School Board Candidates Participate In Virtual Forum

Board of Education candidates who showed up for the event responded to four questions.

Six of the nine candidates for the Board of Education tried to put their best foot forward September 29 during a “Meet the Candidates” virtual event.

The event was sponsored by the Franklin Township PTO Presidents’ Council and the Franklin Township Women’s Club.

The candidates were each furnished with the four questions well before the event, and had two minutes in which to give their answers when asked.

Those candidates who showed up were incumbents Laurie Merris and Pat Stanley, and newcomers Dennis Hopkins, Jr., Sami Shaban, Parul Patel and Montese Anderson.

Merris, Shaban and Hopkins are running as a slate, as are Patel and Anderson.

Candidates Michele Peterson, Wendell Sellers and Rani Angel did not participate in the event.

There are three, three-year terms up for election in November.

Candidates were asked which of the school board’s goals were most important to them, their view on critical race theory, what policies they think are necessary to help students meet grade-level proficiency in literacy and math, and what their educational vision is for the district, and how they would achieve it.

Following are selections of the candidates’ answers:

District Goals

“The bedrock to all of these goals is the community engagement,” said Shaban, an attorney who has lived in the township since 2012. “If we have goals on paper, but if the parents at home aren’t also tying together that fabric, then what good is it.”

Merris, who has been on the Board for six years, said that promoting health and safety in the schools “is of primary importance.”

“Unless our children feel supported and safe in their learning environment, they cannot focus (on the lessons),” she said. “I’m very happy that we are taking the time to readjust all of the kids to the school environment with the new rules. The social and emotional units we’re focusing on are giving that foundation of safety.”

Montese, a product of Franklin Township schools, said she is “very big on reaching out and getting feedback and understanding the needs” of students.

Dennis, a dentist and 30-year Navy veteran, said that the goal of ensuring the health and safety of district students is top on his list.

“Making sure the resources and polices are in place, so hopefully and prayerfully we can finish the year in an in-person environment,” he said. “I’m very passionate as a health care provider to see our students get to the finish line in in-person learning for their mental health.”

Patel, a 19-year township resident, said the goal of increasing community engagement resonates with her. “I’m all about being out there,” she said. “I see communication and engagement as an issue of equity. I want to make sure that all families are met where they are. Also be proactive and include them in our conversations and decisions.”

Stanley, running for her third term on the Board, said community engagement was of major concern to her, too.

“Having the administration of the school system respond to what the parents need in terms of their children’s education, that is community engagement,” she said. “I felt that the goals were unduly politically oriented and there was undue political terminology in these goals.”

Teaching of Critical Race Theory

Patel said that the schools’ curriculum “should foster an environment of inclusion and empathy. All students should leave Franklin Township schools with a thorough understanding of multiple cultures and appreciation of those in our community as well as around the world.”

Merris noted that Franklin schools do not teach Critical Race Theory, but the Board did “approve an equity action plan, and we did hire a supervisor reporting to (schools Superintendent) Dr. (John) Ravally, who is charged with implementing that equity plan.”

“We concentrate on our strength, which is the diversity in Franklin Township, and make sure our children learn to respect the views, cultures and practices of others,” she said.

Dennis said that the Board “is examining and ensuring that all of our students are playing from the same playbook, on the same playing level. It’s OK to have our students understand that we all are different, but our differences shouldn’t separate us.”

Stanley said that the district is, indeed, teaching Critical Race Theory. “My feeling is that in Franklin, at the current time … there is a political component, there is a cadre of teachers, administrators that have politics on their mind and they are expressing this to the students. And that is without parental consent. And that really is one of the problems that I have with this curriculum.”

Shaban said that students need to be told of past injustices.

“We need to learn from our past,” he said. “We’re not going to sugarcoat or keep things from our history. We are in the business of making our country the most perfect country it can be … If we execute that equity plan, we are going to be moving our community forward.”

