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Phil Thomas (Ward 3): The Deputy Mayor’s Advisory Committee on School Assignments has done an admirable job, though they were limited by the scope of their mission and did not take into account Charter Schools. The proposed plan contains many improvements over our current system and is designed to create more predictability and stronger alignment of programs and neighborhoods.
At first, I was very hesitant about the process, but strongly supported aligning boundaries from elementary school through high school. I also support efforts for an enrollment preference for “at-risk” and out-of-boundary students at every Ward 3 School to assure diversity and language differences.
The proposal because relieves overcrowding in Ward 3 schools, though I do have reservations that the School Assignment & Boundary proposal was pushed through by the out-going mayor and that it didn’t solve the main objective of fixing the quality of the schools in the city. We still need to bring more attention, communication, and resources to the middle school level to improve student success.
MW: The District has been criticized for relying heavily on high-stakes testing to determine proficiency in various subjects. Do you see this criticism as valid or legitimate?
Thomas: As an elementary school teacher, I have seen the positive and negative effects of testing. I have seen firsthand how setting standards for curriculum, assessing students on their mastery of that standard, and providing interventions for students who need additional help can lead to higher achievement. Testing to measure student growth can be a useful diagnostic tool when the tests have a relationship to the curriculum being taught and results are shared early enough for teachers to make adaptations to their teaching. However, I have also seen the number of tests grow and the atmosphere around testing become so stressful that teachers are using instructional time to teach the tests, rather than focus on meeting the needs of students to learn the curriculum.
I think the State Board relies too much on high-stakes tests and instead should incorporate a balanced form of assessments that include formative as well as summative assessments. I do believe tests can be positive as long as teachers have some type of flexibility to teach to each child’s learning style. In addition, it’s important for State Board members to remember that school climate is a very important part of the learning process. If students and teachers are stressed from high-stakes testing, then ultimately we are defeating the purpose of increasing student achievement.
MW: What do you think needs to be further done to reduce truancy and increase D.C.’s low high school graduation rate?
Thomas: Truancy is a major issue in the District, but it’s not a problem schools can solve alone. Missing 5 unexcused days of the 189 required days in school is considered truant. I believe it takes a village to raise a student and that includes great neighborhood schools and libraries. I think it starts with the school administration monitoring the student’s absenteeism. Schools should have funds for a designated person to act as liaison with parents to fill this role. It also takes the teacher to follow up with the parent or child to make sure it doesn’t become chronic. Additionally, there should be positive reinforcement and a form of reward for students who attend school on time. If truancy continues, we need intervention from social services and/or one-on-one tutoring.
Low high school graduation rate is also a major issue. One in every three 9th graders failed last year and had to go to summer school.Increasing student retention and decreasing dropout rates starts by getting students engaged in learning. One of the most effective ways to keep students in school is for them to know someone cares about their success. We need to make sure schools are focused on student achievement and that from the moment a student walks into the school, every adult in the building is focused on his or her success. We need teachers with deep content knowledge mentoring new teachers, and a strong framework of professional development. We need to have a rich curriculum with a balance of classes so that all students can learn. In addition, all schools need to reach out to parents, because parent engagement plays a big part in student success and in retention in school. Also, students need access to libraries and books so that they can explore and advance their learning independently. Lastly, the District needs a strong summer program with a curriculum similar to what’s offered during the school year so at-risk students stay on track for graduation.
MW: What can the DC State Board of Education do, if anything, to enforce anti-bullying laws related to LGBT students and families and reduce truancy among that specific sub-group?
Thomas: The D.C. State Board of Education and OSSE have already declared every school in the District of Columbia an anti-bullying zone. Yet, as a school teacher, I know more work still needs to be done to enforce it in the school system. It starts with leadership. Principals need to maintain a climate emphasizing respect for everyone. All members of the school community should be trained using positive reinforcement to respect each other. There should be clear policies with consequences that the entire school community knows are in place to discourage bullying. If bullying occurs, then the consequences need to be implemented fairly and quickly. Every school in the District of Columbia should have the same policy that deals with bullying.
When LGBT students feel supported and protected as part of an overall effort to respect all students, I believe truancy will be reduced among this specific subgroup. Parent involvement is also key to a child’s self-esteem and confidence. Students with involved parents do better in school, but not all schools are welcoming to LGBT families. School leaders need to ensure that all families feel supported as part of the school community so that all students will thrive.
MW: Why should the LGBT community vote for you?
Thomas: The LGBT community should vote for me because I am an elementary school teacher who doesn’t tolerate bullying and enforces an anti-bullying policy. I have ground-level experience working with children, administration, parents, and working in the school system. I also realize that gender-based roles in families are changing. Marriage equality means some students will have two mommies or two daddies. In addition, society is re-examining gender assignment as a biological and cultural construction. As a teacher, I realize it is my responsibility to help students navigate these changing attitudes in a way that is responsible and culturally sensitive.
For more information on Phil Thomas’s campaign, visit thomasforstateboard.com.
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