What is the most pressing issue or challenge facing Worcester Public Schools and how would you, as a school committee member, address it?
Cara Berg Powers:
I’ve spoken with thousands of community members this summer, and there are a handful of priorities that have come up again and again- things like buses, or trouble navigating access to the required accommodations for their children or grandchildren, concerns about our discipline practices, and genuinely not feeling listened to. Certainly some of these things will take a genuine seriousness of purpose and political will from our leadership to address. The solutions we know will work will also take another critical tool- money.
Over half of our students speak a first language other than English. We have the fifth highest percentage of homeless students in the country. Our students are traversing economic and social pressures that some of us have never had to consider. As a young person, having access to free breakfast and lunch was a huge weight off of our family finances. More than that, though, I also had access to weekly meetings with the school guidance counselor to talk about conflict resolution and my social and emotional health. Small class sizes throughout my school career, with ample support time for team teaching helped to ensure I could build the critical thinking skills to be a social entrepreneur and an educator. This all costs money. And it costs more to do these things- school nurses and librarians, health educators and wellness professionals, access to free healthy food, support for language inclusion and bilingual education, licensed clinicians, and other resources our kids need to get access to equitable opportunity to peers in smaller or wealthier communities.
We need to pass the Promise Act. I have and will continue to meet with our State delegation to talk about the ways that this critical funding bill will give needed support to our students, teachers and staff. I’ll also work closely with my colleagues on the City Council to advocate for the City paying more than the bare minimum for our schools. The schools in our city are being asked to solve challenges that we’re all responsible for without the resources they need to meet that challenge. And while the state has increased its investment because of increased costs, the city has not kept pace. If we truly believe that our schools are where we build our future as a city, than we need to invest accordingly. I will fight for that investment, and for good stewardship of those dollars to ensure the right investments are being made so that every child in our schools has access to what they need to be whole, healthy adults.
I feel one of the most pressing issues is Equity and Inclusion, as a school committee member I would address equity in the following ways:
Ensure equity in access to all programs for students with disabilities, including after-school programs. We need to ensure that our students on IEPs are supported in having access to the least restrictive environments as mandated by the law.
Apply scrutiny to programs, policies, and practices to prevent increased segregation by race, gender, socioeconomic status, language, and level of ability to assure that benefits are greater than harm. For example, I will obtain and publish the race and gender diversity of who is in the AP classes, Goddard Scholars and Honors courses and who are in the lowest tracked classes, the College Level classes. But more importantly, I will hold listening sessions with students and parents in the different leveled programs to inquire about how to ensure that any clear racial and gender disparities are addressed. I would do the same for disciplinary data and data on the enrollments in gifted and talented programs.
Ensure civic education at multiple grade levels and integrate issues of equity and social justice into core curricula. We do not need to wait for the state mandates to move forward on this. We can and should move forward on this immediately. There is research evidence to indicate that students from marginalized communities find a curriculum addressing community social justice issues is inspiring and motivating for them. Instead of making our students learn the way we teach, we need to begin to teach the way our students learn best!
Train teachers, administrators, and students to promote equity. There is a host of research that explores unconscious bias in nearly every aspect of our lived reality. One of the best ways for people to begin to address the unconscious bias that is in all of us, is to begin to examine and understand it. It is time for all of us, school committee members included, to engage in these important training and conversations.
Ensure that all students, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression have full access to district-sponsored, educational opportunities free of discrimination and harassment. Adopt an explicit anti-discrimination policy that includes all forms of diversity. Create transparency in instances of ethical and legal ambiguity regarding discrimination and harassment to keep the public informed. I will also work to create an anonymous bias incident reporting and investigating process for incidents that occur in the Worcester Public Schools. We need to make sure that all students are safe and that bullying and discrimination has no place in the Worcester Public Schools.
I will seek an increase in funds from the city and use it to provide hiring bonuses and/or stipends for bilingual teachers and staff who work with children and families. Until we incentivize being multilingual, our linguistically diverse students will continue to be under served. But when we incentivize having a multilingual staff, we not only inspire educators to develop multilingualism, we model and inspire the study of diverse languages for our English-only students.
Involve the communities most affected in all efforts to eliminate the opportunity gaps and disparate academic outcomes for students who have not been equitably served by our community. It is time we stop solving problems for people, and start to solve them with people!
