The Missourian sent eight questions to the four Columbia School Board candidates. The questions were the result of community feedback and topics that have come up in the Missourian's K-12 reporting.
Here are their answers:
Answers from incumbent Helen Wade were not available.
1. How would you work to address the achievement gaps that exist between low-income or minority students compared to their peers?
Jonathan Sessions: The achievement gap is a symptom of an opportunity gap, and there is no silver (bullet) to eliminate it. Continued hard work and community support is how we can make a difference. While CPS has made great strides in closing that gap, I know it will not close without wrap-around services and additional offerings from the district. Keeping students with insecure housing at the same school; year-round school to reduce the impact of summer loss some students experience from a lack of access to enrichment opportunities; and before and after school programs to reduce the high cost of child care for families while providing enrichment and tutoring are just a few of the many strategies the district is working on that I will continue to support.
Chris Horn: We start by making sure we are cultivating inclusive environments for our students and educators. We will continue and build upon the current diversity, equity and inclusion training. We must also recruit and retain teachers and administrators that reflect the diverse make up of our students. Lastly, we must expand our early childhood education programs until all of our pre-K children in Columbia have access to them.
David Seamon: I believe we need to solve the opportunity gap before we tackle the achievement gap. To do this, we have to severely reduce the number of students receiving reduced or free lunches. We can do that by both pushing the city and county to recruit higher-wage jobs and seeking state and federal grants with the Department of Agriculture to implement a “3 Meals a Day” program. We also have to ensure we are keeping students in the classroom by implementing restorative practices instead of punitive measures such as (in-school suspension) and (out-of-school suspension) when the opportunity is available. Ensuring we are connecting with busy parents in a way that works for them and not us, and recruiting, supporting and retaining not only the best teachers, but teachers of color is how we will begin to solve this issue.
2. What would be your two biggest priorities as a School Board member?
Jonathan Sessions: 1. Keeping our students, educators and staff safe as we work to reopen our district. 2. Maintaining a sustainable budget without increasing the burden on taxpayers in this time of uncertainty.
Chris Horn: 1. Eliminate disparities in achievement so that all of our children have the legitimate opportunity to graduate college-, career- and life-ready. 2. Recruit and retain educators, administrators and staff that reflect the diversity of our community and our students.
David Seamon: My two priorities are recruiting, supporting and retaining our educators and creating an inclusive and restorative climate that disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline and keeps our students firmly entrenched in the academic setting. We as board members and the administration must be willing to meet with and negotiate with the teacher’s union in good faith and in a collaborative manner that places our student’s needs above all else. We also must be willing to raise educator and administrator pay in a state that ranks 42nd in teacher salaries and place a premium on recruiting a diverse workforce that models our student population.
3. Concerns about seclusion rooms and restraint policies have come up locally and in the state legislature. Does the district's seclusion and restraint policy, which was revised in December, align with your views on education?
Jonathan Sessions: District policy (both the previous and current revisions) defines and clearly prohibits seclusion, except in the rarest of circumstances in which students are putting themselves, other students or staff in danger. We worked with local organizations to craft the updated policy, which outlined improved reporting timelines. Our policy is more restrictive than the bill proposed by state legislators. I agree that seclusion should be prohibited as outlined in our policy.
Chris Horn: That we have such a policy does not align with my view on education. While I do not like it, I do understand why a restraint policy is in place, but I have not heard a compelling reason that supports the need for and use of seclusion rooms. Restraints should only occur as an absolute last option in extreme cases, supported by articulable facts, where a student presents a threat of harm to themselves or others.
David Seamon: While the use of restraints against a child seems abhorrent to me, the reality is we do have students who can quickly become a threat to both themselves and others, and in those cases restraints should be utilized as a last resort. However, I disagree with both our usage of isolation and the time period in which a parent receives a formal report. Isolating a student who is experiencing behavioral issues without addressing the cause does nothing but pause the behavior until a later date. Providing the student the opportunity to speak with a counselor and work through those issues solves both the short and long term issue, and quickly returns the student to the classroom. I believe parents should receive a formal written report no later than five school days after restraints are utilized, and we should continue to notify them by the end of the school day.
4. Would you be in support of allowing IEP and 504 meetings to be recorded? Why or why not?
Jonathan Sessions: Our policy allows for recording in compliance with state and federal laws. It became clear at the beginning of the year CPS did not have all the equipment necessary to fulfill requests to record and store those recordings as a part of the students permanent record while staying HIPPA-compliant. The district has begun work to resolve that issue.
Chris Horn: I am in support of recordings. If a parent and/or student requests to have a meeting recorded because it is what is best for the student, then we should honor that request. We are here to help children succeed and should support what is in the best interest of children.
David Seamon: Yes, I would. I believe it is a parent’s right to have a full and clear understanding of the plan they and their student’s teachers have developed for their education. These meetings can take hours and asking a parent to remember everything discussed or to take detailed notes does not benefit the student. We must also ensure that our educators have the proper training to ensure that they are comfortable having these conversations with parents, and that they understand that if they follow the proscribed procedures the school district will support them through litigation or complaint. Training could be provided through the Heart of Missouri Regional Professional Development Center’s special education improvement course.
