Education Opinion

Teacher Takes on StudentsFirst Machine in Rhee’s Back Yard

By Anthony Cody — January 16, 2013 6 min read
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Michelle Rhee has made her home in Sacramento, ever since she married the city’s mayor, former basketball player Kevin Johnson. Since landing here, she has been working to expand the influence of her lobbying group, StudentsFirst. Last fall, a school board member resigned in nearby West Sacramento, too late to be replaced in the fall election. School board members appointed a replacement, but an ally of Kevin Johnson, West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon, mounted a campaign to force a special election, which will cost of $100,000. And guess who is running to fill the seat? Francisco Castillo, an employee of none other than StudentsFirst.

Local school board races used to be small town affairs. But recently, as money has flowed into education reform across the country, we have seen local races take on national significance. And StudentsFirst clearly cares about the outcome of this local election, right in Michelle Rhee’s back yard.

The only real antidote to well-funded astroturf operations like StudentsFirst is real grassroots activism. And fortunately, in West Sacramento, voters will have a real educator to vote for. A National Board certified teacher, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, has stepped forward to run. I worked with Ms. Kirby-Gonzalez on a writing project several years ago, so I reached out to her to find out more about her candidacy.

Why have you decided to run for school board?

I grew up in a household where my parents were very involved in our community. It was expected that one should give back and help make society a better place. My mother, a former political reporter, former policy researcher for the state Senate and now a university faculty member, uses her pen to make change. My father, a surgeon, donates time to free clinics and is on the Auburn City Council (and is former mayor of Auburn). My stepfather was president of the Sacramento Public Library Foundation, is on the Sacramento Zoo board, is executive director of a transitional housing program and was president of its board. I want to serve my community and profession by being a role model of positive change for my daughter, as my parents have been for me.

I have spent years frustrated with policy decisions in education, seeing firsthand how damaging they can be in the classroom. I eagerly accepted when asked to be a member of the California Accomplished Teachers, and joined them to lobby at the Capitol on their report for teacher evaluation reform. We sat down with members of the Senate Education Committee, among others. I was immediately struck by how little some senators actually knew about the nuts and bolts of education policy, and was thankful they came to the table with open ears. It felt good to be heard, and it was then I started thinking about one day running for School Board.

When I became a mother I started to look very closely at the schools here and talk to parents. I immediately became concerned when I heard families talk about sending their children to Delta Charter, GATE programs in other districts, and charters in Natomas. It seemed the parents did not have faith in their local schools, and were misinformed about what was actually happening in the schools.

When I went to the mayor’s workshop meeting regarding the school district, I looked around the room and I knew this was my time. I was without a doubt the most qualified potential candidate in the room, and I was ready to run for a seat on the WUSD School Board.

What are some of the challenges in West Sacramento?

1) There is a lack of high-quality curriculum and access to basic technology in our schools. I have had many parents and teachers reach out to me to voice concerns over curriculum and access to the Internet. The GATE program also seems to be nonexistent, which I believe is part of the reason so many families look outside the district to send their children.

2) Current Board members lack in-depth knowledge about education policy and what is happening in other districts. For example, at the recent Board meeting it was said that the district was ahead of the game in their anti-bullying policy because they were adopting BP/AR 5131.2 and 5145.3. Being ahead of the game is simply not true. Some surrounding districts purchased this curriculum before the start of the school year and have been implementing curriculum in response to this policy since August. If our Board members don’t understand what is happening in the region, and aren’t current with education research findings (especially in regard to special education, multilingual students and GATE), they cannot make informed decisions.

3) Community relations is key. Sadly, at a recent PTO meeting parents said they felt ignored by the principal and superintendent over their safety concerns. I confirmed these concerns when I drove by the school site and saw the gates that the website says are locked, wide open. The school district needs to listen to families and bring this community together.

How would you address these challenges?

1)The district might not be in a position to purchase new curriculum, but it can work to create cost-effective and supplemental units. I would encourage the district to create a professional development team to facilitate trainings, and share resources. Curriculum can also be piloted by teachers, so when there is money for a new adoption, schools know what they want and need. Enhancing technology is relatively simple and cost-effective - for example, teachers want easy access into YouTube so they can show video clips, such as the one recently sent to them by the Yolo County Office of Ed. There are also ways the district could use a different Internet provider so the system is high-speed.

2) I would contact other districts to see what innovated things they are doing, and how they are using their limited budgets. I would look for ways to recommend applying up-to-date education research to improve our instructional programs.

3)I would listen to the concerns of families, the community, teachers, administration and teachers. I’ll do my best to make them feel heard. I’ll be vocal in celebrating the successes at each of our schools, and help make the community aware of the positive things happening while fighting for the changes that are needed.

What skills do you bring to the Board that would positively impact the challenges and solutions you listed above?
I have worked as part of a professional development team, and am working to integrate new national curriculum standards in the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District. I have also worked with another district team to bring back families who had moved their children to charter schools or other schooling alternatives, with the goal of raising student enrollments and funding in the district. I currently teach in a district magnet program for gifted and high-achieving fifth-graders using innovative, inquiry-based approaches.

Through the Area 3 Writing Project, and other organizations, I have connections across the region, state, and even globe. It is easy for me to be connected to what others are doing, and I can bring this knowledge to the board.

Working with families is something I do daily. There are always parents in my classroom, and I welcome community volunteers. I know how to build community in schools. I have planned and implemented Family Learning Night. I have worked with multilingual families to create site plans based on their children’s needs. I also co direct an annual district-wide Writing Celebration meant to bring families from a variety of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds together and build community within the very large district of Folsom Cordova Unified.

In takes funding to win, and donations are important. I also need volunteers to phone banks and walk precincts. You can find my Facebook page here.

What do you think? Can a grassroots campaign like this succeed against the StudentsFirst political machine?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.