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Albemarle County School Board interviews White Hall district seat candidates

Candidates for the White Hall District seat on the Albemarle County School Board answered questions about their ideas and qualifications during a special meeting Thursday evening.

The seat is now up for grabs after David Oberg resigned from the board at the end of October. His resignation is effective Dec. 31.

The school board will hold a public hearing on Dec. 15 and announce the finalist after . The board member will serve until November 2023, when the next school board election will be held.

Amanda Parks

First on the docket was Amanda Parks, a political science instructor at Penn State who does not have any children in county schools. She said she home schooled her children.

Parks said she thinks the strategic plan is “great” to help students with basic math and reading skills but said that it wasn’t possible for schools to account for every disadvantage a student might face.

When asked about county schools’ 2019 anti-racism policy, Parks said marginalized groups would be best served by helping them achieve academic excellence.

“That’s an area where we’ve made some promises, but we haven’t met those promises yet,” Parks said.

Amanda Spillman

Amanda Spillman, a former parent-teacher organization vice president, said she wants to serve on the board after advocating for resources for her five children in county schools. She has a son who has autism, a child who is a member of the LGBTQ community and a high schooler who struggles with mental health issues, she said.

“I think I kind of have my finger on the pulse right now of what is needed and what challenges are facing our families,” Spillman said.

While she’s excited about the schools’ strategic plan and its emphasis on community and excellence, she said resources for students with disabilities are lacking.

“I would like to see more put into those resources,” Spillman said.

Spillman celebrated the fact that the anti-racism policy was student-led but wants to see if improves students’ performance.

“The racial disparities give me pause for concern,” Spillman said.

Kathryn Alves

Kathryn Alves, a special education professor at Longwood University, wants to be on the school board because she has seen firsthand how policy affects outcomes, she said. She has one child in county schools, and she previously taught at Woodbrook Elementary School.

“At every step of my career, I’ve kind of thought about what broader impact I could have,” Alves said. “I love spending time in schools, with students and families and stakeholders.”

For Alves, the strategic plan aligns with her academic research, but she wants to see more done for disadvantaged students.

“There have been discrepancies in education since public schools started … so how are we going to close some of the gaps?” Alves said.

Alves said she appreciates the division’s anti-racism policy but that she would like to get feedback from those affected, including people in schools.

Barbara Fried

Barbara Fried, a local businesswoman without children or grandchildren in Albemarle County schools, seeks the board’s White Hall seat because she believes in the mission of public education. She previously served on the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.

“Without the schools, there is no democracy,” Fried said.

Fried thinks the strategic plan is exciting, but she had questions about how it might close the achievement gap.

“I think getting rid of racism is a lot harder than it looks,” Fried said. “It’s the day-to-day feelings of those students I think we need to spend most on.”

Fried praised how the anti-racism policy has led to trainings for teachers and other school staff, but said she was unsure of how it might be improved. She also said she was unsure how the policy’s success could be measured in light of pandemic-related restrictions.

Nathan Alderman

Nathan Alderman, a financial news editor, said he wanted to sit on the school board because he cares about making decisions based on evidence and what is best for students.

“I would feel wrong if I came to the board trying to advocate for any particular supporter or group of supporters,” Alderman said.

Regarding the strategic plan, Alderman supports its focus on community. Bringing students, families and school staff together can lessen achievement gaps, he said, but he’s concerned about school staff’s pay.

“I was dismayed to hear that Virginia hasn’t given you guys enough of a sound financial basis to enable collective bargaining,” said Alderman. However, he said he was pleased that the board increased staff salaries.

Alderman said he liked the fact that the anti-racism policy came from students, rather than being imposed from administrators or board members.

“That gives it a lot more legitimacy,” Alderman said. “But clearly, based on the achievement gaps…it’s clear that we have more work to do as a county and as a school district.”

Rebecca Berlin

Rebecca Berlin, a former special education teacher with one child in Albemarle County schools, would like to join the school board because she understands the pressures on students and teachers. She has one child in a county school.

“The pandemic has taught us so much,” Berlin said, noting that differences in test scores for disadvantaged students “got even worse after the pandemic.”

Berlin said she backs the county schools’ strategic plan but is worried that the board had set goals that it can’t achieve.

“Those are goals each of our children deserve … however, where we are, compared to where we need to go, gives me pause. That’s what brought me to put my name in,” Berlin said.

Berlin was “amazed” by the county division’s anti-racism policy, especially the fact that it was driven by students.

“It sets an example for the state and the country,” Berlin said, though she worries it might become less of a priority over time. “We need to make sure it stays at the forefront of everybody’s minds.”

Joann McDermid

Joann McDermid, an academic consultant and former professor, said she wants to serve as the White Hall district’s school board member because she would bring a new perspective. Her child recently graduated from a county school.

“As a scientist, I am able to evaluate data and look at different perspectives, look at different lines of evidence to help inform decisions. As a former professor, I am able to see what sort of things are important to students,” said McDermid.

When asked about the division’s strategic plan, McDermid said she was excited about career learning centers.

“They’re addressing the needs, interests of students at all stages,” said McDermid. She did expressed concern about students’ academic achievement.

“I think it’s clear … that the academic achievement is not at a level where we want it to be,” said McDermid, acknowledging that results might come a few years down the line.

The anti-racism policy, McDermid said, was impressive in that it would have almost all staff go through anti-racism training. However, she said the policy needed to be flexible.

“What we learn is effective can change, so continually getting the pulses” is important, McDermid said.

Jessica Ammons

Jessica Ammons, a project manager and vice president of the Blue Ridge Home Builders association, said she applied for the vacant school board seat because she has the time to dedicate to a cause bigger than herself. She has one child in the district.

“I have the time to commit, and I feel I have a voice that could possibly help,” Ammons said. “My values align with the school board’s values.”

Ammons previously expressed support for Governor Glenn Youngkin’s 2022 model polices in the Crozet Gazette. The school board voiced its opposition to the policies in October.

Ammons likes the slogan ‘learning for all,’ which is what the county school board calls its strategic plan.

“I get excited about that possibility. It’s why we’re sending our kids to school,” Ammons said. “But I want to see higher expectations and accountability for all of the students.”

Ammons said she was sure that the schools’ anti-racism policy was carefully considered, but it neglects diversity within racial groups.

“I think the demographics are important, but I also think that diversity comes from within each of those groups …The anti-racism policy from 2019 was 100% necessary, and by and large most of our community would agree with that."

Stephen Tavares

Stephen Tavares, a former consultant and current UVa doctoral candidate researching educator burnout, hopes to sit on the school board because he believes students’ and teachers’ wellbeing are inextricably linked. He has one child in a county school.

“My interest in being on the board is ensuring that our students are well, our teachers are well,” Tavares said.

Tavares was enthusiastic about how comprehensive the strategic plan is, especially seeing what his son was learning.

“He’s learning things I never learned in school, which amazes me,” Tavares said. He said he didn’t learn about “sensitive things” until he was an adult.

However, he was concerned about the reaction from community members.

“How can we help the community understand why teaching more topic areas is important?” said Tavares.

Tavares believes the anti-racism policy has been helpful in prompting a fast reaction, but that communication could be improved.

“Holding everybody accountable for those policies is very important for addressing that issue…this is what we should be doing in the year 2022,” Tavares said. “But we have to enable teachers to teach.”


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