Monday, March 27, 2017

SLPS Election Update: Candidate Surveys #3: Natalie Vowell (via Susan Turk)

I am posting these bulletins from Susan Turk, who does the service of publishing on SLPS through St Louis Schools Watch.  You can find information on the other candidates here (in the order I received them):

1. James Reece

2. Dorothy Rohde Collins
3. Susan Jones
4. David Jackson
Other candidates did not respond.

Link to Susan Turk's evaluation of the elections:



St. Louis Schools Watch
By Susan Turk
March 25, 2017—St. Louis--

April 2017 School Board Candidates Questionnaire

Natalie Vowell

Please supply a brief autobiography.

I am a product of one of the top 10 public schools in the United States. I was hired by the University of Arkansas as the youngest and first female computer lab manager for the University's Enhanced Learning Center, which assisted struggling students with learning computer technology and receiving tutoring. I moved from Fayetteville, AR to St. Louis in 2010. In 2011, I began working for WITS, a nonprofit which repurposes unwanted electronics into free or low-cost computers for families and schools, instead of just dumping them into landfills. Within one year, I became development director, and then board member. In 2013, I left WITS to found Project Raise The Roof, an all-volunteer organization whose purpose is to prevent the seizure of owner-occupied homes at the Sheriff’s tax auctions. I’ve assisted over 60 people keeping their homes on the tax rolls and funding our schools, when otherwise all of those homes would have become more vacant LRA-owned vacant buildings. For the past 3 years, I’ve joined 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis and HOT 104.1 on the high school S.W.A.G. [Success, Wellness, Academic Achievement, and Goal-Setting] Tour. I've been to Vashon, Sumner Roosevelt, CVPA, Carnahan, and ICA to registered over 200 SLPS seniors to vote, and spoken to hundreds more students about how to become engaged in the political process before they’re old enough to cast a ballot. In 2016 I moved with my husband to the 22nd Ward to be more logistically central to our full time work in North City. In 2016, I served as a CD1 delegate to the 2016 DNC, and am a member of the recently-formed Missouri Democratic Party Progressive Caucus. I am fortunate to be in a position which allows me to act as a 100% full-time volunteer - and I get measurable positive results with any project I tackle.

The SLPS is currently governed by an appointed board.  The elected board has limited responsibilities. While possible, it is not guaranteed the elected board will return to power during the term for which you are running.  Why, then, are you running?  If you believe the elected board will return to power, please give reasons.

While I certainly hope the elected board is placed back in control of our schools so that the voters can hold the decision-makers accountable, whether or not the elected board returns to power is irrelevant to my candidacy.  I don’t want power; I want to continue the work I’m already doing, and I believe it’s important for someone with the passion, time, and energy for all of the above to serve on our elected board.  “Limited Responsibilities” does not mean limited activism.  I vow to do much more than just the bare minimum of attending regular meetings.

What is your understanding of the role of a board member?
With its current restricted autonomy, I compare the elected Board of Education to the advisory board of directors for a nonprofit or charitable organization.  Elected Board of Education should be comprised of people one who bring valuable knowledge, experience, guidance, and volunteer time to the table without having a direct vote in enacting policy.

What do you want to accomplish as a board member? As a board member, I will play a role in ending the school-to-prison pipeline and cyclical poverty.  I will to increase enrollment and make our schools more attractive to parents who may be considering other districts.  I will empower our teachers to implement more varied approaches to education for students who may lack structure at home and stimulation in day-to-day school tasks.  And I will encourage our entire elected board to become involved in more direct, proactive outreach - instead of just waiting for parents to come to us.  I bring the same passion, tireless energy, and innovation I have brought to any other board on which I have served, and any other community project I have led.

Are you the parent of children who currently attend or graduated from the SLPS?

I believe the question of whether or not a candidate has a child in SLPS is dismissive to LGBT candidates who may not have children, people who choose not to procreate, and persons who are biologically incapable of reproduction.  It has no bearing on whether someone cares about children, education issues, and municipal policies - or whether a person is qualified to serve in a leadership position.

