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Racine Unified Candidates Zero In On Closing Achievement Gap

In this first story, we'll give you the candidates' answers to the prepared questions. In our second story, we'll detail answers to questions from the audience.

A group of about 30 Racine Unified residents gathered on Tues., Feb. 7, to listen to five of the six candidates for school board answer a series of questions both prepared and from the audience.

The forum was sponsored by the Caledonia and Mount Pleasant-Sturtevant Patch sites and WGTD 91.1FM at Mount Pleasant Village Hall. Click here to listen to the first half of the forum and here for the second half of the forum from the WGTD website. WGTD will air the first half on its "Education Matters" program at 10:30 am on Sat., Feb. 18.

Present were Scott Brownell, Brian Dey, Don Nielsen, Roger Pfost, and Gretchen Warner. Incumbent Kim Plache did not participate because she is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car accident earlier this month, and Kevin Cronin pulled out of the race because he has a new job that would interfere with his ability to attend meetings.

After brief introductory remarks from the candidates, moderator Linda Flashinski got started on the questions while Janine Anderson, associate regional editor for Patch, kept the time:

The greatest issue facing the Racine Unified School District and other districts around the state is the issue of financing public education, particularly in light of the reduced funding for public schools. How do you view this issue, and what avenues do you see to address the fiscal shortfalls in the district now and in the years to come?  How has the state budget affected public education?

Dey said much of the issues with funding the district stem from the lack of trust between the school board and the community.

"We need to rebuild the trust, but that won't happen when you put adults before children like the district did with the new central office," he stated. "If we rebuild that trust the community will stand behind us."

Nielsen and Warner both pointed to the need for creative solutions for savings that include partnering with companies to address maintenance, electricity and heating costs. Nielsen also pointed to the need to close schools like Wind Point Elementary when only half the student population is from the neighborhood and the other half is bussed to school.

Pfost and Dey also mentioned closing schools and redistricting for more neighborhood schools.

"It's a hard thing to do," Pfost acknowleged. "People want savings, but they don't want the school in their neighborhood affected. We're going to have to be a little hard-nosed with our decisions."

Warner pointed to the reductions in state aid and how the school board needs to continue working with legislators to change the funding model. She thinks an experienced board that works well together has the ability to do just that.

"We have to keep pressure on Madison to change the funding formula," she said. "But we also have to keep being entrepreneurial about ways to save money. We have a qualified group of administrators who are constantly coming up with ways to save and that has to continue."

Brownell said there can't be anything left unchecked when it comes to reducing spending, but the real issue is money management. He also explained vouchers don't take all the funding for a child and transfer it; the amount is really about 50 percent.

"It will take a concerted effort to looking at salaries, buildings, nothing can be off the table," he said. "But what we need is proper management of our resources to put us on the road to financial responsibility. Our kids can't wait for us to make the hard choices that truly benefit students."

Obviously, the ultimate reason most people run for the Board of Education is to impact on education and children. Racine Unified has been on a mission to improve student achievement and to close the learning gap. Could you please share with our listeners what you see as the steps we need to take to improve student achievement within our district?

Nielsen wants to use some of the advice from public school advocate Jamie Vollmer and stop expecting kids to learn the same material at the same pace. He points to the success stories at West Ridge and Jerstad Elementary schools.

"They've done an excellent job engaging parents and meeting students at their level of need," he said. "We need more time focusing on the core areas that need improvement like reading, but we need to let students move at their rate."

Pfost also wants more focus on the basics, but he wants to try and engage students interests for their future in middle school.

"Too often kids are in school, but they aren't there because they don't feel like school offers them anything they can really use in their lives," he said. "We have to focus on core areas like reading and math, but we need to start introducing vocational classes in middle school to start developing real skills."

Brownell said that with such a diverse population it is vital for student success that the district use assessment diagnostics to help teach to every student.

"By engaging students, we will close the achievement gap," he said. "All students will rise."

Dey was more on track with Nielsen, saying it's time to stop promoting children into the next grade based on age instead of ability. He also supports block scheduling.

"If we implement block scheduling there is still plenty of time for classes in other areas," he said. "But we have to start looking at where students are and understand that WKCE testing evaluates the district, not the individual child."

Warner supports expanding challenging curriculum like IB (International Baccalaureate) and AP (Advanced Placement) for all students and trying to engage more parents in their children's education.

There is increasingly discussion nationwide and in our state about the role of competition and choice within education, and choice has come in a very real way to Racine Unified with the advent of vouchers. Could each of you speak a little to the role of choice in the district and how you view the issue of charter schools and vouchers?

