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I believe that Gwinnett County Public Schools can improve its service to students, parents, teachers, and the community at large. I know that my business and teaching experience can help with ideas to improve our quality of service.
Currently, there are no other candidates with internal GCPS experience who can speak for students, parents, teachers, staff, bus drivers, and the local community. I speak from the inside, and I speak from experience! I taught for the last 18 years in a Gwinnett Title I (low income) high school (Berkmar High). I am a 25-year resident of District 4. My 14 years with international companies (BellSouth, Mitsubishi Wireless Communications, and Nortel Networks) before I became a teacher, also informs my perspective on managing a large organization such as GCPS.
GCPS needs to focus more on doing what's best for students. Two key issues we need to address in order to put our children first are:
Our class sizes are too large. My last assignment had 36 students in a trailer classroom. That's not doing what's right for students. Overcrowding is not only a health concern in these uncertain times, but also contributes to fighting and discipline issues.
We also have too many standardized tests, beyond what the state requires. My daughter, who graduated from Gwinnett schools, had 16 standardized tests her senior year. Parents and the community should remember that students lose a class day in certain classes for these tests. Students need more time in class and fewer standardized tests. It's better for student learning.
GCPS does many great things for students. Opportunities abound in athletics, Advanced Placement programs, and even arts and music. However, truly excellent organizations continuously strive to improve. For example, improvements can be made in class sizes (reducing them), reducing the number of standardized tests, and creating more equitable discipline policies for all students. Career and vocational education must be improved to meet the needs of a changing economy – one that demands more and more technically trained workers. Jobs are growing much faster in these areas. Lab technicians, welders, electricians, and dental hygienists are just a few examples.
As a former teacher, I have great appreciation for the efforts of all who work at GCPS, including teachers, staff, bus drivers... Teachers are facing many problems: a teacher shortage, teacher attrition (at GCPS), and teachers simply leaving the profession.
Suggestions for retaining teachers include support by administrators on discipline matters, more classroom autonomy, perhaps restructuring the pay system (moving away from “pay for performance”), and perhaps considering other types of bonuses (for those doing more, i.e., special education, teaching at Title I schools and other areas of need).
GCPS needs a re-commitment to listening and supporting those that make the organization function, as well as re-commitment to listening to the community (parents and the community at large). Common interests and a better community should be the driving forces behind our work. It will lead to better outcomes for students, parents, and the community at large.
GCPS does a good job preparing students for college – that is, those who are willing and able to attend, such as higher-level academic students and Advanced Placement (AP) students. That emphasis has been the college/ academics-for-all model brought about by the early-2000’s No Child Left Behind Legislation. This legislation caused many subsequent distortions to public education.
Not so well done since that time was career and vocational education. There was less emphasis on it. Many GCPS schools were placed into the Academy model (primarily Title I and low-income schools), in which high schools/clusters would focus on certain career areas. (Examples: Entrepreneur and Leadership Academy, Health & Human Services Academy, Construction Academy) These efforts could probably be seen as “Vocational Lite” education since the investment at each Academy school, at least at first, could be minimal.
I would give students more choice in their Academy placement. At some schools, students were placed in academy programs they did not choose. Students should have voice and choice; unpopular academies should be scrapped. We need more vocational emphasis, more schools, and better, perhaps four-year vocational model schools. Rockdale County’s “Rockdale Career Academy” is a four-year technical school that serves specific community-driven career needs. Perhaps this could be a model for Gwinnett to improve its technical offerings.
Fights, bullying, and ensuring equitable discipline are huge issues today. We need to empower students to do the right things. Students reflect their current environment. If they feel less connected to school, they probably will engage in negative behaviors.
Of course, students need to know that fighting and bullying are not tolerated. However, we need to be mindful that students have been in and out of the classroom for months. Some have not done well on returning to school. Social media makes bullying and student interpersonal issues ever-easier to spread.
So how to address these issues? Fighting, bullying and equitable discipline are connected. Students need to be empowered to do the right things. Empowerment is real, but students need to believe it's real. They need to have a connection to school and know that it will help them toward their goals and dreams.
We know that punishment does not work from educational and psychological research. Isn't it better to teach the right behaviors in school, at home, and in the community? I have seen Gwinnett judges recently speaking about their different approach for young people in their courts. Gwinnett's judges are making an effort to keep young people on track and out of jail.
When a former student gets involved in a court case, they cannot get a job, apply for a student loan, or further their education. They are stuck until the case is resolved.
If the courts are trying not to over-punish, why can't schools? Equitable discipline for all students should be a cornerstone of our community-mindedness as an organization. The school to prison pipeline is real, and we shouldn't want any student's potential to be wasted.
Let's look toward the future, do the right things as a school system, and help students do the right things.
One of my major campaign issues is “more emphasis on literacy.” Reading a wide variety of different texts should be encouraged.
Students learn to read better by reading more. Book bans serve the purpose of appeasing certain parents. However, teachers believe in the idea of age-appropriateness in selecting books for students. Certain materials are appropriate for certain ages. My experience is that when books are banned, some students want to read them.
Censorship is a very sensitive topic, as is age-appropriateness. Overall, banning books and certain topics for discussion seems to harken to a previous time to which many of us do not wish to return.
Of course, parents do have some measure of control of their children, in the eyes of the law, because they are under age 18. We must also respect religious and cultural values, but not to the point that all are censored. (Substitute readings are often given in classes.)
Blanket bans remove rights from parents who want their children to have wider experiences. As an educator, I strove to teach the curriculum, but with room for questions from students. Many students would ask me, “What do you think, Mr. Sellers?” My answer would always be “You should explore and research on your own.” That way, students can learn to think for themselves.
Should we choose to ban topics in a blanket fashion? Or should we consider them in terms of age-appropriateness and giving voice to the voiceless? Traditionally, we in America have chosen the side of freedom. Book bans and bans on discussion do not seem like a choice for freedom.
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