Keisha Bell: I'll hold town hall meetings
The Pinellas school district can increase parental involvement by holding town hall meetings, said School Board candidate Keisha Bell.
"My ideas center around a very key idea: building positive relationships between the parents, the schools, the community, and the student," Bell wrote in a questionairre for the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "I (personally) would have community/town hall meetings throughout District 7 as a way of being available to the community -- its stakeholders, parents, and students -- to share what is going on in the schools and to hear from them their views, thoughts, and concerns."
In response to another question, Bell said she wasn't sure where she would trim the district's budget to meet pending shortfalls.
"I would prefer not to speculate at this time as that budget is not before me for consideration," she wrote.
Bell is running against Jim Jackson and Lew Williams for the District 7 seat.
Here are her responses in full to the questionairre:
1) The school district faces a $26 million budget gap for 2010-11, and a potential shortfall of $53 million the following year. Gaps that wide call for major cost cutting. What should be cut? What should be spared?
When it comes to budget cuts, it is very important to remember this fact: all children deserve a quality education. I will be a strong advocate for those things that foster that belief. As to the specifics of what should be spared and what should be cut, I would prefer not to speculate at this time as that budget is not before me for consideration.
2) Four Pinellas high schools are expected to be under state oversight this fall because of inadequate performance. Who is to blame and how can the problems in those schools be fixed?
Collectively, all parties share in the blame. Likewise, collectively all parties must come together to solve these problems. This is why it is vital for new ideas and perspectives to be included at the decision-making level.
I have gone through Pinellas County Schools as a student and that perspective is vital in this area. I graduated from one of the schools that will be under state oversight, Dixie Hollins High School, and am a member of the SAC at another, Gibbs High School. Students need to be able to see that they can come through this system and achieve great academic success. Parents, community members, and all stakeholders need to trust that they are electing people who will work to keep them informed about what is happening in the schools and about the ways that they can help. Relationships between the parents, the schools, the community, and the students need to be stronger to solve these problems. The communication between all stakeholders is key and those in decision-making positions must be open to expanding its community relationships. In addition, the district should investigate models that have been successful in other places for ideas, such as the Harlem Kids Zone, the Urban Prep Academy, and the Ron Clarke Academy.
3) Julie Janssen has been superintendent for just under two years, and while she still enjoys the support of the School Board, she has been criticized this year for being tone deaf in some public comments and unaware of developing problems in some schools. Does Janssen have the skills to lead the district through this difficult time?
It appears that she has the skills in that the Board has renewed her contract.
4) What changes would you like to see at the district administration level?
When changes have to be made due to budget adjustments, it is only fair to evaluate the operations inside the district administration office level just as we seek to evaluate the operations inside the schools.
5) What steps should the superintendent and School Board take to improve student behavior? What should be done with chronically disruptive students?
The superintendent and School Board must encourage building relationships with both the students and parents, and the schools. The policies and attitudes of the Board and superintendent must be so that there are clear expectations. Teachers should be supported on discipline issues. At the middle school level, there should be more curriculum on character development and social skills.
Regarding chronically disruptive students, the superintendent and Board must do a better job in reaching the parents and community for support. In addition, they must support avenues for finding out about the interests of these students. If it can be determined what these interests are, then possibly the school system can steer the student towards a program offered in the school system and/or other options where participation would result in the student's behavior improving.
6) Parents are clamoring for more fundamental schools in Pinellas, and at least three high schools have asked to be next in line to go fundamental. Do you support the expansion of fundamental schools? Under what conditions?
Yes, especially if this expansion would result in bringing a fundamental high school to District 7.
7) Schools that have a high level of parental involvement generally have fewer problems. What ideas do you have for increasing parental involvement in schools, especially schools in low socioeconomic areas?
My ideas center around a very key idea: building positive relationships between the parents, the schools, the community, and the student. I (personally) would have community/town hall meetings throughout District 7 as a way of being available to the community---its stakeholders, parents, and students---to share what is going on in the schools and to hear from them their views, thoughts, and concerns. I would emphasize partnering with all community organizations/groups, inclusive of those in the faith-based community to reach the parents. I would investigate to see why parents may not be involved and work to eliminate those obstacles.
