Infrastructure, parent engagement, and putting equity policies to work were just some of the key issues up for discussion with school leaders attending NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) 2019 conference in September. A record 700 school board members, educators, and public school advocates were on hand for this year’s meeting in Miami.

Between the education sessions, school site visits, and keynote presentations, ASBJ caught up with some of the attendees to learn about their districts and what they’re excited about, challenged by, or focused on this school year.

Giving 'New Bricks' 

Marques Ivey, board president
Aurora Public Schools, Colorado

With 40,000 students, we’re considered a large district in Colorado. Our students come from more than 130 countries and speak 165 different languages, so the big key is communication. We developed a department that translates the top 10 languages in each school. However, there’s still a barrier getting all parents to participate. Also, our community is in a growth stage. Aurora is the third-largest city in the state, and we have 50,000 new homes coming on in the next 10 to 15 years. The eastern part of the city is growing rapidly while the western is older. So, we’re juggling how to give “new bricks” to families of students in the west while also creating “new bricks” for families in the communities that are being created in the east without those two communities clashing. The growth is explosive in the east, but not in the west, but those residents are entitled to and should receive new state-of-the-art facilities as well.

A Blueprint and Equity

Linda Chinnia, board president
Baltimore City Public Schools, Maryland

I’m excited about our equity work, especially that we’re trying to give students the opportunity for all kinds of rigorous programs throughout the city. Those educational offerings historically have been limited to certain sections of the city. In fact, we’re using a map from years before in Baltimore when there was the redlining history to help us break that mold. We have an excellent relationship with our CEO (Sonja Santelises), and our board is cohesive. We have some new members and work hard for the synergy. But what is really keeping us together is that our district leader has presented a blueprint that is a very clear direction of a way to go. The board wants to expand on that in terms of our own goals and looking ahead.

New Buildings

Ronald McFadden, board member
Baltimore City Public Schools, Maryland

We’re very excited about our 21st Century Schools buildings program. By 2027, Baltimore is slated to have 28 new schools open as part of this project, and we’re on track to have them all open on time. The schools are spread out across the city, and that’s exciting to have these new, state-of-the-art buildings represented in all our neighborhoods. We still have about 100 buildings that need support and upgrades; we have the oldest school building portfolio in the state of Maryland.

Chinnia and McFadden at CUBE's annual conference

Higher Standards, No Excuses

Christina Bentz, board member
Adelanto Elementary School District, California

We are a TK-8 district of about 8,000 students, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and we are striving to move forward academically. About 85 percent of our students perform below standard. Before I got on the board, I felt that the district was quick to give excuses: “Oh, it’s because we’re a low socioeconomic area.” We’re working to change that attitude and have put in place, with the board and our superintendent, a focus on accountability. Things must improve. We are holding the superintendent to a higher standard and giving her clear direction. We’re going through policy; we’ve gone through our handbook and our vision statement. Sometimes we’ve met three and four times a month because we have so much to do, but we see that things are starting to roll. Our district has a history of high turnover with our superintendents, so we’ve opted to work with our superintendent, to give her clear goals and time to meet the goals and go from there.

Bringing Parents In  

Tisha Glasper, board president
Venice Community School District 3, Illinois

Our main challenge is parental involvement: getting more parents to participate in our science nights, math nights, and parent teacher conferences. We understand that many are busy in the evenings when we typically have these events, so we’re looking at alternatives. Perhaps an event can be held during the day and then repeated in the evening. I’ve charged our principal to come up with savvy ways to get our parents to come out to these activities. Our test scores have continued to increase over the past four years, so we’re proud of that. We do not have a big turnover rate with our teachers, which says they want to be here. The joys of being in a one building, 98-student, K-8 district are that we have small class sizes and one-on-one instruction. Families know each other. We have a sense of community. Still, we’re challenged with convincing families that Venice is the place to send your child to school. We live in a society where a lot of families want to send their children to charter schools or private schools. My mindset is that we are a public-private school, able to give our students a private education in a public school setting.

Changing Demographics 

Bill Graupp, board member
North Marion School District 15, Oregon

I’m president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus. It’s just under 50 members out of 1,400 school board members, so we’re growing. We have several missions, including getting more diversity in our education system, and making better leaders of our diverse membership. In my own district, North Marion, a primary issue is that about two years ago we became minority-majority. Remember, we’re talking Oregon. We’re 49 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Black/American Indian, and 49 percent Caucasian. We’re struggling to get our operations, procedures, and curriculum in line with our changing demographics. As we roll into this new demographic understanding, we need to know how to adapt in a small district with very little money. It’s all people ideas; we don’t have money to buy things or do things. Everything must be done by people who have the desire to be the best we can be. That’s our capital.

