Columbia School Board candidates discuss Common Core, violence in schools

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 11:10 p.m. CDT; updated 6:45 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 19, 2014

COLUMBIA — Columbia School Board candidates discussed bullying, population growth and Common Core State Standards, among other topics, at a forum Tuesday night.

The League of Women Voters hosted the forum in conjunction with the Columbia Public Library and KFRU/1400 AM. The forum was aired live on the radio station and moderated by talk show host Renee Hulshof.

All four school board candidates – Jonathan Sessions, Paul Cushing, Helen Wade and Joseph Toepke – were present.

Candidates were given two minutes for an opening statement and one minute per candidate for their response to each question. Below are paraphrased excerpts of the questions and responses.

Do you see the Common Core State Standards as an improvement over No Child Left Behind?

Sessions, Cushing and Wade all supported the Common Core State Standards. Sessions said that Common Core standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but tells them what students need to know. It also helps track student achievement and "establishes some sort of benchmark," Cushing said.

"We can stop trying to compare apples to oranges, Massachusetts to Missouri," Sessions said. "Let's be able to draw that line all the way across so that we can compare one another to one another."

Toepke said he agrees that the principles of the standards are a good tool, but he said he doesn't agree with the mechanism and time table for its implementation.

How do you plan to address education about violence and drugs in Columbia schools?

Toepke, Wade and Sessions related school violence to bullying. Toepke said his oldest daughter had a bad experience with bullying about five years ago. He and his wife decided to withdraw their two daughters from Columbia Public Schools because of the bullying incident and enrolled them in private school.

"Bullying stems from a lack of respect for one another," Toepke said. He suggested establishing a summer school course on bullying and school violence for students.

Wade said that it is important to reach out to families, caregivers and counselors who have a chance to intervene. 

The only candidate to mention drugs, Sessions said they are a mode of self-treatment. He said for drug prevention to be successful, schools need to address why students use drugs.

What is the board's plan as it moves forward with planning and estimating student population?

Wade said that being proactive in regards to the community's growth is important. She said the board is looking to evaluate the school boundaries more regularly to deal with changing school populations appropriately.

"Having a community growing as much as we are is a great problem to have," Sessions said. He said the district's 10-year Facility and Bond Plan is one of the ways that the board is trying to manage community growth.

The plan includes the most recent bond issue, which would create a new elementary school on the east side of Columbia and renovations and additions to other schools in the district.

What programs do Columbia Public Schools provide in the summer and do you believe they are important?

The candidates named several summer school programs the district currently has, such as a fine arts program, Fun City Youth Academy of Columbia, and enrichment and remediation programs.

The candidates supported expanding summer school courses and Sessions and Cushing proposed extending the school year to prevent "summer loss," when students forget things they learned over summer break.

"I think for our most at-risk kids extending the school year would be very beneficial because they go through summer and they're not active in school and they forget," Cushing said. 

What is the optimal classroom size and should it vary based on classroom performance?

Sessions said the optimal classroom size depends on the age of the students. He said kindergarten classes should be small, but middle school and high school classrooms can be larger. Sessions said he supports smaller classroom sizes because it allows teachers to make better connections with their students.

Wade said teachers with larger classes seem to be spending a lot of time on behavior management, taking away from their time to deliver quality curriculum. She said she wasn't sure if there was a connection between class size and student performance.

"We need to strike a balance between prudent use of district funds to manage class sizes and making sure that teachers are in a position to do their job well and devote their time to delivering that quality instruction," Wade said.

Toepke said his wife, who is a teacher at Smithton Middle School, often talks about her classes being too big. He said he thinks class sizes should be as small as possible and teachers should be supported while teaching their classes.

Name one thing or more about our schools that is particularly noteworthy and places us at the very top.

Cushing said he couldn't name one specific thing because there are so many good things in the district.

"I can't think of just one thing that sticks out in my head except that I think we're doing it right," he said. "Can we do it better? Absolutely."

Wade, Toepke and Sessions all agreed that community support and involvement were particularly noteworthy for the school district. Wade also said that the district stands out for its creativity. Toepke said the community's diversity also makes it stand out and that he would like to see more community involvement.

"It's just how much are we, as a community, all going to pitch in," Toepke said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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