Having overcome a similar obstacle almost 2 years ago with trying to encourage community members to take part in the community programs that stem from the grant I manage, I was able to utilize some very helpful community resources and employ successful tools to increase community involvement. In two years, a program that no one knew about grew to a participation level of over 3000. I would adapt those skills and resources to this situation.
8) What is your opinion of the current school district's proposal to change how teachers are evaluated? Does it go far enough in encouraging good teachers and providing a way for the district to remove ineffective teachers?
I applaud the willingness of the district to consider an evaluation system that will highlight all of the good things that are happening within our schools and for our students as well as flushing out those areas that are ineffective. However, as with any system it is imperative that all involved parties implement and perform with integrity and fidelity because if there is a concern of favoritism, dishonesty, and/or politicking at any level the system will fail.
9) Grade the school district on its management of the transition to neighborhood schools. What has it done well? What has it done poorly? What would you have done differently?
I would have provided more opportunities for the communities to be involved in the process. NOTE: This would have included expanding the number of community stakeholders involved in the process. In addition, I would have been a strong advocate for staff to obtain the support needed for such transition.
10) Across the bay in Hillsborough County, the school district is awash in innovations and creative thinking resulting from the award of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In comparison, Pinellas looks tentative, conservative and mired in problems. Is that comparison accurate? What can be done to inspire more creativity, innovation and public involvement in Pinellas?
I would agree with this comparison. To inspire more creativity, innovation and public involvement, we must elect and put in decision-making positions people who possess and have a history of these things. For example, many people have told me that my campaign has inspired them. Some say that they are interested in running for office in the future, while others have said that they have never worked on a campaign before but will work on this one with me. Likewise, a number of people have approached me for information regarding community involvement because they know that I am a true public servant.
In addition to electing people who possess and have a history of these things, we as a community can do a better job of sharing information so that people can be aware of "how" they can be involved. Many people are ready and want to be involved, but some have shared with me that they do not know "how" to become involved. The marketing has to connect with the people to entice them to take action. I find that the desire is there. People are ready for fresh ideas. In many cases, they have creative ideas to share. What appears to be lacking in many cases is trust in the system, but by electing people who have a real desire to motivate involvement is key in producing increased involvement. As follows, when involvement is increased, chances are greater that more innovation and more creativity will result.
11) Should the School Board change the start time for high schools? Why or why not?
If the School Board makes any changes to high school start times, it should include opportunities where all stakeholders can be informed of the consideration and allowed to present their positions for and against the change. After careful consideration of all factors, the Board should then make a decision.
12) Last year the school district signed a memo of understanding to address the achievement gap between white and black students. What is your opinion of that agreement? Does it go far enough?
This agreement is a good start.
13) In November Florida voters will reconsider the 2002 class size amendment. What is your position on that issue?
While it is an ideal situation to have the smallest student-to-teacher ratio possible, due to current budget issues it would be prudent to consider an adjustment of the class size regulations in order to retain as many of the remaining teaching positions that we have.
14) Describe why voters should consider you for this office and what you hope to accomplish:
Being the only Saint Petersburg native in the race, I have a deep-seeded motivation and belief that all children deserve and can obtain a quality education in Pinellas County. The children, parents, taxpayers, and District (7) as-a-whole deserve an experienced advocate to stand for them on the School Board. I have practiced law in Florida since 2001. Having been trained as an advocate, a mediator, and a negotiator, I will put these skills to work in finding effective, innovative solutions to the complex issues that are present.
I would like to work towards taking major steps that result in the school system working together with all communities so that every school can be as successful as it can be. In doing so, the graduation rates for all students would substantially increase. As follows, I would like to accomplish creating a fundamental high school in District 7. In addition, I would like the school system to be a leader in reducing childhood obesity via such things as having healthier food menu options and strong exercise curriculums. I would be a strong advocate for showcasing the successes of our school system as a whole, especially in District 7, so that it would be known more for its successes, not its stigmas.