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Danville school board candidates discuss test scores, superintendent’s role

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories on a public forum held for candidates in the race for the Danville Schools Board of Education.

Every candidate in this year’s race for three seats on the Danville Schools Board of Education agrees: There’s much more to school success than state test scores.

The five men running for the seats all suggested other ways to evaluate school and student performance during a lengthy candidate forum held Monday night at Danville High School. The forum was sponsored by the Danville Schools Education Foundation and the Danville Education Association.

“We’re stuck with tests. Frankfort is looking over our shoulder and they will get themselves involved in what we’re doing here if we’re not meeting certain levels. But the tests are not the only criteria,” said Michael Strysick, chief communications officer for Centre College and a parent of two current Danville students. “I don’t have the magic answer for what that is. My magic answer is what we’re doing here: We need to get together as a community, we need to talk about what our strengths are, we need to talk about what are realistic, actionable goals as we move forward. That’s what’s going to inform how we look at assessment.”

Strysick was answering the question posed by moderator Barry Peel: “How should the board evaluate school and student performance in the district?”

Glenn Ball, a Danville resident who is retired from the aerospace industry, also acknowledged that “we’re not going to get away from tests — that’s a fact of life.” But assessing student performance ought to take into account different categories of people and different “cultural settings.”

The school district must “try to as much as possible make those tests, make those evaluations as even across the board as possible. Otherwise, somebody is going to fall through the cracks. Somebody is going to get hurt. And it’s not going to help the community one bit,” he said. “That is a problem. We can’t have one test or one evaluation, one size fits all. It doesn’t fit all. So we have to look at the entire spectrum of students, and also the teachers who are giving the tests, and make sure everybody comes out where they should come out, traveling in a positive direction.”

Steve Becker, the only current board member seeking re-election this year, said the district must consider the same state data that everyone else has access to. But it’s also important to recognize that children have very different home lives — and that can impact individual performance on tests.

“A lot of times the kid comes to school hungry or can’t wake mom and dad up because they’re passed out on the bed. Or they left their books at Grandma’s house because that’s where they slept last night,” Becker said. “It’s not a fair world out there and the ones that suffer the most are the kids. We’ve got to account for that. We can’t let Frankfort forget that there’s a child behind that test score.”

Aaron Etherington, a former Danville High School principal and father to one Danville second-grader, said the district should focus on whether kids are excited to come to school every day.

“I think the most important thing in terms of evaluation: Do our kids want to go to school?” he said. “My little second-grader will learn to read. She will learn to do math and she will learn social studies from her history-nut father. But the problem is I need her every morning to get up and say, ‘Daddy, I can’t wait to get there.'”

The district also needs to do a better job of making its diplomas “mean something,” he said. “I think too often, in our public schools, when we hand out diplomas, it means, ‘here’s your diploma; you’re not coming back,'” he said. “… Our diploma has to mean something. It has to be a golden ticket to post-secondary success.”

Paul Smiley, a veteran educator who worked at the Kentucky School for the Deaf for many years, said state assessments are not going away. He’s heard some people say they believe different groups of students get more attention than others, but he doesn’t believe that’s true — the schools want every student to improve.

While students who are already performing at a high level can still improve some, “the students unfortunately that are at the bottom — they can improve a lot,” he said. “They can move up and make our school system look better quicker. But everybody has to be involved in assessment. We have to give the teachers whatever they want to be a better teacher. They have to have materials, training. … Budget should be shifted for instruction needs. … We need to put our money where instruction is because that’s what’s going to help the children move on.”

Smiley said the school board should also encourage every student to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Administrators and superintendent

Peel asked the candidates how they would interact with schools and school administrators; and how much “autonomy” the board should give Superintendent Tammy Shelton.

Etherington said he would work to create trust through transparency with the schools and the community.

“First, I will listen to understand,” he said. “I think too often, we listen to respond.”

