By Michael Hernandez
CONEJO VALLEY—A virtual forum of Conejo Valley Unified School District board of education candidates was held on Sept. 30 by THRIVE Conejo and featured four candidates running for two seats: one seat in Area 1 (Patti Jones and Karen Sylvester) in the Westlake area and one seat in Area 5 (incumbent Sandee Everett and challenger Lauren Gill) in the Newbury Park area.
“We are excited to host this forum, because it is essential that voters are able to make informed choices at the ballot box this year,” said Lee Ann Holland, co-founder of THRIVE Conejo.
The candidate forum was moderated by Dr. Edlyn Pena, director and co-founder of the Autism and Communication Center at California Lutheran University. The center promotes practices that support inclusive schools and communities based on the notion of presumed competence for autistic individuals.
THRIVE Conejo was formed in 2017 by two moms of exceptional learners. It is a nonpartisan grassroots organization of 500 plus parents, educators, administrators and community leaders.
THRIVE Conejo is dedicated to advancing inclusive education within the Conejo Valley Unified School District to benefit ALL students of ALL abilities—making learning environments more inclusive of students with disabilities.
(Editor’s Note: Candidate responses are grouped together by candidate races and not by order they were asked the question. However, some questions are only directed to two candidates.)
Opening Key Statement:
Lauren Gill: “Every student should find a supportive path in our schools.”
Sandee Everett: “The Board needs to protect parent rights.”
Karen Sylvester: “Students with disabilities need full inclusion, access and equity.”
Patti Jones: “I will put my experience to work for all of you.”
Question: The pandemic has created inequities in our student population that spans many demographics. (Response):
Karen Sylvester: “The gap has only widened (among the vulnerable population). We need to fix the digital divide and get learning face to face and our little ones back to school.”
Patti Jones: “We need to address that children are suffering from too much distance. Some kids are not doing online learning. Their parents can’t sit down with them so these kids are not engaged.”
Sandee Everett: “So many families don’t have access (to technology). They can’t afford to put children in day care. A study done by the Los Angeles Unified School District showed a disproportionate of the Black and Latino community not getting on the computer. We can take this information and focus on those who have not had all the technology to succeed. We can help these students succeed.”
Lauren Gill: “The most vulnerable (including) foster youth may not have digital access for remote learning. We need to take action. If we accept the status quo, some have privilege and access and some do not. I speak of a justice gap. It is clear that this is a systemic problem.”
Question: How do we deal with learning lost? What is your plan for every student?
Patti Jones: “Teachers need to inform the parent immediately before it gets further.
Younger kids don’t have the attention span.”
Karen Sylvester: “Lot of kids are not engaged because we did not take attendance and did not hold them accountable. Teachers can re-teach while still connecting with new materials.”
Sandee Everett: “We need to assess all students and see where they are. We need to get them back in the classroom, unless they have a health problem. This is the best way to remedy learning loss.”
Lauren Gill: “We need real data. They need to learn in an environment of trust. We need to focus on the children’s socio-emotional well-being.”
Question: What is the first item on your agenda and why?
Sandee Everett: “The most important thing we need to do is the assessment. We need parent surveys. We need to open our schools longer than 2.5 hours a day. We need to get every student back at school while always maintaining an online option as well.”
Lauren Gill: “Our first priority is to regain our equilibrium and the emotional well-being of the student. Our students voice their opinion on how they can improve and we must respect their responses and take action on their ideas.”
Karen Sylvester: “We need a better understanding of students who don’t go to college. What opportunities do they have in the district? What are the gaps? We need better post-secondary plans. How can we do better in transitioning them out of post-secondary?”
Patti Jones: “We should look at equity scores and achievement gaps. We need full inclusion classes. Kids are super successful in those classes. We need to work to improve the achievement of all students.”
Question: How do we accelerate inclusion? (Asked only to Gill and Jones):
Lauren Gill: “Parents can learn together with their peers as much as possible. We have universal design for learning with flexible multiple ways to access materials especially those with special needs and English learners.”
