COLUMBIA — Although the laid-back atmosphere and small crowd at Wednesday's Columbia School Board candidate forum prompted some to suggest it would be better housed at a bar, candidates were able to present some of their plans for the future of Columbia Public Schools.
At the forum, which was hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, board candidates discussed alternative education models, the change in school start times and school program evaluation.
Three of the four school board candidates — Jonathan Sessions, Paul Cushing and Helen Wade — were present.
Candidate Joseph Toepke was absent from the forum due to a work-related conflict. He provided a statement about his candidacy in an email, which was read at the forum.
The chamber posed three questions to the candidates and then opened up the forum for attendee questions.
Different educational models
The candidates addressed vocational opportunities and specialized elementary schools, such as Benton Elementary School's Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (or STEM) model and Lee Elementary School's focus on fine arts. The candidates agreed that students should have more opportunities in middle and high school to pursue specialized interests.
Sessions said although he supports more options for specialized education, students' skills still need to be supported by education models that teach reading, writing and communication skills.
Cushing said he believes the district needs to expand its vocational opportunities for students seeking alternatives to traditional high school education. He said Hickman, Battle and Rock Bridge high schools are positioned to offer more job-based training.
Vocational opportunities help students "step out of high school and enter a job where they can earn enough to live," Cushing said.
Wade said the Columbia Area Career Center is an important part of the district's options for education. The center helps students who "don’t fit in with the traditional trajectory" spark an interest for their plans after school, Wade said.
School start times
Although parents were initially unsure about changing school start times, Wade said the new times are working from a performance standpoint, though they will need to be continually evaluated.
If re-elected, Wade said providing additional after-school programs to alleviate the stress of working parents would be one issue the board would consider. She invited parents to share their ideas about start times with the board.
Sessions said the district has been a model for other school districts considering adjusting start times.
"A lot of schools are making this change because they recognize from an educational standpoint it makes a difference," Sessions said.
School program evaluations
Candidates suggested different methods for evaluating school programs and how those programs could improve teacher and student performance.
Wade said it's crucial to assess programs by looking critically at data and monitoring progress as soon as the program begins. Wade specifically pointed to the AVID program, which is designed to better prepare students for success in college, and said she wants to see the data to prove its effectiveness as it continues to develop.
Wade also said regardless of the program, it takes highly qualified teachers to make it effective.
When asked specifically about student engagement with STEM coursework, the candidates agreed that it's important to train teachers, especially at the elementary level, to feel comfortable and passionate about teaching science. They said the teachers' passion will then translate to greater student engagement.
"We have to have educators that feel comfortable teaching science in that STEM niche,” Sessions said.
Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.