COLUMBIA — Michelle Pruitt sings. It's not likely the public will ever hear her sing — that's reserved for a makeshift music room that was once a child's bedroom. But she is trying to make her voice and her opinions clearly heard as she campaigns for the Columbia School Board.
Pruitt is one of nine people vying for two seats in the April 7 election. In her campaign, she is giving voice to goals she has for the district, such as reforming how math is taught and better management of the budget.
“The Columbia Public Schools has a reputation as being a really, really good district, and I have seen that personally. I really believe strongly that we can be and we have been one of the best districts in the state,” Pruitt said. “I do think we have kind of been derailed by budget issues, by personnel issues and not being able to operate the teacher salary schedule.”
The district faces a budget deficit of $3.2 million, according to Linda Quinley, district director of business services. The salary schedule is one in which teachers are paid in accordance with years worked in the district and their education; the district did not operate a salary schedule for the 2008-09 school year and must decide whether to reinstate the salary schedule for the next school year.
Pruitt has been involved in the district for more than a decade, and the list of organizations in which she participates is long. They include: the Great Expectations!/Achievement Gap Task Force; the Secondary Math Task Force; middle school and elementary math curriculum committees; and the Mathematics Community Advisory Committee. She is the treasurer of the Columbia Area Gifted and Talented PTA, and she founded Columbia Parents for Real Math two years ago.
Pruitt, 43, and her husband, David, have three children: Stella, 11, a fifth-grader at Fairview Elementary School; Ryan, 15, a sophomore at Hickman High School; and Cole, 19, a Hickman graduate who is a sophomore at Brown University.
Ryan plays clarinet and oboe, and Michelle Pruitt has returned to playing the piano. David Pruitt, however, is a professional musician who plays lead guitar in the band The Bel Airs. When Cole moved away to college, the process of creating the music room began.
“It was like a big land grab,” Michelle Pruitt said, laughing. It was more like a game of musical rooms, with Ryan taking over Cole's room and Stella taking over Ryan's room. That left Stella's room vacant.
“We have a tiny family room, so we chopped a hole in the wall into that bedroom and put in French doors, so it’s sort of like part of the living room,” Pruitt said. “You can still shut the doors, though, and put curtains across when the big brother comes home.”
Pruitt has invested heavily in the district because of her children. Running for school board is, in essence, an extension of her current involvement.
“I have already been working a lot with district committees and working on controversial subjects," she said. “That is part of where my motivation comes for serving on the school board.”
Cande Iveson, a friend of Pruitt's who has served on a task force with her, said Pruitt is committed. "She has the ability to listen, which seems to be part of the frustration and something that the community wants,” Iveson said.
Iveson said she saw Pruitt contact parents individually when they missed meetings or had concerns.
With a strong interest in math, Pruitt is happy the district is moving past the controversy that has surrounded the math curriculum for the past several years.
"Everyone wants students to understand math and be able to do math,” Pruitt said. “I think the balance was a little too far away from actually knowing how to do the problems opposed to the emphasis on conceptual versus procedural.”
Pruitt's view is based on research that shows that reading and math instruction that focuses on content has been shown to be more effective, especially for students who might not have support outside of school. As a board member she would focus on using data to evaluate district programs and to follow up on expenditures to see if they really accomplish district goals.
“The math curriculum was leading to falling test scores for six years, and the district was ready to stick with the status quo for another six years. That’s why Columbia Parents for Real Math sprang up,” she said. “The school board has an oversight role to play in evaluating whether our resources are being used effectively. That’s what I would do as a board member.”
Pruitt works as an information technology specialist for the Agricultural Research Service, which is part of the USDA and based at MU. She troubleshoots and helps people with their computer problems.
“If it has to do with your computer, I do it," Pruitt said. "It’s about solving problems that actually have answers. I really enjoy it.”
Pruitt's 1989 undergraduate degrees from MU are in math and physics. But her master's degree from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego is in physical oceanography. There, she learned how to calculate ocean currents.
“They cut a line across the entire Pacific Ocean — they literally lower this long cable to the bottom of the ocean,” Pruitt said, gesturing with her hands to explain the process. "They measure salinity, temperature and pressure, and if you are far enough away from the equator, you can figure out the ocean currents. It seems impossible, but it really does work.”
Pruitt left California after finishing her work there. “I decided living there was not going to be a good choice for our family, as a unit,” she said. “So we moved to Columbia, and I was a stay-at-home mom for a while.”
She has embraced her life in Columbia and thinks her diverse experience would be helpful on the board.
“I have met the neatest people as part of the campaign," Pruitt said. "The people who work with the schools and people who care about the schools are great people. It would just be nice for folks to realize that volunteering for the schools, as anything from a room parent to a committee member, is its own reward. I think a lot of time the focus is on not having enough time or the negative, but the positives are huge.”