5. Would you advocate for ending out-of-school suspensions? Why or why not?
Jonathan Sessions: I’m confused as to why you are asking this question because we don’t have out-of-school suspensions and haven’t for some time. Even one of the current candidates is unaware of this fact and is unaware of our ACE program, which is at the core of restorative practices. If a student is “suspended,” there’s a good chance it’s in that student’s best interest to be temporarily removed from their home building, but they don’t just get to stay at home. Students go to our ACE program until their “suspension” is over. While they are at ACE, they are still going to school and are expected to complete all school work assigned to them by their classroom teachers. Students succeed when they are in class.
Chris Horn: Yes. Children cannot learn if they are not in school. There is not restorative value in removing students from learning environments. We must be firm in the standards and expectations that we have for students to mitigate situations that lead to such suspensions. We must also utilize restorative practices to address misbehaviors.
David Seamon: Yes, students who are suspended from school are much more likely to enter the criminal justice system later in life and serve jail or prison sentences. Statistically, disabled and black students are more likely to be suspended than their peers, at rates of 28% and 31% respectively, while accounting for a much smaller percentage of the student population, 12% and 15%. Ending out-of-school suspension would not reduce a school’s ability to remove a violent student or punish a heinous act, the option of expulsion would still be available. However, if we can catch and modify disruptive behaviors now we will not have to catch and incarcerate them later. We should be focused on keeping students in the academic environment whenever possible.
6. What will you do to ensure that accessibility concerns continue to be addressed?
Jonathan Sessions: We’re an old district with a lot of old buildings that were built at a time when accessibility wasn’t even a consideration. Additionally, when I got on the board there were 175 trailers in the district most of which were not accessible. Over the last 10 years our community has supported the CPS 10-Year Bond Plan that not only worked to eliminate the inaccessible and expensive trailers (we will be below 20 in August 2020), but also expand and renovate multiple buildings throughout the district making them accessible to all our students. Not only will we continue that work as a part of the next 10-Year Bond Plan, but we are specifically including accessibility into the language of the bond election to increase district accountability.
Chris Horn: Make sure that we are looking through an equity and accessibility lens when making capitol improvements and constructing new buildings and strive for ADA inclusivity. Be sure to listen to students, parents and community members more familiar with such concerns.
David Seamon: We have to ensure that we continue to listen to the community, to our students, parents and faculty. They are the end-users of our schools and facilities, they know where accessibility remains an issue and they will make those instances known. For example, the stage at West Elementary is not wheelchair-accessible. As we build new facilities, we have to keep ADA compliance as a priority, and as we renovate older facilities, ADA compliance should be the priority.
7. Should the district do more to make schools more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students? If so, what?
Jonathan Sessions: Several years ago when on the Policy Committee, I worked to expand all of the district’s protection policies to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes. Also, as one of the district’s certified equity trainers, I can speak first hand that our work focuses on helping all of us understand the way we are socialized and how it shapes our relationships. In CPS equity trainings, we work to help staff understand how they can be allies and support students and colleagues who are often targeted. I believe inclusivity comes from knowledge, understanding and self-reflection — and that is what is at the core of our equity work. I want all students and staff to feel safe and welcome in CPS.
Chris Horn: Inclusion is of the utmost importance. We have to foster a school community where all students, all educators, all administrators and all staff feel and are included regardless of gender, ability, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation or socioeconomic class.
David Seamon: Absolutely, LGBTQ+ youths are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, and that is a direct result of feeling excluded and unaccepted. We need both a robust health and history curriculum that focuses on the normalcy of LGBTQ+ life and the contributions members of the community have made to society in the form of a celebration equivalent to Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months, and to create and sustain a district climate that not only readily accepts and includes LGBTQ+ students and faculty, but harshly discourages discrimination and hate.
8. In a perfect world, what would a public K-12 school district look like?
Jonathan Sessions: Fully funded by the state.
Chris Horn: It would be pre-K though 12 where every parent and child has access to CPS early childhood programs should they so choose. We would have neighborhood schools to which students could walk, bike, or have a short bus ride. The student, staff, teacher and administrator demographics would reflect those of our community in each school. All of our students will have access to all of the enrichment opportunities. There are not gaps in achievement, and there are not disparities in discipline. All of our students can graduate life-, career- or college-ready.
David Seamon: Students would attend a diverse school within three miles of their home where a climate of acceptance and nurturing permeates the halls. They would be provided three meals a day from locally produced sources and educated on a comprehensive, world-class curriculum by a diverse, and well paid, group of teachers and administrators who have the full support of their district administration. Each school would have a space dedicated to providing families legal, medical, therapeutic and social services, and disciplinary policies would revolve around restorative and equitable solutions rather than punitive. Parents would feel welcome in our schools and would be confident that their issues have been acknowledged and are taken seriously. Communication would be open and transparent, and each student would be accepted and viewed as a future leader.