Did you attend and/or graduate from the SLPS? I did not attend SLPS; I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school in Fayetteville, AR - consistently rated one of the top ten places in the United States to raise a family. http://wordpress.us10.list-manage.com/track/click?u=febf37d8c53a262d3cca40d04&id=5f7f05eff9&e=3fe73d6d79

I was fortunate to have the privilege of being born in Northwest Arkansas and proud to have received an excellent education from Fayetteville Public Schools, including college prep and Advanced Placement classes which earned college credit.  I would like to bring some of the benefits of the neighborhood schools I grew up attending to St. Louis City.
I can't change where I was born. But I can improve the city I chose as my home. The tired old “we’ve always done it this way” seems to be the governing mentality, and it’s time for a new perspective.

Have you ever worked for the SLPS or are you related to a current or former employee?

While I have family members who teach in public schools across the country, none of my relatives have ever worked for SLPS, as I don’t have any family who grew up here, or are currently living in town.

Are you now or have you in the past served as a board member? 
I have served on the board of directors for charitable organizations, but have not yet had the opportunity to serve on the St. Louis City Board of Education.

If you are not an SLPS parent, graduate, former employee or relation of one, or board member, do you have any other connection with the SLPS?

My connection to SLPS is direct interaction with students and their families. I’ve been on the front lines of education and poverty issues; I have been working directly with people, not just policy.

What are your thoughts about the SAB which governs the district?

(Not answered. The Editor)

What is your understanding of the effect of charter schools on the SLPS?  Should more charter schools open in the city?

(Not answered. The Editor)

Do you have any ideas to improve public confidence in SLPS and improve enrollment?

The existing billboards and advertisements are a waste of funds.  Whether rightly or wrongly, SLPS already has a reputation in the minds of St. Louis Citizens.  In order to improve confidence in our schools, we need real outreach.  Too many of my own city-dwelling friends have moved to the County once their children reach school age.  Parents should have a direct line of contact with board members, and it should be the duty of each board member to reach out to a certain number City parents per year to encourage enrollment in SLPS. Campaigning for a position on the City School Board every four years should not be the only time we get out into the community.  We need to inspire trust in our school system through transparency, accessibility, accountability, and proactive contact with parents. There are many ways we can achieve this - and they cost us nothing but time and dedication.

The Missouri legislature is considering bills this year that would expand school choice using vouchers, education savings accounts or tuition tax credits making it possible for students to attend private schools using public money or depriving the state of general revenue so they could use their own money for private tuition without being taxed on those funds, and expanding options for students in certain situations to attend schools outside of their school district. The Trump administration promotes school choice and may re-allocate Title I funding away from providing low income children with extra resources to master reading and math toward expanding school choice options. School board members will be faced with an uphill battle in a struggle to attract and retain students to their school district. How will you respond to these challenging developments?

We have a duty as elected board members to advocate for the right policies in Jefferson City.  For the past 3 years, I have driven citizens to the State Capitol to meet their legislators and have their voices heard.  I will continue to do so as a member of the elected board.

What are your thoughts regarding the magnet schools?
(Not answered. The editor)

What are your thoughts on neighborhood schools?

Neighborhood schools are essential to our district.  When kids get up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus to a school across town and don't get home until 6pm or later...  When do they eat?  How much sleep do they get?  When do they get to spend time with their parents?  When do they do their homework?  How can they be expected to achieve the learning necessary to perform well on standardized tests?  Schools need to be near where people live - especially here on the northside.  As long as we keep taking away occupied homes from our citizens, and boarding up their houses, we will keep losing population and boarding up our schools.

What ideas do you have to help students learn?

With poorer districts competing for state funding based on average daily headcount, it becomes virtually impossible to achieve the smaller class sizes which give more personalized attention some students require.  I believe the best schools have strong leadership and strong educators.  A teacher with grit and personality, who tries multiple techniques to meet the student where they are, is more effective than any particular curriculum or flavor-of-the-month technology (which winds up costing the district an exorbitant amount of money for lackluster results).  Increasing the budget and the freedom for educators to experiment with serving alternative learning styles by implementing creative, non-traditional education techniques as the teacher sees fit for his or her class could help enrich the educational experience public school students receive.  The adult in the room teaching 25 kids all day is the one who knows best what they need—not the guy across town, or across the state, analyzing spreadsheets and performance charts.  More local control by the administrators and teachers is needed; these individuals are on the field, not the bench.  They know their school and their students better than any district or state bureaucrat, and these stand-out educators deserve attractive salaries to encourage them to stay in our district.

