Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Response from Natalie Vowell - School Board Candidate

1. What education (schools attended, degrees attained), experience, and attributes do you have that qualify you for a position on the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) Board of Education?

I attended an excellent public high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, took as many AP courses as possible, and opted to obtain my GED one year before my scheduled graduation. I enrolled at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) at age 17 as a double-major in computer engineering and music theory. Before obtaining my degree, the University offered me a full-time position in my field as the youngest (and only female) computer lab manager at one of six general access labs on our 20,000-student campus. I absolutely loved helping people—both students and professors—learn to use technology for education, and have continued to pursue my career doing exactly that. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, I have worked on the front lines of education and poverty issues in our City, and am ready to bring my skill and passion for these issues to elected office.

2. What do you view as the key role(s) of this position? What do you view as the important attributes needed for this position?

In the Board of Education’s present form (under the SAB), I consider the current role of a Board Member to most closely resemble that of an advisory (non-voting) member of a charity or non-profit organization. That is, someone who brings energy, knowledge, guidance—and volunteers his or her time without having direct influence on policy. Given my passion for technology in education, I’m enthusiastic to get as hands-on as the position allows.

3. Why do you think you are the best person for SLPS Board of Education? What differentiates you from your opponents?

I founded Project Raise The Roof in August of 2013. Though I currently serve as PRTR’s executive director, I still accept no salary. I work tirelessly to guide people through any number of municipal barriers to success, facilitate citizens’ lobbying trips to City Hall and the Capitol to advocate for social justice issues, and still find countless community projects to immerse myself in, including co-organizing Tower Grove Pride, the Cherokee Street Cinco de Mayo Parade, and mentorship programs with ACOPP (Assisting Children of Prison Parents), Veterans Court Technology Clinic, Given A Chance Foundation, and WITS’s (Web Innovations and Technology) annual computer giveaways for low-income families. I am a fulltime volunteer, dedicated to more than just weekly meetings and mandatory e-mails. I didn't grow up in this city, and I'm not "stuck here"; I CHOSE to make St. Louis my home. A longtime activist from a "liberal utopia" hometown, I have a unique perspective on our city's strengths and weaknesses. I've made it my lifelong mission to improve St. Louis, and I spend my every waking moment fulfilling that mission in every way possible.

4. What do you feel are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the SLPS? What do you feel are the most pressing issues currently facing the SLPS system, and what plans do you have to address these issues?

Our City’s greatest strength is diversity; its greatest weakness is division. The same is true of our schools. We must regain accreditation by looking at the root of our problems and addressing the needs of our students living in poverty. Without meeting basic needs outside the classroom, we cannot demand success from our 90% rate of children below the poverty line. Families need access to enhanced early childhood education—around the clock. Reading and verbal interaction from an early age are crucial to development and aide in early detection of learning disorders, such as dyslexia. Many low/fixed-income parents work non-standard schedules and must choose between basic childcare or quality preschools. The public school system was designed to serve the entire public—regardless of race or socioeconomic standing.

5. What do you believe is important about public education?

Public education is essential to providing the potential for success to future generations. Our public schools serve—or should serve—as gateways to the same resources for students whose families cannot afford private education.

6. What do you believe is the current role of the SLPS Board of Education given the existence of a Special Administrative Board and the provisionally accredited school system? 

(See #2)

7. What do you see as the role of charter schools in relation to and within the SLPS system? 

When our public schools’ accreditation is based on “performance”, it must be emphasized that an overwhelming majority of students attending St. Louis Public Schools are living below the poverty line. When a child lacks basic needs and infrastructure at home, he or she is more likely to “underperform” in school. Many studies have confirmed that minority students and those students living in poverty face additional barriers to their education than those students who do not have these demographic characteristics. Low-income families deserve the same chance at success as students from more affluent economic backgrounds. We must make certain that all charter schools are serving ALL of our students, not just the children who are statistically more likely to “produce numbers that look good on paper". Only charter schools which adopt the “No Excuses” (id es, no “creaming”) model, should be welcome in St. Louis. Perhaps it is time for SLPS administration to reach out to the charter school community and adopt some of the policies and practices that seem to be most pertinent to charter school success—particularly those charters who are able to serve our impoverished population. After all, any teacher looking up a lesson plan for tomorrow will tell you that "the best ideas are stolen". Why should we think any differently when it comes to improving our schools?

8. What do you think are the positives and negatives of the current Missouri school accountability system (MSIP 5)?

One of the largest problems with many state assessments is that they are only given once a year…and at–or close to–the end of the school year. This is problematic because we have no measure of where the student was performing when they started the school year – a baseline, if you will. In some cases we use the previous end of the school year test results as a proxy for their grade-level achievement, but this is dangerous as research suggests that students endure what is termed “summer learning loss” during the summer three-month vacation. That said, if a 7th grade student barely performed at grade-level on ELA and math tests and, over the summer forgot much of what was learned, they may only be able to perform at a 5th grade level when they start their 8th grade year. However, if they perform at a 7th grade level by the end of their 8th grade year, the teacher may be evaluated negatively because the student is not performing at grade level, when actually, this teacher helped this student learn two grade levels of material in one year.