Pfost supports school choice but says there has to be more cooperation between the district and voucher schools to improve education for all students.

"Voucher schools have shown nearly the same results as public schools but they have high graduation rates," he said. "Perhaps neighborhood schools could be key to use choice to show what we can do."

Warner said she supports the concept of choice because it's important for the community to provide ways to best meet a child's needs, but she worries about accountability.

"It's important that every school meet the same accountability standard," she said. "Without that, there's no way to compare."

Brownell pointed out that choice is here to stay so the district needs to embrace and take advantage of options like virtual school.

"With the technology we have choices and opportunities are expanding," he said. "We need to press forward for students so they're college or career ready."

Dey has supported school choice for years. He said it's no secret why parents opt-out of the public schools in favor of vouchers.

"Parents leave because they think the schools can't serve their kids," he told the audience. "Let's give them a reason to stay by expanding what's working."

Nielsen said choice is one thing, but vouchers are another because it means using public money without the same standards. As the parent of a student with disabilities, he is concerned with the lack of services at voucher schools.

"Voucher schools are required to enroll students but not provide the services they might need," he added. "And discipline is an issue, too. Voucher schools are not required to maintain students through the end of the year or until graduation and the money does not then come back to the district."

We recently marked Digital Learning Day to focus on the ever-growing role of technology in our schools and in our world. How do you see the role of technology within the Racine Unified School District and do you see avenues to use it more fully?

Warner sees technology as opportunity by giving students the option of using virtual schools and distance learning to help them succeed.

"Technology can help better meet the individual needs of children by opening up options," she said. "Of course we still need accountability and use testing methods to measure progress."

Brownell said technology means the district can change the way schools prepare students for their futures by providing opportunity for each student's needs.

"Jobs require knowledge of technology and virtual learning could help students with employment if college is not for them," he said.

Dey said he hears from parents that virtual school is working so he wants to build and improve on that.

"Computers engage students," he said. "Block scheduling for the core subjects with virtual school can open up all kinds of areas."

Nielsen pointed to the progress made by putting a computer in the hands of every teacher and how iPads are enriching education for students with special needs.

"Technology has given us a huge step forward, but we're just scratching the surface," he said. "I'd like to expand technology's reach by exploring grants to help fund kids getting computers at home so they can carry with them what they learn at school."

Pfost said there needs to be a balance, though, because he can see how introducing technology into the classroom can help students but create more work, instead of less, for the teachers.

"Record-keeping can be more work instead of being simple by using a grade book," he explained. "But in the classroom it is important because technology allows students to work at their own speed."

There is always ongoing discussion regarding the need for the school district to interact in a stronger way with the greater community.  Can you talk about ways that this could happen and how we can make a more meaningful connection between our public schools and the community at large, which includes the students, parents, business partners and taxpayers?

Brownell believes we need to tap into the resources right here in the Unified community because there are opportunities just waiting.

"Maybe we need a task force to tap into the business and non-profit communities here to serve as mentors for at-risk kids," he said. "Parental engagement is key and we need to identify kids who are at risk and reach out to their parents and get them involved."

Dey used the REAL School partnering with the Caledonia Village Board as an example for what he thinks can happen across the district.

"The school reached out the the board to connect with business leaders for mentoring and internships for potential careers," he stated. "We need school board members to sit in on meetings in the municipalities because it will take the whole community, from the county down to start the dialogue."

Nielsen said community engagement is a top priority and said the mentoring program through UW-Parkside helps make connections between professionals in our community and Racine Unified students. (Click to read David Power's blog about Mentor Kenosha Racine.)

"We need to continue outreach efforts like working with United Way or having Jamie Vollmer come in to initiate conversations," he said.

Pfost agrees there needs to be more involvement and he points to expanding vocational opportunities because college is not for every student.

"We need to do (introduce) it earlier, in middle school, and get involvement from industries in the area on what they need," he said.

Warner pointed out the need to engage the community if the schools are going to make any changes, and she recognized that the Board of Education needs to have on-going conversations with residents.

"Have to get information out quickly to inform and engage residents," she said. "We operate under coherent governance, which means the citizens and communities have ownership of the district. The Board of Education needs to link out to the community and have better ways of listening."

Rees Roberts February 11, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Excellent coverage Heather. I just have a couple of questions. Approximately how many attended the forum and is Kim Plache able to respond to the same questions by phone to allow her views to be read? I hope the car accident kim was in, was not serious.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) February 11, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Hi Rees - around 30 residents attended the forum. From what we were told, Kim's accident could have been much worse so thank God she's okay but for the broken leg. As for her answering the questions, certainly one of us can do a phone interview with her.

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