Invest in the leadership of people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, persons with disabilities, women, and other historically-and-currently marginalized groups to recognize and respond to the ways they have been under served by the education system in the past and to make them role models for the future. I will specifically reach out to diverse communities through various civic organizations (i.e. Worcester Pride, NAACP of Worcester, the Latino Education Institute, etc.) to have their voice at the center of the conversations about what we need to do to improve our schools.
After careful consideration as a School Committee member who has been serving for five terms I’ve had the honor and privilege to see what opportunities for students can develop into success and how funding can affect our district and all students education. Creating additional Chapter 74 courses can connect our students to the workforce of high growth areas of employment. Funding is needed to continue creating and maintaining opportunities that provide valued experiences, team work building including supporting academic excellence in a Safe environment. This will provide the appropriate knowledge and the skills to continue engaging our students and preparing our students as life long learner’s. Funding under Chapter 70 state formula and funding under Chapter 74 can build and continue to provide our students with the ability to be productive engaged adults in our community. As a School Committee member I have continued to advocate for additional Chapter 74 courses including supporting changes in the state formula for Chapter 70 funding for Massachusetts public schools to ensure together our investment in education is level and competitive.
One of the most pressing issues facing our schools is the responsibility to make sure our students are ready for their post-secondary experiences. In today's economy, the need for post-secondary education is vitally important. Whether students want to pursue a college degree or a career in the trades, we must ensure that we are creating a relevant and rigorous curriculum that prepares them for a successful transition after graduation. I have consistently said that by offering a wide variety of unique learning opportunities Worcester Public Schools does a great job helping to get students to graduate. These experiences focus on the individual learning needs of our students making the path to graduation more accessible. As School Committee Member, I will work with these programs to make sure we create even more unique experiences for our students. One area that I will advocate for is to provide more vocational opportunities for all of our students, I would emphasize working with our alternative schools. Whether it is bringing more trade programs into these schools or creating opportunities for students to have access to our established trade programs. I will work with community partners to create job shadowing and or apprenticeship programs in areas of student's interests. Giving students these experiences will help strengthen the connections from high school to their post-secondary pathways.
There are several important issues facing the Worcester Public Schools at this time, including: the tremendous need for additional funding to serve our students and to close the gap between wealthier districts and urban and rural districts; the importance of a comprehensive health and sexual education curriculum; and increasing the engagement of parents and families with their children’s education.
The singular most important issue facing the WPS and the school committee is the restoration of confidence in the decision-making, strategic planning, and transparency regarding the direction of the district. In the past, members of the school committee and the administration may have had different opinions on the direction of the district or a policy item, but those conversations were public and the rationale for viewpoints were stated. This has not been the case for these past few years.
I will continue to call for greater transparency with school committee decision-making and public discussions on these important issues facing the public schools. The students, the parents, the educators, and the community deserve to know that the school committee members and the administration are committed to thoughtful, public discussions on these critical issues facing our schools and our community.
Worcester ranks the 5th highest among US cities for having the most homeless youth. The disproportionate suspension rate and systemic racial and gender biases can significantly impact the overall social and mental health of our children and their families. The number of pregnant teens in Worcester is higher than the total state of Massachusetts. I will address this by proposing truancy solutions, for example, Trauma-Informed Program to reduce absentee. I will also propose that we look at this topic from a public health lens by identifying students with multiple adverse childhood (ACEs) scores taking into consideration homelessness, SES, and any education barriers in relation to truancy. In regards to the high teen pregnancy, I will help to drive the proposal for the committee take a look at the Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT), the National Health Education Standards, and National Sexuality Education Standards, which provides a framework for districts, teachers, administrators, and policymakers in designing or selecting curricula.
