Who will represent your child?

Dr. Chris Warren

 

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – As we draw nearer to the Aug. 28 Primary Elections, the NAACP St. Petersburg Branch and the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area teamed up to conduct a Pinellas County School Board candidate forum last Thursday, July 12 at Pinellas Technical College.

Dr. Christopher Warren served as the moderator, but before getting started, he went over a few housekeeping items such as voter registration for the Aug. 28 Primary Election will close July 30. Also, residents may vote early from any of the three Supervisor of Elections offices from Aug. 18-26.

Questions were developed from the concerns of south St. Pete residents, and candidates were allowed one minute to reply and only a “yes” or “no” response was allowed in the lightning rounds.

Each candidate was allowed two wildcard answers, which was a chance to answer another district’s question. In this week’s article, Districts 6, which covers parts of Largo, Seminole and the southern gulf beaches, and District 7, which includes south St. Petersburg, responses are given.

Next week, Districts 2 and 3 candidate’s answers will be displayed.

If no candidate wins majority 51 percent, the two candidates receiving the most votes will be in a runoff in the Nov. election.

L-R, Bill Dudley, Lorena Grizzle and Dr. Matt Stewart

L-R, Bill Dudley, Lorena Grizzle and Dr. Matt Stewart

District 6 Question

What additional steps should be taken to prepare schools in the event of an active shooter?

Bill Dudley – Wants to continue with the current school system plan put in place starting this year. Elementary schools will have the guardian program.

“They are being trained; they are professionals.”

The middle schools will have a school resource officer and possibly a campus monitor. In the high schools, there will be two school resource officers and two campus monitors.

“Their job is to protect our students, and with the use of cameras and lockdown techniques, it should work.”

Lorena Grizzle – Wants current plan to be put in place as well as a single point of entry in schools and resource officers in every school.

“We don’t have a good plan in place for kids who are out in the bathrooms, so we need to put that plan in place.”

Dr. Matthew Stewart – Wants the current plan that legislators are putting in place, and security cameras, ID badges, single points of access and classrooms to lock from the inside.

“I think the number one thing that parents want is for their child to come home safe at the end of every day.”

Tharius Bethel, Rene Flowers, Dr. Bilan Joseph, Nick Wright

Tharius Bethel, Rene Flowers, Dr. Bilan Joseph, Nick Wright

District 7 Question

How will you ensure that a teacher, principal, administrator or district staff is investigated properly for any foul acts to students and their families such as retaliation?

Tharius Bethel — Wants teachers, parents and administrators to communicate better, and if a problem occurs, address it from top up.

“We have to have a good foundation between teachers and the parents.”

Rene Flowers — Agrees with current process of referrals being made by student or teacher to the Office of Professional Standards.

“There has to be an investigation that should be a fully complete investigation because there are always two sides to a story, and the truth fits somewhere in the middle.”

Dr. Bilan Joseph — Wants to continue to follow the policies put in place currently and wants to establish a culture where teachers, support staff and students feel safe to actually voice their opinions and not feel like they are going to be penalized.

“That’s something that should be established in the school culture.”

Nick Wright — Wants the district to open the communication process so that everyone is aware of the steps that are involved or that are required.

“The system does currently have a process in place.”

Grizzle (wildcard) – Wants a climate survey from teachers, students and parents to see where trouble spots are, and open lines of communication.

“I can’t tell you how many parents have moved from a school because they can’t communicate with the principal properly. The process needs to be streamlined. “

District 6 Question

What additional steps would you take to ensure that all students have equal access to a high- quality education? Example, algebra honors students have textbooks while regular algebra students learn from online applications.

Grizzle – Wants to use co-teaching models to help students get what they need and make sure students have textbooks even when the district doesn’t want to buy more because textbooks will be out of adoption.

“We have to have a system in place,” she said. “We need to make sure we have stuff in place for the kids.”

