After the prepared questions were asked and answered, the candidates for Racine Unified School Board took on questions from the audience.
Five of the six candidates for the school board participated in a forum hosted by Patch and WGTD 91.1FM on Tues., Feb. 7, at Mount Pleasant Village Hall. Present were Scott Brownell, Brian Dey, Don Nielsen, Roger Pfost and Gretchen Warner. Incumbent Kim Plache was at home recuperating from a broken leg after a car accident, and Kevin Cronin pulled out of the race because he is starting a new job that would keep him from attending meetings.
Linda Flashinski, one of the hosts of "Education Matters" on WGTD, served as the moderator and Janine Anderson, associate regional editor for Patch, kept the time. During this part of the forum, candidates chose what questions they wanted to answer.
Here are the questions and how the candidates answered:
The K4 program was sold to us as a way to improve test scores, but with no demonstrated improvement, shouldn't this program be cancelled?
Nielsen said not only is it too soon to make that determination, but early indications point to K4 working the way it was supposed to work.
"Students who started in the first K4 class are just now in third grade and their test scores are better," he said.
More, Nielsen used an example given by public school advocate Jamie Vollmer during Vollmer's visit last month to press his point about early childhood education: parents who read to their kids give their kids a measurable advantage over the kids whose parents do not read to them and K4 can help shorten that gap.
Dey and Pfost agreed that it's just too soon to tell, but monitoring should be implemented immediately so when it comes time to analyze, the data will be complete.
In 1990 we had 31,000 students and 1,600 teachers and in 2012 we have 18,000 students and 1,600 teachers. Are we overstaffed? (We have not independently verified these numbers)
Dey said the numbers quoted in the question sound fairly accurate, but given the increased number of students with special needs, the number of staff may be necessary. Still, he doesn't want to ignore finding efficiencies.
"We need to look at redistricting and the budget," he said.
Nielsen said substitute teachers are included on the staff list but said staff helps reduce class sizes. Brownell agreed smaller class sizes are important.
"If we can afford it, I want us to have as many teachers as we could have that would facilitate keeping class sizes small," Brownell said. "That bodes well for the educational environment for students."
Gallup has determined a key reason children drop out of school is they simply lose hope. What steps would you take to cultivate hope?
Warner pointed out how smaller class sizes help improve the relationship between the teacher and the student and can extend to the parents as well.
"I think that's where having as many teachers as we can comes in," she said. "We can find out the needs in terms of support and make contact with the parents and what they can do at home. Something else we do well in the district is before and after school programs that students can come to for additional help with their assignments."
Dey is the parent of a high school drop out and he said after sixth grade, the curriculum wasn't challenging enough so his son just wasn't engaged. While we're making sure to create a net for at-risk kids, we also need to provide opportunities for the highly advanced as well.
"He has an extremely high IQ, but he started losing interest and by the age of 17 he dropped out," he told residents. "He did get his GED and went on to virtual college to get his bachelor's degree. But we have to not just look at engaging on the low end, but on the high end. They lose interest because they feel there's nothing there for them or they don't know about it."
Pfost said more hands-on training for real careers after high school can go a long way to keeping students in school.
"Again, I go back to vocational training as a way to gain students' interest," he said. Using the automotive program at Washington Park High School as an example, Pfost added, "It would be an ideal spot to put kids in there for real-world interface for what's going on."
Nielsen used additional talking points from Vollmer's visit by highlighting that in past decades kids who dropped out had a job where they could drop in but that isn't the case any more.
"The jobs have changed. We need to change the emphasis to engage the students for the jobs that are out there," he said.
Directed to Brian Dey: Could you fairly represent Racine Unified when you supported a primarily white district for Caledonia?
Dey took the question at face-value and answered it by saying his previous term on the Racine Unified board took place during a tumultuous time of severe budget cuts, a scandal, firing a superintendent and rewriting policies. At the same time, Caledonia was considering organizing its own school district, but residents shouldn't take it anything other than Dey continuing to work for better education for all students.
"They wanted a school district and I knew school districts so they came to me," he said. "But I told Caledonia this better mean better education for Racine Unified and Caledonia or I'm not on board. This was about improving education for both."
Could you speak to special education and how one teacher with 28 students, including some with special needs, attends to all students' needs without assistance?
Nielsen said it can't be done unless the students with disabilities can function fairly easily in the classroom. As the parent of a student with Down's Syndrome who was included in regular education classes, he used the experience to explain how it can be done by partnering teachers and assistants.