The best defense of this, as unpopular as it may be, is to design an assessment that follows a pre/post test model. For example, if schools administered one form of the MAP within the first two weeks of school, teachers would have a baseline of performance for every student. Additionally, teachers could look at each student’s test results from the beginning of the year to determine strengths and weaknesses. Then, throughout the school year, teachers could deliver tailored instruction to each individual student based on these pre-test scores. At the close of the school year, schools could administer the “post-test” form of the MAP. This will allow administrators, teachers, parents, and students to measure how much the student GREW academically over the course of the academic year. It would eliminate any issues from summer learning loss concerning what impact an individual teacher had on a student’s learning. Additionally, it would be a boon for administrators looking to reward teachers for high growth among their students as the growth could be largely attributed to the particular teacher for a given subject in a given year.

9. Are you in favor of or opposed to accrediting schools and not districts? Why?

We must be very careful when choosing the definition of “accreditation”. Installing state of the art computer labs and libraries stocked with infinite books will not improve MAP scores for students who lack a supplementary support system either at school or home.

10. SLPS is currently provisionally accredited. The school system could become accredited or unaccredited. If the system doesn’t become accredited, what is your opinion of the Missouri DESE plan for student transfers from unaccredited to accredited school systems?

(See #9) Continuing to push our low-income and minority citizens further out of the City is not an acceptable solution.

11. What are your opinions about the current form of teacher tenure in SLPS? What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? Would you support a strong teacher tenure system within the SLPS?

Teacher tenure is a double-edged sword. I believe we need to re-evaluate which teachers are allowed tenure (see #8), and that Board members should serve as advocates for dedicated educators who have drive and passion for fostering academic and personal growth in their students.

12. The U.S. Congress needs to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) this year. What changes would you advocate for in the next iteration of the legislation?

“No Child Left Behind” has received criticism from both public and private educators, on both ends of the political spectrum. As the adult in the classroom with 25 kids all day, their voices are the ones that must be heard. I would like to see the Board of Education work directly with educators to determine what is and isn’t working, and develop new strategies.

13. Population loss in the City of St. Louis is often attributed to residents’ hesitation to send their children to St. Louis Public Schools. As a school board member, what tools are available to you to promote SLPS as a viable choice for parents? 

St. Louis has a tragic history of devouring its own population, particularly those citizens who are poor and/or black. In 1970, at a population of nearly 1 million people, SLPS had over 110,000 students enrolled. In 1971, the Land Reutilization Authority was implemented, which gave the City the right to auction off (or seize) our citizens’ homes for a mere 3 years of unpaid property taxes. Particularly in North St. Louis, properties are assessed and taxed at a grossly disproportionately high rate. When property taxes, a portion of which are allocated to funding our schools, become “uncollectable debt”, the City forces residents from their homes, which depletes current and potential new revenue streams for neighborhood public schools.

Today, our population has dwindled to 318,000, and SLPS enrollment is around 24,000. Our City sits on approximately 10,000 vacant, boarded-up homes and businesses falling into unsalvageable disrepair—as well as two dozen abandoned buildings which once served as educational facilities. Adjusting property taxes to fairer rates may not collect ALL of the money the City wishes, but it’s certainly a start to ameliorating costly “upkeep” of City-owned buildings, an annual cost which could be converted into funding our schools. I work daily to prevent seniors, veterans, and fixed-income families from losing their homes, as well as provide affordable homeownership opportunities for low-income families. I believe that homeownership is an investment in one’s community; it is essential to fostering a community conducive to producing successful students and productive adults. I believe parents are losing faith in the traditional public schools because they are losing faith in the City itself. Whether or not this is an accurate belief, sometimes perception rings louder than truth. St. Louis is more than the vacant brick and mortar board-ups that abound; it is a literal land of opportunity. We must we remove barriers; we must encourage and uplift, rather than punish, our poorest residents in order to attract more families to consider SLPS as a reliable option. Additionally, we should consider budget reallocations to decrease administrative bloat and increase teacher pay to attract quality educators.

14. SLPS has spent resources to provide an expanded pre-K program. What do you think about pre-K programs and, if you believe pre-K programs are important, how would you provide additional funding?

(See #4) While in more affluent districts, property taxes may adequately fund schools, lower income districts often rely on state and federal funding to operate. Missouri has one of the largest funding gaps in the nation between high and low poverty districts. In St. Louis, unfairly assessed property tax rates abound in economically depressed neighborhoods. The LRA turns low-income families’ homes into vacant board-ups “maintained” by the City at the further expense of tax payers. We must set affordable tax rates for low/fixed-income and middle class homeowners to keep more homes occupied, and reallocate funding for “upkeep” of City-owned properties to early childhood education. 

15. What do you feel is the appropriate role of community/neighborhood input in determining which schools the SLPS must close? How should the SLPS determine which schools to close? What criteria should be used?

While “it takes a village to raise a child”, I believe the biggest stakeholders in school closings are the parents whose children attend them. Often, schools with underperforming students are the ones slated to close. However, parents living in poverty often do not have adequate access to childcare and transportation, or work schedules which allow them a voice at neighborhood meetings and parent/teacher conferences. Much like the problem of “food deserts” in our economically depressed areas, we must not allow our poorest neighborhoods to become education deserts as well.

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