Stewart — Wants to bridge the gap between black and white students, and prioritize making these issues public and communicate with the community how to deal with them.

“You hear about the lack of books and the lack of resources in our community, these are the effects.”

Dudley – Wants money to be spent wisely and allocated to the areas of need.

“If you want to have books for all the kids, you gotta stop wasting money elsewhere.”

Joseph (wildcard) — Wants students in traditional schools to receive the same education and resources as fundamental and magnet schools. She likes the idea of preparing students in technology and the advocates the use of laptops and the “ditch the textbook” programs.

“We have to think smart. We have to be open to innovative ideas that are going to prepare students today for the global economy that they are going to have to face very soon.”

Lightning Round

Do you think teachers in challenging situations are provided enough support from the district?

All candidates said “No.”

District 7 Question

How specifically do you change the educational landscape in St. Petersburg schools to be fair and equitable to all students?

Flowers – Wants fundamental, magnet and technical trade programs to accommodate students in North County, Mid-County and South County. Also wants to see hands-on activities and movement in classrooms to accommodate learners on different levels.

“Pinellas County Schools is moving towards making sure that all schools have that attractor so that students that learn from different ways have an opportunity to do so.”

Joseph – Wants more resources and funding for staff to eliminate overcrowding of classrooms and classrooms filled with students who have varying learning abilities but only one teacher.

“There’s only so much you can do, so either give them a co-teacher or make the class sizes smaller.”

Wright – Wants educational resources equitably distributed across the county and wants experienced teachers in south county schools.

“They are bringing brand new teachers in our problem schools and expecting those teachers to turn those schools around.”

Bethel – Wants the county to look at the classification of students in certain schools, along with giving proper equipment for students to learn from.

“We have a lot of students who don’t belong in certain schools, whether its magnet or fundamental or regular schools.”

Dudley (wildcard) — Wants all schools to be fundamental in nature; he feels students are leaving traditional schools for magnet and fundamental anyway.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the attendance policies; we shouldn’t have the parental involvement and the resources that the fundamental schools have.”

Grizzle (wildcard) – Wants to make the zoned schools community schools so they can provide families with flexible hours and resources such as wraparound services, aftercare and night classes.

“Many of these things will work; we just have to make the school better.”

District 6 Question

What actions should be taken with teachers, staff or administrators that have been found to have violated the rules set forth in the student code of conduct?

Dudley – Believes every teacher should be held as accountable as the students are. If there is a violation of the code of conduct in any school, whether it is the students, teachers, staff or administrators, they should be dealt with properly.

“We can’t sweep things under the doormat and assume it’s going to go away because it usually comes back to bite you.”

Grizzle – Believes everyone should be held accountable and wants a climate survey.

“If we can identify some of the problems, it will lead to bigger and deeper things.” Everyone should be held accountable.

Stewart – Wants teachers, administrators and staff in leadership positions to model behavior expected of their students. Believes in fair and equitable investigations.

“I think that the punishment, if you violate…needs to look like what it is in relationship to the student code of conduct. There are minor issues and more severe issues.”

District 7 Question

What are your thoughts on the progress and implementation of restorative practice in Pinellas County Schools?

Joseph – Is a fan of restorative practice, restorative justice. Wants alternatives to discipline and dealing with discipline. Wants a pilot program in schools to see how it works before rolling it out to other schools.

“I think being on the preventative end should be our focus as opposed to always responding.”

Wright — Wants teachers to set up restorative practices in their classrooms and the schools. Wants the district to give teachers incentives to buy into the process and receive adequate training.

“It’s a great program. It can work in Pinellas given the right leverage.”

Bethel – Wants to look at other programs outside of our county and adopt one that’s working. Wants to train the teachers and make sure they are implementing it inside their classroom.

“Restorative justice has been around for many years, and I don’t think it’s ever been to the point where we can honestly say that it’s working and making a difference.”

