Sara Barron for School Board

Equity, excellence, community, and vision

Iowa City Education Association Questionnaire

1) What qualities, experiences, and beliefs make you a better candidate for school board than the other individuals who are running?

I care deeply about the children and families of the Iowa City Community School District. As the Community Relations Director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County, I have had the opportunity to sit down with families in their homes and talk with them about their hopes and dreams for their children. I believe in the power of great public education to help children reach their fullest potential.

Because of my work with Big Brothers Big Sisters and through my neighbors and friends on the southeast side of Iowa City, I believe I have a unique ability to improve our district’s approach to better serving students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color. While I don’t “represent” these families, I do have the communication skills, resources, and commitment needed to fully include marginalized students and families in our district—to lift up their voices so they can speak for themselves about their needs and desires for their and their children’s education and to welcome them as valuable members of our school communities.

The Iowa City Community School District is fortunate to include students with a wide variety of academic abilities. My wife, who is an ICCSD special education teacher, has helped me to become well-educated about our special education services. I have a strong desire to ensure that every student enjoys an enriching school experience that meets their academic, health, and social needs and that includes them fully in the life of their school and their community. This isn’t a goal simply for special education students, though—every student, of every ability, deserves the opportunity to excel. I am committed to supporting a full range of programs that makes this possible.

Although this is the first time I’ve run for public office, I have been involved in service to the Johnson County area for many years. In addition to my eight years at Big Brothers Big Sisters, I have also served on my children’s Parent Teacher Organization, the District Parent Organization, the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan committee, and the Master Facilities Plan Steering Committee. I am the current chair of the Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact committee, which addresses the overrepresentation of children of color in the juvenile justice, child welfare, and school discipline systems. I have served on the advisory board of the Women’s Resource & Action Center and volunteered as a crisis-line advocate and public speaker at the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, where I later worked as the Director of Volunteer Programs. I am also a Big Sister to a wonderful third grader at Lucas Elementary. Sometimes, too, I’m simply a mom. My love for my children and their friends motivates me to make Johnson County a safe, nurturing place for all kids to grow up strong and successful.

I value communication, critical thinking, diversity of thought, perspective, and opinion, and long-term planning that allows for flexibility and responsiveness to the possible intended and unintended consequences of decisions. The board, administration, teachers and staff, parents, community members, students—we all have an important role in making our schools the best they can be.

2) What roles do you see the ICEA playing in education in our community?

The ICEA advocates for teachers and students, making sure that our classrooms have the resources and support needed to provide a high-quality education. Teachers’ perspectives on school- and district-level issues are critical to successful decision-making and outcomes. The ICEA is a conduit for individual voices of teachers to be heard in a more significant way. The ICEA represents member and non-member teachers in salary negotiations, working toward compensation for teachers that reflects their value to our community.

3) Some recent conversations in ICCSD have included the creation of magnet schools.  What role do you foresee magnet schools playing in the district?

Magnet schools could enhance our educational offerings throughout the district. As we work to meet the educational needs of such a variety of students, magnet schools could be a way to reach certain students with differentiated instruction outside of the techniques we are already using. Year-round schools, for example, may prevent against the “summer slide” for students who do not have access to summertime educational enrichment. A Montessori school may create new opportunities for students who work at a different pace or who learn in more experiential ways. A dual-language school could be used to offer a second language to English-only speakers AND to better include Spanish-speaking ELL students and families in a school community.

As we more seriously consider a transition to some magnet programming, we will need to thoughtfully address how these changes could positively or negatively impact families and teachers. Any change we make should be well-supported, sustainable, and in collaboration with our staff, parents, and students.

4) Describe the pros and cons that you see of recently passed legislation that provides for tiered layers of teachers (teacher leaders, master teachers, mentor teachers, etc).

There were many parts to the legislation, and these comments are specifically in regards to the tiered layers section. Pros:

  • More personalized instruction and mentoring for new teachers by experienced educators
  • New opportunities for experienced teachers to be recognized and compensated for their leadership, skills, and abilities
  • Could bring more money into our district

Cons:

  • Could take experienced teachers out of the classroom/away from students
  • Links student achievement too broadly to teacher quality in its intent and requires student outcomes to be used in teacher evaluations
  • Holds money back from schools that choose not to participate

5) This past year, the ICCSD school board passed a Diversity Policy.  Describe the next steps you envision for implementing (or not implementing) the policy.  Include your vision of how the district may look in five years as a result of this policy.

The goals of the Diversity Policy will be achieved through a combination of redistricting and voluntary transfers. Opening new schools in areas of overcrowding and growth will allow some balancing of free- and reduced-lunch participation rates to happen more naturally (similar to the approach used when Borlaug was opened/Roosevelt was closed). Where that is not possible, we’ll have to take a careful look at our enrollment projections, current FRL rates, and school boundaries if we are going to meet the goal of the policy in the stated 5-year timeframe.

A main goal of my candidacy is to support the Diversity Policy with some additional measures that help to ensure the goals of the policy, which, as I see them, are:

1) to balance our schools with respect to socioeconomic status;

2) to eliminate the achievement gap for students from low-income families and students of color, who as groups are far below our district averages on many measures; and

3) to improve our school climate and welcome all families as important partners in their children’s education, building on the resources that they can offer to each school’s success.