Avid for All 

Helen Grant, chief diversity and multicultural inclusion officer
Richland School District Two, South Carolina

I’m excited that we started the school year as an all-AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) school district, using AVID as the structure upon which we are building all our teaching and learning. AVID is designed to help close the opportunity gap for students, so I’m excited about the common language that we’re learning to use with the program, the culturally relevant teaching strategies that are embedded, as well as the professional development, and the site-based AVID teams. We had several schools that were already AVID schools and are now adding on more, along with an intense focus on training the AVID way. If every teacher is incorporating it in their classroom, I believe our students are going to do better.


Clara Jimenez, board president
Toppenish School District, Washington

We’re focused on instruction. We want to make sure students are career ready and ready for anything that comes their way. You know not every student will go to college, so we’re into supporting our STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] program, CTE [career and technical education] program, and military service opportunities. We’ve really come a long way with our STEM program. We’re doing robotics in third grade. Our elementary students, middle school students, and high school students are highly competitive in national and international robotics competitions. We’re successful because we have a district leader with a vision and who doesn’t take no for an answer. He believes in his staff and is willing to take risks.

Safety Priority

John Cerna, superintendent
Toppenish School District, Washington

My priority is safety. Right now, we have one building that — due to old construction style, it’s very open — is not safe. So new construction is a top priority, and we’re working on that. While most of our schools are doing well academically, we do have two RAD (Required Action Districts) schools, as designated by the state. To get that way, you must have a high-poverty population, high English learner enrollment, or high enrollment of Hispanic, Native, or black students. We’re on the Yakima Reservation and meet that criteria. The RAD designation will allow us to access money and supports.

I love my job and am fortunate to work with a great board, and a great, talented administration with a high percentage of people of color. You don’t find that in many places in the state of Washington. And most of them came from within our system. When I was assistant superintendent in charge of HR, I made that a mission: When our students go away to college, if they come back and need a job, we’ll hire them, train them, and make them good teachers.

Vulnerable Children

Synathia Harris, board member
Calumet Public School District 132, Illinois

The problem of child sex trafficking is growing, and law enforcement and safety experts will tell you that we need to be paying closer attention to this because it is happening to children everywhere across the country. After attending a conference earlier this year where the issue was discussed, it really got to me. As a mom, it was shocker. It led me to put together a forum in Calumet Park with presenters from our state’s attorney’s office, the FBI, and Reclaim 13, a nonprofit that raises awareness about human trafficking and gives help to survivors. The speakers made the point that there are a lot of misconceptions about who traffickers go after, but in fact, so many of our children can be vulnerable and can be targeted. I’m hoping that our board will take this issue on to raise awareness and make strong policies to help protect our children.

Infrastructure and Maintenance

Elizabeth Andersen, board member
Duval County Public Schools, Florida

A big thing on our plate is dealing with our infrastructure and maintenance needs. We have the oldest schools in the state on average. So, we’re looking at how to get local revenue for that. Lots of school districts in the state are turning to sales tax referendums. In our area, our local government has put up a roadblock because it wants us to share more money with charter schools. That’s a big issue for us right now. We want to be able to take care of our schools. Part of the problem is that our oldest schools are in our most-underserved neighborhoods. A big chuck of the funding would go to those neighborhoods where the schools have not historically performed well. So, we’re suing [the city of Jacksonville] to get the sales tax proposal on the ballot and let the taxpayers decide.

Urban Network

Steve Horton, staff liaison
Ohio School Boards Association
Urban Network

The Urban Network is all about coming together and supporting urban districts in our state. It’s been my passion from back when I represented an urban district, Mount Healthy. That’s the same district I grew up in and where my father was superintendent, so this work speaks to me. A front burner issue for me is what I and our districts struggle with, which is what feels like a battle with our own Department of Education and state legislature and having to prove our worth and our reason for existence. To prove that we do have good programs going on and battle a report card that doesn’t show that. The Urban Network grew out of an organization called The Big 8, eight large urban districts in Ohio. It was really a legislative, lobbying effort. What we have today is very much an open network. There are about 30 districts that are regularly active. We arrange various meetings and discussions. I think the districts appreciate coming together and having an opportunity for open discussion to talk about what works in their districts.

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