"You have to have a curriculum for those children, and you have to have a special education teacher who can partner with the regular education teacher to help provide the needs for all the students," he said. "It's not easy, but it can be done and it can be done very effectively."
Brownell acknowleged how difficult it can be to have mixed classes, but it can work as long as there are resources in place.
"Students with high needs do need additional help in the classroom so to expect a teacher with 28 or 30 students in a classroom to be able to meet every student's needs it becomes nearly impossible," he said. "There are additional resources that are required to help the student and help the teacher."
Dey offered his own anecdote from when he taught at Wind Point Elementary, saying that it's not easy and it's not possible for one person because in the end, the students end up losing out.
"Through inclusion, we lost a number of our assistants and that is something we need to monitor, to be sure we are reaching those kids," he said. "We need to see if inclusion is hurting their education or if it's remaining the same."
Did any of you attend one of the sessions by Jamie Vollmer on Jan. 25 or 26? If yes, what are your views on what he said?
Warner both attended and said she had the book, which she held up for the audience to see. She explained how Vollmer went from being a critic of public schools to one of its staunchest allies by realizing that schools are a reflection of a community's beliefs.
"Our schools are integral to our community and we have to find ways to engage the community," she said. "The more we do that the more support we'll get."
Dey has read Vollmer's book but did not attend the sessions. He said he was struck by how schools are still run as if we're in the industrial age and have nothing to do with the individual child.
"Not every kid learns at the same speed at the same age or hits the same points at the same time, but that's how we've set up our schools," he continued. "I don't agree with (Vollmer) about voucher schools and charter schools because there has been success there. Bringing the community in is important, but you have to gain that trust."
Brownell said he did attend one of the sessions and read the book. He said the time constraint is true by taking children with different capabilities but giving them the same amount of time to accomplish tasks even though this is not a true indication of their intelligence and can actually hurt students.
"We have to engage the community and get their permission to make changes in how we teach children and the system in which we teach children," he said. "It's absolutely critical to the success of public education and the welfare of our children."
Could you envision the greater Racine area without Racine Unified and what would take its place? What does Racine Unified serve?
Dey said he can't say "yes" or "no" to the possibility because times will change. With seven individual communities that need to come on board, the focus has to extend beyond the City of Racine.
"If we want (these communities) in here, we've got to engage them, we've got to make them feel as if they're a part of the community," he said. "I can tell you from working on the Caledonia district that they didn't feel like that. We've got to go to their meetings so when we ask for a referendum we know what's going on in their communities."
Exit surveys have been talked about for three years regarding open enrollment. What have you done about this or what will you do about this? (An audience member clarified the question, saying it's important that the district understand why parents choose to send their children to districts outside Unified.)
Nielsen said he doesn't know of a complete survey done, but he would like to see one done.
"It's something we need to address," he admitted. "Things I hear most often is security. Parents are not satisfied with the security level they perceive in our schools. An exit survey would benefit us greatly and I will pursue that and hopefully next year we'll have results."
Warner agrees with Nielsen and said the largest number of students leaving are those going into high school, which shouldn't be a surprise.
"Obviously, (parents) want their kids to have a different high school experience," she said. "But I would very much like some research done."
Brownell said it's really just common sense why students are leaving Unified; families are dissatisfied.
"Security and personal safety is a high issue as well as the perception of a better education if students go elsewhere," he said "Open enrollment is great, but I'd like to see more students coming in than going out. By creating a school district that functions well with high expectations and high student achievement then the exit polls become a moot point because we're attracting students rather than losing."
Pfost said the transfer of 864 students bothers him but he is also disturbed by the board's lack of interest in those losses while they jump on losing 250 students to vouchers.
"It's a little late now when we should have started with the 855 or wherever they were going," he said.
Dey said one of the biggest concerns for the district is financing. The budget goes up and mill rates go up but if we're losing students we shouldn't need the same resources, which is one reason the district is talking about closing schools. Dey also thinks Act 10 will be one of the best things to happen for pubilc schools in many years.
"We should have been talking about this, and exit surveys are wonderful tools because it does get specific in a lot of cases, and now, with Act 10, we can use that data," he said. "Act 10 is going to be the best tool to reform schools that we've had in a long time because we've been beholden to the union for so long and it has been a great expense. Now we can take tools like this to analyze data down to if we have a specific problem in a specific school with a specific person."
The Racine Unified primary is scheduled for Feb. 21 despite Cronin dropping out of the race. Residents will elected three of six candidates to a three-year term on the school board in the general election on Tues., April 3.