The superintendent should provide a “well-articulated vision, mission,” he said. “We as a board can collaborate and work to develop that vision and mission, but if our superintendent is not sitting down and leading those conversations and working with us to ensure that that is a well-articulated vision and mission, that all stakeholders understand … then we’re going to have a very difficult time moving forward in the Danville Schools.

“I believe that the superintendent of education is a gatekeeper of that mission and vision and I believe it’s our responsibility as board members to help and make decisions that ensure that our superintendent can lead that cause.”

Strysick said he would like to interact with schools and the community in both “structured” and “unstructured” ways. Unstructured interaction would involve attending many school events, meeting with people and hearing from “lots of viewpoints.” Structured interaction would include formal community meetings. “We need to get together more often like this to understand what’s going on in our schools.”

Strysick, who was on the superintendent search committee that helped choose Shelton as the district’s new superintendent, said now that she is here, “our job is to help Dr. Shelton be successful.”

He said he would model his behavior on the board after how he, as a senior administrator at Centre, interacts with Centre President John Roush.

“Our job really is to help our president be successful. Helping our president be successful does not mean we come in with a rubber stamp and we say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ The way he wants us to interact is to give him good, constructive feedback, say things that he may not always want to hear,” he said. “… That would be the kind of experience that I would bring to this role as well. I am not going to help Dr. Shelton if I keep myself at arm’s length from her.”

Smiley said he has been interacting with students for most of his life, starting at Gallaudet University and then at KSD. It’s important to get along with students and to always encourage them that they can do it, he said.

Smiley said the chair of the Board of Education should meet with the superintendent more frequently to plan meeting agendas, but others on the board should meet with the superintendent “sparingly” and “let her do her job.”

“The superintendent needs to be working and doing what she needs to do,” he said, adding that board members should make appointments when they want to speak with the superintendent, not just show up; and that board members should be trusting of the superintendent.

Ball said he already interacts with schools as a substitute teacher in the district. He believes talking with teachers and staff who are “in the trenches” is important. Board members should not “be above” school employees; rather, they should “think on their level.”

“Don’t do all the talking; do a lot of listening,” he said. “… Believe it or not, the custodian is just as important as the teacher.”

Ball said board members should also listen to the superintendent, and “agree to disagree” when appropriate. Board members should be open to “change that moves in a positive direction,” he said.

“The superintendent may and will have different ideas on direction, but that is not always bad,” he said. “… Let that person move and make decisions without looking over their shoulder.”

Becker said he hears from a lot of people around the district already.

“I tend to get a lot of calls. In fact, it’s interrupted a lot of things at times. But I take the calls,” he said.

Becker said he often can’t make a decision about something when a concern is raised because it’s something that has to be decided at the school level.

“We need to approach everything with ears open and mouth shut. Because mouth open can get you in a lot of trouble,” he said.

Becker said trust must go two ways between the board and the superintendent — and “it takes only one or two board members to quash that trust.”

Becker said team-building between board members and the superintendent will take time. He noted none of the three board members whose terms were up four years ago ran for re-election; neither of the two board members whose terms were up two years ago ran; and he is the only one of three at the end of their terms this year running. He said consistency on the school board “makes a difference” and the superintendent and the board need to have “honesty, trust and transparency” to be successful.

Education despite barriers

The final question of the night was, “How will you ensure that the Danville Independent School District, a small, independent system in a community where approximately 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced(-price) lunch, can provide the best possible education for all students, regardless of any barriers?”

Etherington said Danville has “a very large achievement gap” that’s been around for a long time. The district must continue working to shrink that gap for student groups that don’t perform as well on tests.

Smiley said the district must get parents more involved, but when that’s not possible, the district needs to provide interventions.

Strysick said developing “core competency” early on, before third grade, is essential for students to do well in subsequent years.

Ball said being a small district means there are better opportunities for providing attention to smaller groups of students and identifying individual students’ needs.

Becker said trust must be built between teachers and families so that students can improve no matter what their individual home lives are like. “70 percent of our kids are free and reduced — that’s not an excuse. That means we feed them, we love them, we demand of them and we set those expectations from day one.”