First, we need to address the broken relationship between the parent, students, teachers, administrators, and community. Everyone is divided now because of the lack of communication and respect shown to families by the school committee and the superintendent. Some teachers also feel like they are not being heard or considered. Parents need more positive experiences, and then they will encompass a positive mindset towards administrators and educators. The negativity is creating a hostile environment, where we cannot work together with parents, guardians, and educators to create a successful foundation for our young scholars. Parents have been treated as if they aren’t important, however I feel parents set the tone for their child’s learning. Due to the negative conversations happening within homes educators and principles encounter more and more students who don’t want to be at school, and don’t respect authority. I believe we need to gain the trust of our parents by showing them that we have their child’s best interest at heart. That we will do whatever necessary to assist in the success of our children because they are our children. After we have gained the trust of the parents, we have also then gained the trust of the child, and then can begin to educate students, build positive self-esteems and produce adults that will be a productive part of our society. If we build a better bond with our students and parents, we will start to see a change in student's attitudes towards school in general which will increase academics. We need strong support at home for the success of the children of our future. Let’s not forget we have a great deal of teachers who feel they aren’t important and that their opinions don’t matter on certain issues that may affect students negatively. As a school committee member, I will start by addressing parent concerns at individual schools. I will attend PTO meetings to listen to parent concerns. I would like to create a once a month coffee with school committee members; a suggestion/concern box at each school that the school committee can address at our meetings publicly. By doing this we are letting the
community and parent see how we are addressing their concerns and suggestions. The committee will be more available to parents, the committee will let parents know we are listening to them, and we do care about their problems. The committee will consider teachers input and suggestions about students, and curriculum. The school committee will put in place policies, which will address some things staff maybe incorrectly practicing regarding the treatment of students at the school level.
As a member of the School Committee of the Worcester Public schools over the past 4 years, it has been my responsibility and duty to not only provide the best learning opportunities for each and every student but, as importantly, to closely monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of our programs and educators to assure that each student is indeed achieving at their highest level of potential.
Over the course of the past two years, parents, students, educators, member of the entire Worcester Community came together to develop a new strategic plan, one that reflects the needs of and participation of all who have a stake in the success of our students. The goals of the plan are high level but doable if we as a community work together to bring about maximum results.
But goals represent our destination. The deliberate steps we take to achieve our goals are the road map for us to follow. But goals and steps are merely words on paper if we do not address the foundation of all of our students’ success and that is their mental, social, physical, and emotional health necessary to achieve individual academic success. If a child comes to school hungry, angry, sick, worried, sleep-deprived, or hurt, concentrating on and accomplishing the challenges of the school day may be impossible for them at any age. In my opinion, addressing this most critical need is the greatest challenge facing the Worcester School Committee today.
And we can no longer accept inadequate funding as an excuse for not addressing this need. Lack of funding certainly hinders us, but I believe that we have the programs, personnel, time and resources to combat this issue.
It is important that all of our staff members who work with students develop a level of engagement with them that involves an atmosphere of personal interest and support. The concept of engagement is the foundation for a positive teacher-student relationship. In place we have a director/liaison of Social and Emotional Learning. Together with our school adjustment counselors, guidance counselors and our classroom instructors, the liaison can be the source of educating those who work with our students to recognize and define student behaviors which contribute to a student’s lack of success and to know how to work together toward a solution. I plan to work with administration on developing additional plans to work together to achieve this. Working with the community and tying in the strategic plan will be critical to these plans.
IT’S THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP!
In the education community, “closing” achievement gaps is widely considered to be one of the major challenges facing the American public-education system. The gap refers to the academic achievement between students whose families are of low income and those of students from middle and upper income families. Research points out that having fewer educational resources in the home, poor nutrition, poor health, and poor attendance all impacts learning as well as the mobility factor found in many inner city schools.
It is also tends to be one of the top priorities identified by educators, policy makers, elected officials, and others working to improve the education system and individual schools. However, despite the strong interest in education, the gap has continued to persist and only modest progress has taken place.
We, as a community, need to address the problem. One key to solving the problem is engaging parents in the educational process. The participation of parents is an essential component of education reform strategies. Students whose parents are involved in their education generally have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, higher graduation rates, and greater enrollment in postsecondary education. A parent is the child’s most important teacher and we need to assist our parents to help their child succeed.
I believe that we need to reach out to our parents with “at risk” young children at an early age and work with them to enroll their children in pre-school programs. In Worcester we have good private non-profit and for profit centers that service our children as well as half day public school pre- programs and Head Start. What is needed is more of a collaborative approach with both public and private providers. We have started moving in that direction but more needs to be done. We should have a full day pre-school program in all of our low performing schools and that’s an issue that we need to continue to advocate with our state legislators. It is shortsighted not to invest sufficient resources in early care education since the return on investment to taxpayers is greater than many current economic development programs. We all need to lobby our Federal and State officials for change!