What do you think about the MAP tests and standardized tests in general?

Each state has a set of curricular standards that dictates which skills a student in a particular grade should have mastered by the time that student finishes that particular grade.  States have also teamed with psychometricians whose job was to take these state standards and develop assessments to effectively measure mastery of the concepts outlined by these standards at each grade level.  That said, standardized tests, assuming they achieve the above, are one of the best measures we have for determining whether students have mastered their grade-level concepts.  Granted they are not the be-all end-all measurement of achievement, but if the tests are appropriately aligned with the standards, then we could rest easy in using the data as a metric for student achievement.

However, one of the largest problems with many state assessments is that they are only given once a year: near the end of the school year. This is problematic because we have no baseline measure of where the student was performing when they started the school year.  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 many students' families move and change schools.  Additionally, some students endure what is termed summer learning loss during the 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.

One solution 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 would 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 data-skewing issues from transience or summer learning loss concerning what impact an individual teacher had on a student’s learning.  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.

However, more standardized testing is expensive, time-consuming, and reduces real in-class learning time.  Additionally, some students perform better in a classroom setting than they do on standardized tests.  Allowing educators to make their own beginning-of-year assessments would be far preferable to using last year's MAP results or burdening students with more stress or boredom for a beginning-of-year standardized test.  While starting the year off with a form of the MAP could give more accurate numbers by which to measure a student's growth, it very likely would sap the class's enthusiasm for the new school year.  We need to place more emphasis on an educator's ability to analyze their own students' learning styles, trust our educators to report students' performance and growth needs fairly and honestly (even when it conflicts with the previous year's MAP results), and empower our educators to employ the teaching techniques they see fit to help every student succeed.

In the past the elected board has been criticized as dysfunctional.  If a majority of fellow board members make a decision with which you disagree can you accept the outcome or would you publicly disagree with their decision?

Democracy requires accepting decisions of the majority of voters on any board and working together to meet the end goal of said decisions. Each member's opinions should be voiced and their cases made before a vote or decision is made, not after.

Approximately 70% of SLPS high school graduates who enroll in college must take remedial courses.  What policies would you promote to lower this statistic?

Junior College Board Member positions are also up for election this year.  Perhaps this is a good time to converse with them.  I believe solid communication, strong partnership, and close collaboration with these board members could bring some great data to shape the K-12 curriculum to include college preparation. Some years ago, my hometown Fayetteville, Arkansas's FHS East Campus began offering AP courses through a partnership with the University of Arkansas.  College curriculum courses are taught for college credit (based upon passing final test) at the high school itself or, when necessary, with transportation provided to the University.  This gave under-challenged students an opportunity to advance their college coursework while still in high school.  More often than not, “underperformance” is due to lack of engagement rather than lack of intelligence or motivation.  Customizing classes for each student based on not just their abilities, but their interests, can keep students from feeling punished or stigmatized for their deficiency in one subject area as they discover their proficiency in another.  By emphasizing strengths over weaknesses, this approach would inspire students to define their passions and perhaps even become more motivated to succeed in their problem areas.  We need to help children find their passions instead of rigidly boxing them into the most popular career path; after all, passion is a huge motivating factor when choosing a major. This could also save our students money at the university level, as fewer of their resources be allocated to taking remedial courses.  I would like to see a strong line of communication between secondary, community college, and university officials to help better develop pathways to a university that is the most beneficial to the student - less costly to them, both monetarily and mentally.

Is it important that SLPS parents be represented on the school board?

Absolutely! Parent representation is essential - especially for parents who are unable to attend school board meetings due to chronic illnesses, disabilities, or jobs with demanding hours.  In the past, some elected board members have shifted the blame to the parents for "not bothering to show up for school board meetings". Many of the parents in my northside neighborhood work hourly minimum wage jobs and are navigating the margin between destitution and oppression.  As elected officials, it’s time for us to step up, meet people where they are, and reach out to them instead of expecting them to come to us. They love and care about their kids just as much as more "involved" parents who hold regular 9-5 careers and paid leave - and it's time we start making sure all of our parents' concerns are not only brought to light, but acted upon. We must stop equating poverty with apathy!