School Board at-large candidates sound off on issues

By Karen Kirk:

School safety, diversity and challenges facing Fairfax County Schools were the top issues at a forum Saturday featuring at-large candidates for the Fairfax County School Board. The forum was held at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church and early voting followed.

Here are the four candidates’ views:

Safety in schools in an era of mass shootings:

Karen Keys-Gamarra, current school board member: “We reviewed all of our facilities to see how we can improve our security and we received recommendations and are currently implementing them. But both the state as well as Fairfax County Public Schools found that we need significantly more support from mental health initiatives. Within our schools, we have kids who are having anxiety attacks in elementary schools. I think that we need to not only partner with social workers and our psychologists, we also need to partner with parents. I will continue to work with our community. I am happy to have visited a number of Moms Demand Action groups and I will not stop joining each of us until our voices are heard in Washington D.C., Richmond and everywhere else because this has to stop.”

Ilryong Moon, current school board member: “We have a problem with violence and how easy it is in our country to purchase guns. I will work with state legislators and our Congress members to make sure that we tighten our gun purchase laws and make sure that our schools remain safe, gun-free zones. I do not believe in our teachers or administrators using their own guns to protect students. We need to make sure that we take care of the mental health needs of our students and be sure that students do not bring in guns to harm other kids.”

Abrar Omeish: “We want our schools to be places that are conducive to learning and that are places for second chances. I look at this in a number of ways: Mental health is an obvious one, restorative justice is another. When kids make mistakes, it’s an opportunity to educate them in a different way and the other thing is securing our schools. Trailers are a safety concern for many parents. It’s important to look at ways to eliminate them in the long-term. And finally, I think about this from equity levels. How do we make sure that all students, including the undocumented ones, feel safe in our schools?“

Rachna Sizemore Heizer: “I agree. Trailers are a huge issue. We have 800 trailers in our county schools. No matter what safety measures are put in buildings, we cannot secure our trailers. They are a huge safety issue. Also, we need to build trustful relationships with our students so that they can report their concerns so that we can have safety for all of our students. We also need to build inclusion and acceptance. A lot of school shooters are acting out of hate. If we focus on acceptance and understanding starting within our schools, that is how we address the hate. Whatever we put in place for safety has to be based on best practices. Our lockdown drills have nothing behind them in terms of showing effectiveness and have caused a lot of trauma in students and that trauma can be long lasting and can lead to someone taking actions like this so we have to build best practices  based safety and build relationships with all students.”

Making sure students of all backgrounds have a positive educational experience:

Keys-Gamarra: “This is an issue I’ve already begun working on. I have listened to people from various communities. They all have the same concerns. I have discovered that we have disparities in two primary areas: being able to access advanced academics and how we implement discipline. Two of my initiatives in my first year and a half on the board have focused on those things. I want to make sure that our school system is looking at how we can increase the racial composition and diversity in our advanced programs. The school board has agreed with that and instructed the superintendent to review it to make sure that we don’t have same problems I did with my son when he was young. He was put in the remedial class without being tested because of how he looked. We also have to deal with our disparities in discipline.”

Moon: “We need to continue emphasizing the need to provide more professional training for our teachers and administrators on cultural awareness and cultural competence and we need to continue including diversity in the workforce. Our school district is minority majority. However, when you look at the face of a teacher in the classroom, it does not necessarily represent the face of the student population. We have made a lot of progress, but we’re not quite there yet. The very first thing I did when I became school board member 20 years ago was to put forward a budget amendment for $250,000 for diversity training, which was passed. We need to continue this.”

Omeish: “One of the best and most exciting things about Fairfax county is that we are this diverse with over 162 languages. There are families from all over the world. This is a beautiful opportunity to teach these things to our children. The fact that they are physically in that environment is a teaching experience itself. I would continue fostering them and building empathy in the curriculum and teaching children emotional intelligence. These kinds of things are how we end up preventing hateful incidents. Increasing support and having more social workers be available to connect with the community are opportunities where we can expand. It’s important to ensure our leadership is reflective of the students and diversity of our community. I currently co-chair the HR committee for the school board and we’ve been looking at how we can retain and recruit those teachers.”

Sizemore Heizer: “Our schools are becoming increasingly resegregated. One of the ways we can address resegregation in schools where we have significantly more of a minority population is to strategically use our resources to address the inequities across the county so that all of our schools are excellent, and parents stop buying houses based on schools. We also need programs that build understanding and acceptance and to address the discipline gaps. We need to address inequitable access to advanced programming. We have to be more holistic in our entrance requirements for AP and where we place those programs. Where are we putting our programs? How are we letting our kids into our programs and how are we ensuring that all schools have equitable access to advanced programming within their schools? How are we building understanding of each other? It’s always understanding that leads to ending discrimination.”

Meeting the biggest challenge you think FCPS faces:

Keys-Gamarra: “The biggest problem we have in Fairfax County is that we have two Fairfax counties. We have some areas like Dranesville-Great Falls, where only 4% don’t attend preschool, but if you go to Lee, 38% don’t go to preschool. What does that mean? Our children start out with inequities and we have got to have universal preschool in Fairfax County. We have to make sure that every child has access to our programs because as we see in Lake Braddock Elementary, we have kids there of every race, every language, every socioeconomic level and they are doing coding and having access to advanced opportunities. And guess what, they are rising to the challenge. If we give kids access, they will succeed.”

Moon: “The biggest challenge we have is to make sure that all of our 190,000 students, regardless of which district they live in, be given the same equal opportunity to become successful. If you look at schools in Lee, Braddock or Mt. Vernon districts, they have a higher turnover of teachers. We need to find out how we can better support our teachers and hold administrators of those schools accountable for failure to provide necessary support for teachers.”

Omeish: “Equity is a core value. I want to get to the root of how we ended up here. The biggest challenge is how we listen. We have challenges when it comes to reflecting the needs of every community. How are we reaching people who don’t come to back to school night? How are we reaching those families who feel scared or unwelcome in the school environment? I look forward to doing that proactively and really making sure that we’re there for every community and every marginalized person.“

Sizemore Heizer: “The biggest challenges we face in Fairfax County are the growing inequities and achievement gaps and discipline gaps. We have a school system in my opinion that is stressing out our students, stressing out our teachers because we have a very narrow focus on one area of success without supporting children holistically. That’s why we have seclusion rooms. That’s why we have special education students who are graduating with an 80 percent unemployment rate. And that’s why we have kids who are feeling stressed and lacking self-esteem, because we do not educate and value the whole child. We do not support our teachers and give them a positive work environment and the proper training. How would I fix that? I would look at having better options for career and technical education as well as advanced academics at all of our schools and more equitable access to it to better equip our 21st Century graduates with all of the skills that are needed to be successful in the workplace.”

The forum was led by Gordon Simonett, co-chair of Hunter Mill District Democratic Committee. Click here to see a video of the forum.

Photo of Abrar Omeish (left), Karen Keys-Gamarra, Rachna Sizemore Heizer and Ilryong Moon was taken at Saturday’s forum for at-large candidates for the Fairfax County School Board. / Photo by Karen Kirk, Deputy Editor of The Blue View.