Then there is a lack of summer school opportunities. This issue is what is referred to as the summer slide… children losing between two to three months of growth mainly because the lack of learning and literacy taking place in their homes during the summer months. We need an all hands on deck approach from the community… united way, social agencies, the inter-faith and the schools to work together. That is one of the reasons why I started Worcester: the City that Reads… putting books into the hands of our children especially during the summer months. In 14 years I have placed over 710,000 books into the community.
The most pressing issue facing the Worcester Public Schools is people not knowing or doing their jobs, and that begins with the Worcester School Committee. We have a yawning gap of district governance.
All other efforts—the $100M a year underfunding of our budget, the increasing inequities within the system, the lack of basic service functionality, the ignoring of public calls for accountability—can be traced back to the School Committee’s lack of discipline to its core function. Because the Worcester School Committee isn’t setting and requiring meaningful reporting on progress towards goals that are publicly developed with data and input, the district isn’t moving together in the direction of serving all students. There is no means by which the Committee, and thus the community, first evaluates the needs of the district, then sets priorities for the year based on those needs. There is no regular reporting on process of meeting those needs. There is not a system of deliberation of the Superintendent’s goals for the year, nor does the Committee give meaningful feedback at the Superintendent’s midcycle evaluation for goal updating and revision. There is not a thoughtful, timely process of revision of school and district policy in line with the needs of students and faculty. Even the district budget suffers from the lack of ongoing feedback on district needs and Committee prioritization.
We need a School Committee that knows and does its job.
The pivotal and vital issue and challenge facing the Worcester School Committee is to provide “equal educational opportunity” to ALL of its students. This is a much more complex, nuanced and multi-faceted challenge than it might appear to be at first glance. It is emphatically NOT generic education. Properly, it begins with a focus on each student, and it maximizes, to the degree feasible, the resources, challenges and opportunities which will enable that child to reach his or her ultimate potential on multiple levels.
This requires a culture in each school focused on excellence and on achievement. It encourages each child to seek a superlative level of accomplishment - consistent with the student’s ability - in all subject areas and in all skills. It supports teachers who set such standards of achievement. It maintains an ordered school environment conducive to study and to skill mastery. Ultimately, such a culture will instill an ethic of self-discipline, focus, ambition and determination which students will internalize, demonstrate, and inspire in other students as well.
Instituted properly, this welcomes and encourages support of parents and families, who can do much to assure its success. It sets and expects vigorous levels of dedication, and it benefits from longer school days and from appropriate academic work and opportunities beyond the school day. Yet, it strongly guides students to participate in a wide range and array of beneficial and enriching activities as well - athletic, cultural, volunteer opportunities - which enliven student life and assist in development of skills and activities which invigorate and energize a lifetime.
While students can achieve a world class education in the Worcester Public Schools - many do so - it is also possible to spend an entire scholastic career demonstrating academic success which is
modest, but is sufficient to permit the student to progress from grade to grade, and ultimately to graduate. The responsibility of the School Committee is to advance these students from competence to excellence, from adequacy to superlative achievement. This is a challenge, but it can be surmounted. The success of Worcester students, and ultimately of the Worcester community, depend on the diligence and persistence of the School Committee in this respect.
Our most pressing issue is that we need to be sure that our students are college and career ready. To have our students college and career ready, means we must continue on the path of ramping up vocational programming so that no matter where you are in the city you have an opportunity to take a vocational path. It also means fully integrating the arts into the whole curriculum. It also means making sure our children have the curriculum that will help them have healthy relationships, reduced teen pregnancies, reduced sexually transmitted infections and even delayed sexual activity through evidenced based comprehensive sexual education. It also means that we must make sure that communities of color, sexual orientation and gender identities that have historically been forgotten, be woven into the curriculum so that no matter what your identity, you can see yourself and your friends as a health part of our society.
I will always use the lens of what is best for our children collectively as my decision-making lens. I think the lack of transparency and community engagement is the biggest threat to blocking progress in the Worcester Public Schools. When I see what happened with comprehensive sex education, school bus transportation and now the Doherty High rebuild, I see lots of opportunities for engagement community participation. When I hear the complaints, they (mostly) point to the process and the lack of intentional community and parent engagement in that process. There are many models that work, but we must engage our parents and our community members. They must be an integral part of the process, otherwise we will remain vulnerable to roadblocks that occur when community values don’t align with the decisions being made.