COLUMBIA — The achievement gap is a persistent problem in Columbia Public Schools, and candidates for the Columbia School Board agreed at a candidate forum Tuesday night that more could be done to address the issue.
The Columbia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted at Second Baptist Church the last scheduled forum for Columbia School Board candidates before the April 5 election. Columbia chapter president Mary Ratliff moderated.
The achievement gap dominated the forum’s questions, as did diversity in teacher recruitment, the need for hiring a chief diversity officer and the redrawing of school attendance boundaries.
Many candidates said they thought the key to closing the achievement gap was supporting early-childhood education programs.
“I would be an advocate for early-childhood education programs that specifically include involving the parents — involving the caregivers in education,” candidate Liz Peterson said. “That ensures readiness to learn because if the child comes to school and they are not ready to learn and don’t care about learning, then they will not be engaged in the process.”
Candidates Dave Raithel and Jonathan Sessions said encouraging programs such as the MAC Scholars program in place at the high schools would be integral to fostering student achievement. Raithel also said he talked to some school administrators about possibly starting a "mini-MAC" program in the elementary schools.
“It’s cliché to say I was really impressed,” Raithel said. “The fact is, I was really impressed.”
“We need to expand and support programs like the MAC Scholars,” Sessions said. “We need to continue to increase programs like that that encourage our black students to be successful.”
Sara Dickson was the only candidate who did not support the continued funding of early-childhood education programs.
“When studying about state and local budgets in my master's of public affairs program, I learned we don’t want to use one-time stimulus for ongoing projects,” Dickson said. “I believe the mission of our schools is K through 12. I believe we need to stay within that mission and strengthen K through 12.”
Candidates said they recognized the importance of diversity when hiring district faculty and staff. Candidate Tom Rose said the district needs to hire employees who are the most qualified, but it also needs to look at people of diverse backgrounds.
“When kids get to look at somebody and they see themselves in that mentor, they can aspire,” candidate Helen Wade said. “And that’s what education is about.”
The candidates were also asked whether they thought the district needed a chief diversity officer. Candidates were divided on the topic.
“I don’t know that we necessarily need one,” Rose said. “Our funds may not allow us to hire one. But I do think we need to strive for more racial diversity as far as our staff is concerned.”
Sessions said the topic of a chief diversity officer “is a conversation I have honestly had with our district. … It has seriously been considered and is something that I think should still be on the table.”
Raithel, Wade, Sessions, Rose and Peterson said they think the district needs to make sure the redrawn attendance boundaries accurately reflect the demographic makeup of Columbia. Dickson said she needed more information on the subject before she could discuss it.
Ratliff emphasized the need for diversity in the redistricting process and the NAACP's commitment to making the achievement gap and diversity one of its "hot-button issues."
“When lines are redrawn, we don’t want to end up with segregated schools in our community that would recall equal but separate,” Ratliff said. “We fought that battle once, and we don’t want to fight it again."