MoCo School Board Candidates Examine Issues of Equity During Forum

Candidates agree that technology use in the classroom has pros and cons

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School board candidates from left to right Maria Blaeuer, Judy Docca, Lynn Amano, Patricia O'Neill, Brenda Wolff, Julie Reiley and Karla Silvestre

Dan Schere

As the seven candidates running for four seats this fall on the Montgomery County Board of Education debated on Wednesday night, the theme of equity repeatedly came up.

The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County at the Rockville headquarters of Montgomery County Public Schools, touched on issues such as technology use in the classroom and cultural competency. The forum included At-Large candidates Julie Reiley and Karla Silvestre, District 1 candidates Maria Blaeuer and incumbent Judy Docca, District 3 candidates Lynn Amano and incumbent Patricia O’Neill, and Brenda Wolff, who is running unopposed for District 5. School board President Michael Durso (District 5) decided not to see re-election and At-Large member Jill Ortman-Fouse chose to run for an At-Large County Council seat instead of seeking re-election. She was defeated in the June 26 primary.

Asked by moderator Tracie Potts, an NBC 4 reporter who is also a member of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, what school objective the candidates would want to champion if elected, Wolff said she would push for making computers more readily available to families while Reiley and Silvestre said they would focus on helping students and families who don’t speak English feel more comfortable in the county schools.

Blaeuer said she wanted to help increase the availability of special education programs in  neighborhood schools, as opposed to those located at schools with magnet programs.

“It is not appropriate that students with disabilities can’t access free public education in their neighborhood school. They have a right to that,” she said. “A lot of kids and families can’t afford transportation to get to those programs, and you can’t be included if you can’t get there.”

The candidates also discussed  the question of how much or little technology should be used in classrooms. Most said the key was to “strike a balance,” especially when considering whether mobile devices should be used during instruction. Silvestre citedd the example of her daughter recently listening to a podcast on the species homo sapiens.

“There’s times to have it on, and there’s times to turn it off,” she said, while also noting that teachers must be “cognizant” of the technology divide between the haves and have-nots.

Reiley added that technology can often help students who struggle with executive functioning skills. Other students, she noted, process assignments better by writing things down.

“You can’t really write an essay on a cell phone,” she noted.

When the issue of using cell phones for instruction came up, Blaeuer said that the devices could level the playing field for students who aren’t native English speakers, struggle to stay organized or have special needs.

“I don’t like cell phones for instruction, but it would have changed my experience in law school if I could take a picture of everything my teacher wrote,” she said.

When the candidates were asked about MCPS’s plans to shift to a new curriculum starting early next year in English and math for elementary and middle schools, some of the candidates expressed frustration with the pace at which the shift away from the current Curriculum 2.0 took place.

“Parents and teachers knew that Curriculum 2.0 was not working and they plowed ahead anyway,” Blaeuer said.

Reiley said that she too would have called for an evaluation of the old curriculum sooner, and that a new curriculum must be “culturally relevant” for minorities such as LGBTQ students.

Wolff was more gentle in her critique of the old curriculum.

“I’m not sure that it indicates failure. I think it indicates that it’s time to move on,” she said.

Docca said she is excited about the designs for the new curriculum, particularly since ethnic authors from different parts of the world will be incorporated into lessons for English classes.

“We have a chance now to put things in our curriculum that reflect our student body,” she said. “We have an extensive group of teachers and community members giving input. It will be a very transparent process.”

The candidates also addressed MCPS’s decision to scrap final exams in 2015, with many referencing a recent Washington Post story that found significant increases in the number of A’s awarded across the school system in math, English, science and Advanced Placement courses since the 2014-2015 school year—the last year the exams were given.

“I realize that the outcry was for less testing and that was the one test we can control. My daughter is getting straight A’s in the first quarter, slacking off in the second quarter and still getting straight A’s,” said Silvestre.

All of the candidates agreed that a final exam, or a new system that measured evidence of learning at the end of the school year, was needed.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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