In addition to casting ballots for candidates in city, state and national races, South Pasadena voters will have two school board seats to decide on in the Nov. 3 election.
The four candidates in that local contest were brought “together” this week at a virtual forum, where their answers to pointed questions could illustrate how they will approach membership to the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education. The League of Women Voters hosted the forum, and it was sponsored by the South Pasadena Chinese-American Club.
Candidates are incumbent Suzie Abajian and challengers Erik Gammell, Patricia Martinez-Miller and Alan Reynolds.
The four — who are competing for two at-large seats — were queried on a number of broader educational issues, such as addressing state funding, as well as more localized problems, including how to implement possible equity policies in the SPUSD. Everyone had a minute to answer each question.
The full video of the forum, which was presented via Zoom, can be viewed at spcc-web.org.
Now wrapping up her first term on the school board, Abajian touted her experience with the district not only as a board member but also as a former teacher in South Pasadena.
“I know what it’s like to be an educator in our district,” she said. “I have that perspective. I have tirelessly advocated for all of our students, particularly our students who need additional support — our English language learners, special education students and our underserved students — and I’ve advocated for the closing of the achievement gap.”
Addressing the coronavirus pandemic, Abajian said she hoped that the district’s children would be able to do more in-person activity — “They need to be outside and they need to be with their peers,” she said — but only when health officials deem it safe to do so. On a related topic, she stressed the need to give teachers the tools to successfully correct any shortcomings in distance teaching and provide extra service in the interest of mental wellness.
“Student engagement looks very different online, collaborative groups look very different online and engaging instruction looks very different online,” she said.
In serving the district’s special education students during the pandemic, Abajian said, district leaders need to continue lobbying the state for more funding to help meet their mandates in that area.
“It is very difficult for our special education students to receive services that are exclusively online,” she said. “It also takes advocacy for special education funding at the state level. We want to meet all the needs of our special education students, but we need more funding from the state to meet all of the ways that we should be helping our special education students.”
Abajian said that in her view, the board’s role is to foster quality education through policy — as opposed to a more hands-on role with individual schools — and to make sure all stakeholders get to be heard. In terms of educational policy, her main go-to was her successful advocacy for multicultural education as a way to move beyond systemic racial biases.
“Representation is really important in the curriculum and that’s why I’ve pushed for the multicultural literature course at the high school level,” she said. “I do want to expand the curriculum at the elementary and middle school level to meet our students and make sure they see themselves reflected in the curriculum and that our teachers know how to have meaningful conversations about race, racism and white privilege.”
As a parent, Gammell indicated he would consider that perspective as a member of the board. As an example, he said he appreciated the surveys in which the district currently is soliciting parents’ feedback but would have liked them to come sooner.
“We are eight-plus weeks into the school year and more than halfway through the semester at the secondary level,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re really meeting every kid where they are and helping, especially the most vulnerable of them.”
In terms of district offerings, the trilingual Gammell pushed, as others also did, for expansion of the district’s dual immersion programming.
“I want to make sure it is expanded, but it has to be done in equitable ways,” he said. “It has to be equitable for those students in the program and those students who are not in the program [right now]. I want to make sure that the benefits of our dual immersion program are available to all of our students.”
Expanding on the topic of equity, Gammell — who has two daughters — stressed a need for the district’s girls to feel empowered throughout their education and receive the same opportunities boys do.
“I work with them every day to make sure that they know they can do anything, and I want to make sure everyone in the district feels the same way,” he said, adding that his daughters have enrolled in all-girls STEM camps in the past. “I’d love to be able to bring more of that programming to the district, because if you start kids learning early, and learning that they do love those subjects, then they will continue that.”
Additionally, Gammell also praised the district’s efforts to diversify its educational material for children.
“When I think back to my education, I read the quote-unquote classics, and there’s not a lot of diversity in the authors of those classics,” he added. “We want to make sure they understand the world they live in, and that world has racial bias. We want to teach them how to think against that.”