Flowers – Informed that training leadership and administration on making sure that they could at least understand what restorative justice is.

“This summer, all teachers, all staff will receive training as it relates to restorative justice/ restorative practices.”

Lightning Round

Will you ensure that teachers, administrators, and staff are disciplined  properly?

All candidates said “Yes.”

District 6 Question

What would you do to promote family engagement in Pinellas County Schools?

Stewart – Wants a three-legged school where school, community and parents are all involved. Wants schools to go out in community where parents are gathered.

“Whether that’s at houses, in schools, churches or ballfields, we have to be out there.”

Dudley – Wants to get parents engaged early on in elementary school. Wants flexible times for parent/teacher conferences and more access for parents in secondary schools.

“We need to continue to allow parents the flexibility of contacting teachers and administrators, making all that stuff readily available.”

Grizzle – Wants community schools and work with parents to get the services they need. She wants to get corporate sponsorships to fund the $50 fingerprinting fee imposed on parents wishing to volunteer.

“If you notice, we don’t have volunteers in the school anymore.”

Wright (wildcard) – Wants schoolboard meetings to be spread throughout county so parents can attend. Wants a working phone number for all parents, teachers and staff to be available to meet with parents whenever and however they want to meet.

Bethel (wildcard) – Wants to implement parent expectations at the start of the school year.

“We have to bug the parents,” he said. “It’s not just your student coming to school; you need to come to school with them–mentally and physically–not just when something happens.”

Flowers (wildcard) – Shared she implemented the process for the school board to move two meetings into the community and have meeting in the evening so parents can attend. Also, strongly feels schools throughout county have volunteers and mentors.

“How about asking the parents what they want? Not just requiring or demanding that they come to school for a PTA meeting. There are a variety of ways you can have interaction with the parent.”

District 7 Question

Many teachers work closely with paraprofessionals. How will you work to recruit and retain high-quality paraprofessionals?

Wright – Wants to make it easier for paraprofessionals to get engaged in the system and give then whatever resources they need. Also to provide professional mentors with them so they can become acclimated to the school.

Joseph – Wants a system in place making it easier for people to become paraprofessionals, but also giving them pay that makes sense.

“A lot of our support staff are not paid a living wage and they work well beyond their duty. They wear several hats, but are not compensated for what they do.”

Flowers – Wants the paraprofessional to be matched up properly with the teacher to make sure the relationship works, and for paraprofessionals to be utilized properly.

Bethel – Wants to get educators excited about education and to aim to understand what is happening in schools throughout the county.

“No one wants to take a job where before you’re even at work you’re already stressed out.”

Stewart (wildcard) – Wants higher wages for paraprofessionals so they can provide for their families, and to implement a program for those wanting to advance.

“We can begin to develop those individuals who have a strong desire to move forward in our schools to become teachers.”

District 6 Question

How will you help to close the achievement gap between minority and white students?

Dudley – Wants the plan already in place to continue.

“As long as we continue to work in a positive manner, we should continue.”

Grizzle – Wants more co-teaching in schools, but wants to find better ways to provide time and instruction needed for struggling students who have fallen behind.

“I’ve had students in my classroom in the morning, during lunch, during my planning period; they are all trying to catch up.”

Stewart – Wants graduation rates and the Bridging the Gap plan to be back in the forefront of conversation. Shared statistics that indicate black students have a 17 percent gap in graduation rate compared to white students.

“We need to implement culturally responsive teaching in our classrooms.”

Joseph (wildcard) – Wants honesty in assessing where schools are. There are too many students not reading at grade level, yet students still are passing classes. Wants to focus on basics.

“They are passing the classes and being moved onto the next grade. So they are always at this place of trying to play catchup.”

Flowers (wildcard) – Wants to make sure that Tallahassee does away with the testing component piece, and to stop raising the bar when students meet or exceed it.

“We are putting so much pressure on the students and so much pressure on the teachers to make sure that they pass because of that letter grade.”