Patti Jones: “I totally believe in full inclusion and the concept of least restrictive environment. My 28-year-old said it was incredible.”
Question: How can we support Conejo teachers? (Asked only to Everett and Sylvester):
Sandee Everett: “Right now, we make sure they have the technology to do their zoom. Then we make sure that every single classroom is safe when they return and that teachers are safe. I want to get more custodians even for the short-term. I don’t want anyone getting sick. Teachers need to feel that we are going to protect them. Their health is important to us.”
Karen Sylvester: “Teachers are working so hard and are under so much scrutiny. We need to respect them as credentialed professionals. We need to give them support like technology; supply their needs; provide training; help with their caseload; and give them administrative support.”
Question: What is the primary responsibility of a school board trustee? (Asked only to Sylvester and Jones):
Karen Sylvester: “Sets the vision and direction on goals. Hires one person, the superintendent, who figures out the how? Trustees adopt the budget on how they spend money. Priorities should match with the vision. They approve policies and curriculum. They hold the superintendent and his team accountable.”
Patti Jones: “The school board represents the community and community goals for education. They work together collaboratively working with a single unity of purpose where they understand what children need and what the parents are looking for? What do teachers need? We bridge the gap.”
Question: What is needed in CVUSD? (Asked only to Everett and Gill):
Sandee Everett: “All across the district we’re doing amazing things. We can expand with further development of resources. If we had more money, we could assess the interests of parents and students. We should put our money into growing our numbers—our enrollments.”
Lauren Gill: “Our special education service has not been adequately funded. Congress has never funded it beyond 15 percent. We have to address the justice gap in our district and provide an equality education to every student in our district.”
Question: Many Latino students have had multiple barriers to achievement. How would you help students graduate from high school? (Asked only to Jones and Everett):
Patti Jones: “We need to help kids understand a new culture and we need to reach out to the community and encourage and help our children out.”
Sandee Everett: “Intelligence and aptitude is more important than language skills. We need to get them in the right program and find people who can be mentors and introduce kids to different jobs.”
Question: Should we have school resource officers? (Asked only to Gill and Sylvester):
Lauren Gill: “A UCLA research study showed 67,000 dropouts and more than 35 million dollars spent on discipline for 10th graders. We should be more concerned with providing emotional health resources especially after this pandemic. Students are asking for nurses and counselors to assist with mental health issues.”
Karen Sylvester: “I would like to differentiate resource officers from Los Angeles Unified School District police resource officers. Our resource officers help students make decisions. They recognize drug and other issues. They are not police officers with guns.”
Question: Would you restructure student support services which provides special education? (Asked only to Everett and Sylvester):
Sandee Everett: “Up until less than two years ago, we didn’t have four assistant superintendents. We now have student support services. I would like any changes made at the site and classroom level where the kids have more interaction. Money needs to go to the site—to the classroom which makes a difference for each student.”
Karen Sylvester: “I echo Sandee Everett. Are we using technology tools? We need to look for feedback from students, parents, and teachers.”
Question: Do you believe we should teach lessons on gender diversity? (Asked only to Gill and Jones):
Lauren Gill: “We need to be in accordance with AB1266. The Jan. 1, 2014 California law requires all school to provide inclusive learning opportunities and reinforces the right to name and claim gender identity at school.”
Patti Jones: “My daughter who was transgender bisexual in 2005–though that term didn’t exist–told me not to get pigeon-holed or stereotyped. We need to talk to kids about gender diversity. We get rid of bias and confusion by talking.”
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of the Sept. 30 Virtual Forum with CVUSD candidates hosted by THRIVE Conejo. To visit the website go to: www.thriveconejo.org.)
Michael Hernandez, Co-Founder of the Citizens Journal—Ventura County’s online news service; editor of the History Makers Report and founder of History Makers International—a community nonprofit serving youth and families in Ventura County, is a former Southern California daily newspaper journalist and religion and news editor. He worked 25 years as a middle school teacher in Monrovia and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. Mr. Hernandez can be contacted by email at [email protected].