The policy as written achieves the first goal explicitly, but not the other two.

So, some solutions might be (and this is definitely not an exhaustive list):

1) Evaluate curriculum, policies, and procedures for cultural competency and relevance

2) Provide greater opportunities for teacher and staff training with respect to diversity issues–not just feel-good, once a year mandatory MLK Day stuff, but usable techniques and skills that make our schools more welcoming and our education more accessible

3) Recruit, hire, and retain more teachers and staff who reflect our district’s diversity

4) Look for other solutions to address discipline issues and special education staffing, which currently disproportionately involve students of color

5) Provide greater intervention for young students who need support for basic reading and math skills

6) Work with the families we hope to most support with the diversity policy to identify the needs that may emerge as a result of school transfers, etc.

7) Reduce class sizes

Any of this work needs to be done in collaboration with administration, staff, teachers, families, students, and the greater community. I see the role of the board as facilitating the discussion, gathering information from the widest variety of sources, setting goals and broad policies that inform the overall process, and supporting the teachers and administration with the necessary resources and advocacy to achieve our shared vision.

In five years, I think we can reasonably expect to be a district that has elementary schools with FRL rates that are all below 50%. At the same time, I believe we will have realigned our resources so that children’s academic and co-academic needs are being met even better than they are today.

6) What strategies would you promote to increase open and honest communication and transparency between the board, the Association, and the community?

I really like it when a representative from the ICEA addresses the board meetings. My guess is that other communication is already occurring that I’m not seeing, such as emails to the board, etc. I think it would be great if the ICEA had more ways to directly address the community, as well. I know it can be difficult for individual teachers to participate in public discussions about district concerns because of their role as employees. Where the ICEA can act as a liaison between teachers and the community or teachers and the board, I fully support its ability to do that.

7) District plans to build, update, or close facilities, as well as the use of money for security measures such as fencing and cameras, have been hot button issues in this community.  Describe your priorities in terms of district facilities.

Space is my number one priority for facilities. I routinely see teachers and students trying to work in spaces that were formerly closets. Temporaries being used for classrooms are serviceable (to varying degrees) but should not be allowed to become permanent parts of our structures for a multitude of reasons (safety, climate, accessibility, etc.) Without new construction, we will have no way of accommodating our anticipated growth.

Space, however, is just one piece of our overall need for greatly improved equity in our facilities. Air conditioning (and in some cases better heating too) must be available in all of our buildings. Accessibility for people with mobility differences must be improved. Every elementary school should have the same ability to greet visitors. It’s okay that our buildings are different—every school has a personality of its own—but as a district, we have to agree on a list of basic facilities needs and make sure that no one’s education (or working condition) is compromised because of their school building.

The facilities plan that was approved by the current board works toward addressing both of these concerns in a comprehensive manner that I believe will create HUGE improvements in our school environments.

As for specific recent debates, I respect the work that has been done by the current board to move our facilities planning process forward. I see my role as continuing where they left off, not unnecessarily revisiting decisions that have already been made.

How I can participate in this process is to advocate for continued improvement of equity in our buildings, work to make sure new construction happens as efficiently as possible, stay responsive to changes in our needs, continue communication with the community whenever facilities decisions are made, and learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the past to do better in the future.

8) What role do you anticipate technology – and particularly on-line learning – playing in this district in the next ten years?

Technology will continue to play an important role in students’ lives in and out of the classroom. Increasing student engagement, encouraging skills that will be needed in the workplace, or achieving new levels of understanding of the material being taught are all good reasons to invest in technology. Different subjects and students with different ability levels will need different kinds of technology, so we have to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.

The idea of “flipped classrooms,” where the lecture becomes homework and class time is used for discussion and great exploration of or practice with new subjects, could be a useful tool as long as all students are able to access technology out of the classroom. Online learning such as Khan Academy has generated great interest, but more evaluation is needed before hailing it as the next revolution in education. The bottom line is, nothing will ever replace learning from a great teacher who can push you to think in new ways, help you troubleshoot your problems, and individualize their response based on your feedback.

As a board member, I will look to teachers and administrators to teach me about how they want to use technology in the classroom and work to support this vision.

9) The level of scrutiny to consent items on the board agenda has raised some concern. Many people have questioned how informed board members have been about budget and hiring items on the board agenda prior to voting on them. For example, during the last two years the board has approved the hiring of a large number of new positions at the ESC without substantive discussion around it. How would you go about verifying information given to you about consent items on the board agendas?

I’m not sure that the board can ever be fully informed about the consent items, given that they represent the work of many, many administration members. The board packet for the August 13 meeting is 362 pages! At some point, the board has to trust that the leaders of our administration are supervising these day-to-day decisions in a capable way.

Still, the impact of the consent items can be significant, and each board member should do her or his best to understand the information presented. As a board member, I will be an active learner who is open to feedback from all sources. The board should know about major changes before they are presented in the agenda. We should not wait to have conversations about important issues until it is time to spend money on them.

10) Are there any other issues you would like us to discuss?

Thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to learn more from you about your perspectives on some of these topics. I appreciate all that you do on behalf of our students, families, and teachers.

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