Lightning Round

Are you aware that teachers improperly use grading tools as a way to bully students or retaliate against students and their parents?

Bethel – “Yes”

Flowers – “Yes”

Joseph – “Yes”

Wright – “No”

Stewart – “Yes”

Grizzle – “Yes”

Dudley – “No”

District 7 Question

Given the state emphasis on high stakes testing, what action will you take to ensure all students in all schools have equitable access to performing in visual arts courses?

Bethel – A big fan of the arts programs, and doesn’t want testing to limit children.

“If we focus only on core classes and take away those visual arts classes, we are limiting our kid’s imagination.”

Flowers – Supports performing arts program, and advocates and sponsors fundraisers to support the arts in local schools. Believes it helps to teach math and creativity.

“It allows students to have an area that they are interested in to help keep them focused on their education.”

Joseph – Supports performing arts. Believes students find ways to express themselves and connect with the teacher.

“Students are getting the motivation, mentorship and guidance that they need in order to be motivated enough to do those core classes so they can be successful.”

Wright – Supports performing arts. Believes in research showing that visual and performing arts are important components.

“I support anybody who would sustain and improve funding for the arts programs in our schools.”

District 6 Question

How would you ensure that teachers do not retaliate for students who stand up for themselves?

Grizzle – Hasn’t seen that happening in schools in her experience, and believes the majority of teachers love students.

“But I think that teachers who do that shouldn’t be teachers anymore, they should be gone.”

Stewart — Is concerned what is happening in community where this question keeps coming up. He wants community conversations to get to the root of the problem.

“What conversations are we afraid to have in our community right now,” he asked. “I wish in our community that we were brave enough to ask the question and get together as a community and talk about the lack of trust.”

Dudley — Wants teachers to teach diversity and help children understand the hurtful feelings that can come as a result of name calling.

“I don’t think it’s running rampant. If anyone is doing that they should be disciplined.”

District 7 Question

Do you believe that school violence, specifically fighting, is underreported by administrators since it can negatively affect school grades? If so, what would you do to address it?

Bethel — Yes.

“If you see something happening you need to say something. I don’t care who it is.”

Flowers – No. She feels there is no reason for schools not to report them, and wants positive behavior processes and social workers implemented in problem schools.

“I would not agree that they are underreported because between social media and actually being out on campus, we’ve had an opportunity to visualize it.”

Joseph – Yes.

“I think that there are a lot of things that happen in schools that people who are making decisions for us are not aware of.”

Wright – No. Does not believe fights are underreported on purpose.

“Any fight that happens on campus, there is a safety risk.”

Lightning Round

Do you support the privatization of public education?

All candidates said “No.”

Extra Question

What policy would you put in place to help parents navigate the choice system?

Dudley – Wants to give parents the opportunity to go to schools and ask questions about it.

“I think we are doing a pretty good job of it, but we need to allow parents to come in and ask questions.”

Grizzle – Wants to start early on with parents being able to make the choices they want to make with an information expo.

“We could show on our website how programs work.”

Stewart – Wants mandatory videos to provide basic overview. Provide choice navigators in our schools so parents have one-on-one contact.

Bethel – Wants a contact in the schools for parents and caregivers.

Flowers – Said there are two or three opportunities where the community is invited to get information. Wants additional times throughout year and in the summertime.

Joseph — Wants opportunity for parents to attend schools and see if their student is a good fit for programs. Have people in the community who can communicate to parents.

Wright – Wants Pinellas County Schools to proactively advertise in the newspaper.

***

Flowers – Current District 7 Pinellas County School Board member

Dudley – Spent 38 years as an educator and served two terms on city council.

Bethel — Violence prevention specialist

Stewart — Adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College

Joseph – Educator at Azalea Middle School

Grizzle – Educator in Pinellas County Schools

Wright – Educator at Lealman Innovation Academy

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