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Candidates discuss stronger schools

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During an election forum at the Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Oct. 25, seven candidates for Yellow Springs school board shared their views on issues from improving student engagement to the impending change in school leadership. On that blue-sky day, an audience of 26 people turned out for the event hosted by the Nonstop Institute and a group of parents to listen to and ask questions of the candidates hoping to be elected Nov. 3 to fill the three seats open on the five-member school board.

Incumbents Aïda Merhemic, Anne Erickson and Angela Wright joined first-time candidates Benji Maruyama, Deirdre Owen, John Hempfling and second-time candidate David Turner on the panel, facilitated by WYSO radio host Niki Dakota. Each candidate was asked to present a short personal profile and then respond to a submitted question regarding the challenge of the turnover in leadership of the school district, which in the coming year must hire a new superintendent and a new Mills Lawn principal, elect three new school board members and prepare for the expected retirement of Yellow Springs High School Principal John Gudgel.

According to incumbent Angela Wright, the district’s three biggest challenges include hiring a strong superintendent, streamlining the day-to-day operations and increasing scholastic performance while reducing the education gap.

Wright believes the community should use Committee of the Whole meetings to participate in the search for a superintendent who has experience in curriculum development and can be part of the Yellow Springs culture. Because local taxpayers support 67 percent of the school’s budget, parents and community members should guide wise spending for the schools. Finally, she said, the school should address the education gap by eliminating teacher inadequacies and taking advantage of the Internet for distance-learning opportunities.

Candidate David Turner, an engineer who retired in 2001 after 14 years with YSI to be home with his sons, sees the change in school leadership as a chance to create a culture of participation and inclusion that addresses real concerns about poor teacher performance and educational inequity.

Candidate Deirdre Owen, who graduated from Yellow Springs schools in 1971 and has raised two children in town, stated that “the schools are not representative of who we are as a village.” Owen hopes to help the schools engage students based on their unique talents and interests.

A mediator, counselor and a proud Antioch College alumna, incumbent Aïda Merhemic said that school board members have a steep learning curve. She cited her realization after former Superintendent Norm Glismann was hired that he “probably was not the right fit for the Yellow Springs school system.” She believes in arts integration, differentiated learning and the need for teacher evaluations, she said.

Candidate Benji Maruyama feels that the school’s chief limitation is not its capability but its lack of bold leadership and a clear vision. His vision is to shape the local district into one of Ohio’s premiere schools in creativity and innovation in arts, entrepreneurship and engineering. A local resident for 14 years, Maruyama works in materials science and engineering, and he has one child at Mills Lawn and another at the Antioch School. He feels he would bring to the schools, “a passion for education and problem solving skills.”

Himself a product of the Yellow Springs school system, candidate John Hempfling aims to empower students to design their own learning environments. He would like to see a system that engages students to “respond honestly to the material in front of them” and creates an atmosphere of open and honest discourse and freedom of expression.

Candidate Anne Erickson, a local resident for 22 years, has raised three children in the local school system. Having learned a lot during her first term, Erickson believes the schools need a strong superintendent to lead the district as an arts and STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, school.

How to challenge the gifted?
All of the candidates were asked how the schools could better support and retain academically motivated students who currently either graduate early or leave the high school to take the post-secondary education option, or PSEO (college courses).

According to Wright, students could access higher-level learning by “having the colleges come to us” through video-conferencing and technology — tools that would also allow students to see how subjects such as math and science are applied in the world around them.

Turner said that students get engaged by learning in a multi-disciplinary manner and by being able to initiate their own projects and work with students of different ages. Schools should also support students beyond the typical curriculum with applicable life skills, such as college essay writing, financial planning and even career planning, he said.

From Owen’s perspective, the schools should utilize the expertise of local residents for workshops and immersion programs to supplement the curriculum. Students should also be given flexibility and the freedom to create independent projects or travel in groups to an area of academic interest, she said.

Merhemic would support students’ relationships with the community, their parents, teachers, and their peers, in small, multi-dimensional learning communities. Students or groups of students could be connected with teacher mentors and immerse themselves in a topic of their choice.

Students should be encouraged to question and formulate their own theories through project-based learning, according to Maruyama, who said that teachers need to know how to facilitate through projects the critical thinking so fundamental to science, technology, arts and innovation.

According to Hempfling, the high school needs to cultivate an all-around academic culture closer to that of a college, where students are treated more like adults and are supported in their independent investigations and assignments. Students also need to have a clear understanding of how to advance themselves through the school system.

Students need more support to help them find the right path for them, Erickson said, including offering the use of digital technology and the distance learning format to suit their needs.

Candidates answer open questions
Toward the middle of the forum, the floor was opened up for participants to ask their own burning questions. Micah Canal asked the incumbents what had prevented them from achieving their goals, and former school board member Bob Baldwin asked them all how they could use the money and talent in Yellow Springs to get an “underperforming school district” to evaluate teachers and better serve the total student population. Parent Jerry Papania asked how the board would create accountability for the large numbers of non-white students and those with disabilities who tested poorly or did not feel prepared for life after high school.

Regarding the previous board not having accomplished its goals, Merhemic and Erickson both said that not having a strong superintendent for over two years and also having to fill in for parts of that job “side-tracked” the previous board. Wright felt that a lack of communication between the board, the staff, parents and villagers has been an impediment, and that the whole community needs to be involved in the search for the next superintendent. And all three incumbents agreed it was a mistake that when Glismann was being considered, no one ever spoke to the staff and administrators at his previous district.

Hempfling supported allowing students to evaluate teachers, saying they could be clear about teachers’ strengths and weaknesses and that “students don’t just like the teachers who are least challenging.” Also in favor of teacher evaluations, Turner said that the school needs to find out if it’s true that “teachers are not doing what they need to do” to address academic needs or that it’s hard to get them “to do new things.” And then the school needs to address those issues, he said.

Regarding the students who fall through the cracks, Owen expressed concern that teachers needed to adopt a more “child-centered” way of engaging with students based on their individual needs, perhaps modeled after the Miami Valley School, where her daughter, who had a learning disability, found success. Hempfling also felt that categorizing students based on prejudgment should be replaced by increasing venues for student input and expression. Wright recommended training teachers to better deal with students’ different learning needs and using computerized lessons differentiated for various types of learners.

Parent Lauren Miller also voiced concern that when she had come to a school board meeting hoping to ask questions and dialogue with board members, little communication resulted. All the candidates felt there should be a clear process for community members to be heard and then followed up with, though Erickson felt that the most ideal venue for clear communication with the board was a one-on-one conversation with a board member. Wright disagreed, saying that the whole community ought to hear those concerns, and Maruyama said he felt that the real focus should be on getting more people involved in school issues in general.

The three candidates who are elected Nov. 3 will serve four-year terms on school board with current members Sean Creighton and Richard Lapedes.

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