Anderson said she felt the wrong question was asked, and also pushed back against Stanley’s statement.

“I feel that racism needs to be taught in history,” she said. “I do think 100 percent that racism needs to be a part of the school’s curriculum. It does not need a parent’s consent for it to be a part of the curriculum.  They need to understand all of the history … for our children to do better, we need to be able to teach them everything so they’re aware when they go to a university or a grade school and engage in a conversation when this issue comes up, they’re not ignorant on the topic.”

“It’s not a part of the board’s agenda, not a part of the teachers’ agenda, they’re just trying to teach history,” she said.

What policies would the candidates push to help students meet grade-level proficiency in literacy and math.

Patel said she would do it through “retaining and recruiting highly qualified teachers, using evidence-based instruction, minimizing interruptions during instruction time, providing explicit instruction to those who don’t meet grade level and communicating.”

“All these factors can close the achievement gap,” she said. “Educating parents on their students’ progress can also help them at home improve their students’ learning.”

Stanley said teaching kids how to read is the basis for student achievement.

“Once you learn how to read, you can learn for a lifetime,” she said. “One of the things that really upsets me is. … modern education is blurring the boundaries of what’s in a classroom. You may have a group of kids quasi in the 4th grade, another group of kids quasi in the 5th grade. Years ago, you would have a more concise view so you can zoom in on that child.”

Anderson said that “we need to be able to open the door for them to receive the best professional development possible, so they can bring those learnings into their classrooms to help our children read.

Merris said she supports the Board practice of “meet(ing) the students where they are. The data-driven approach that they take to finding out what the baseline is. Our teachers are fabulous in working from the data … but they also learn from each other.”

Shaban said that it must be understood that children learn differently, and that “we need to be able to understand that and give each child (what they need).”

He said that’s done by “Recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, supporting after-school support for those students, having counselors that are making connections with the kids.”

Hopkins said the Board should “always make sure that the teachers have the resources to … make sure the students are proficient at a certain benchmark. When the students are not meeting that particular benchmark, we have a lot of avenues in place already that we could use.”

He also said technology should be used more for those students who need extra help “outside the four walls of the building.”

What is your educational vision for the district, and how would you achieve it.

Merris said her vision is “summed up in equity and encouragement. To meet our children where they are by providing a variety of curricula … also ensure that a basic level of reading, writing arithmetic are achieved by all, as indicated by the state standards.”

We want them all to have that opportunity to excel,” she said. “Their definition of excel is going to be different.”

Shaban said his vision is “to allow every child to self-actualize their highest potential. Within that you will have some curricular improvements, an expansion of the Gifted & Talented program … increasing the number of AP courses, increasing the size of the Gifted & Talented programs to allow for more diversity.”

“Better teacher hiring and recruiting and retention,” he said. “We have awesome teachers, and we want more.”

Anderson said her vision is “for parents, students and teachers to feel like they’ve been seen, heard and valued. Bringing in programs where businesses can partner with the high school and help with developing children who might not go to college.”

“Finding those puzzle pieces and putting them all together and making them all modernized,” she said

Stanley said her vision for Franklin students is to reduce the number of district administrators earning more than $100,000 a year and using that saved money to pay teachers more.

“Give the teacher an incentive to stay in the classroom and become a master teacher … in many cases, the classroom is a conduit in going into administration,” she said.

We have people on staff who are not necessarily in the classroom,” she said. “Perhaps it might be a better way to review our staff in the budget and identify those members where we could possibly move them aside and put them in the teachers’ salaries.”

Hopkins said his vision is to make Franklin students productive citizens.

“From elementary to middle school to high school, each component is very important,” he said.

Patel said her educational vision is to “produce high school graduates who are ready for college, the military or the workforce without any remediation. We should not be satisfied until every graduate meets proficiency in math and language.”

“l also envision graduates who will have developed habits for reaching excellence … they should be lifetime learners who are resilient with a strong work ethic,” she said.

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