On civics, Gammell said he felt teaching the subject should begin as early as possible to provoke greater interest among students as they get older.
“Currently, 60% of eligible voters vote in our elections, at most, and that is something we want to change,” he said. “In order to change that, we need to start teaching our kids young. We need to start, in our high school, registering our older students and making sure that they’re ready to be a part of the process.”
As a former member of the school board and a longtime educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Martinez-Miller indicated she aims to help guide the SPUSD through the troubled times of budget strain and the pandemic. Her grandchildren are currently students here.
“It’s been an exciting education for me to get to see just how well prepared our teachers have been in order to make the presentation of the material and to make things as much like a regular classroom as they can, and also to sense what some of the real difficulties are for families and children,” she said. “A well-planned program in progress has left us still with many, many needs.”
Martinez-Miller said part of her background is in multi-language learning and advocated for creative ways to expand or complement dual immersion here.
“I absolutely hope we are able to frame a creative way of addressing dual immersion at the middle school level,” she said. “I know that there are ways that don’t involve more money and other things that we can do to expand the program at the elementary level, continue it at the middle and high school level and ultimately add some other world language opportunities.”
Given the current political climate, Martinez-Miller said, she feels students are more engaged in civics and she would want to gauge how effectively the schools are helping them learn about the topic.
“I know from watching my own distance learning students that they’ve been recently engaged in student council and that they’ve been considering our national elections from the point of view of understanding how the system works,” she said. “I would be really interested to know from people how they sense civic education is going for our students at every grade level, because there are always things we can do to build up its importance and give more opportunities for action to our students.”
Questioned about Proposition 15, which would collect additional commercial taxes for cities and school districts and is seen as a way around Proposition 13 loopholes, Martinez-Miller agreed that more funding is needed but added she was cautious.
“I worry a little whenever a proposition does something that legislation ought to be handling. The devil is in the details and we will likely find any vote in favor of the proposition in court for quite a while and then we will discover that how it funds education probably isn’t exactly what we expected,” she said. “I fully support the increased funding stream for the schools and what it does, but I realize that it is not going to be the answer to school funding down the line.”
Reynolds focused largely on special education issues for the district, being a parent to a special education student himself. On a related matter, he advocated expanding wellness services to students regardless of whether they have individual education plans, or IEPs.
“Oftentimes, IEP parents think that a lot of other students should be on IEPs; they look around and say ‘Boy, it’d be great for them to have those resources,’ but resources and funding is a serious issue,” he said. “Finding a good way to put systems in place that can maybe handle things in groups as opposed to having it be solely individual might be a way to address this creatively.”
A school district needs to be dynamic to meet the needs of its special education students, Reynolds added, and this starts with policy from the board.
“Every special needs student is different, and so it kind of has to be an interactive system in order to find the best solutions for each individual student,” he added.
Boards should also set culture, he added, when it comes to addressing equity gaps among boys and girls as well as those perpetuated by racial biases.
“Empowering my daughter has been a big thing for me and this has also been something that’s been important for us as a family as I’ve supported my wife in her own advanced education,” Reynolds said. “Oftentimes we have a situation where people have grown up with certain expectations and certain views and it skews how things are. We have to make sure from the earliest level that we advance the concept that girls have the ability to do everything that boys can do. That starts from TK all the way up through senior year of high school.
“We have to educate not just the students,” he later added, “but we need to make sure we’re educating teachers as well as families as we learn more about how some unacknowledged systematic issues have been put in place. Those changes and that knowledge need to be put in place at the beginning.”
Reynolds also stressed that the board, while focusing on policy, should be inclusive of and communicative with its stakeholders when making decisions — especially when decisions are not likely to please everyone involved.
“One of the issues from listening to teachers is sometimes they feel like their concerns are listened to, received and filed, and not acted upon,” he said. “If it’s not being acted up, we need to provide a reason why that wasn’t taken, not just move forward and neglect it.”