experience, judgment and passion for the job. Then back it up with an evening full of thoughtful, lucid answers to questions. Kudos. You know who you are.

P.S. One last aside prompted not by anything that happened at the forum but by a blog posting the same day in The Dallas Morning News Richardson blog. Jeffrey Weiss revealed his suspicions that a candidate has been making comments on the News' blog disparaging other candidates under multiple assumed names ("toss[ing] stink bombs" is how Weiss put it). Weiss says he won't name names. That's his right, but suspicion is thereby cast on all candidates, which isn't fair to the innocent. In my opinion, Weiss should have either handled the entire matter privately or he ought to have given all the candidates an opportunity to respond, to defend themselves, before going public with his scattershot suspicions.

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