By CAPA JRC Reporters Kathleen Li and Claire Yu
On the evening of Monday, October 5, 2020, the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) Candidate Forum took place virtually through a Zoom meeting. The non-partisan event was organized by the League of Women Voters and moderated by Diane Hibino. More than one hundred people were watching the livestream in real time, and all six contenders were present, including at-large candidates Sunil Dasgupta and Lynne Harris, District 2 candidates Michael Fryar and Rebecca Smondrowski, and District 4 candidates Shebra Evans and Steve Solomon.
To start off, each candidate gave a one-minute introduction. Dasgupta, who has had years of experience in academics, believes the main issue is the underfunded school systems. Harris is both a teacher and parent in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), has been involved in education advocacy, and worked as a lawyer, nurse, and public health expert.
Fryar has a son who is a special needs student, and argues for educational and civil rights. Although he has only been in MCPS for two years, he feels he will be able to use his past experience in Hartford, Connecticut here because their school systems faced similar problems as MCPS. Smondrowski supports giving every student a positive education experience and utilizing resources in the best way possible to be successful.
Evans is currently the president of the BOE, and running for re-election. She wants to close the achievement gap, expand access, lower class sizes, create pre-kindergarten programs, continuing the work she has already started as a Board member. Solomon, a lifelong resident in Montgomery County, simply hopes to improve the school system and make schools safe and modern by retaining the best teachers and expanding technical and vocational programs.
From Virtual to In-Person Learning
After the past few months of virtual school, the candidates have taken away many lessons that they hope to apply to the future. Smondrowski stresses the importance of equal access to resources, such as technology and WiFi, which MCPS has worked to provide for all students during distance learning. Tools used during online learning can be helpful when classes are back in session as well. She wants to make sure every student has access to every class, area of interest, and curriculum, regardless of where their home school is.
Evans found that the teachers, parents, and staff are all integral parts of the online learning system, and hopes that they are recognized for their hard work. She believes that there should be many community partners to support the process, and that “education is everyone’s business”. As an MCPS teacher, Harris realized that being forced to adapt to new technology and tools and finding ways to provide more flexible academic support has proven to be quite beneficial to students. In her opinion, learning virtually has provided opportunities for students to build their own schedules and engage when they have time, which is especially helpful for those in higher grade levels. As for Fryar, he believes that MCPS should keep on delivering both food and education to families and providing accessibility programs that can be done in a virtual format as well over the summer.
Dasgupta has been teaching classes online for over seven years already, so he did not learn anything different this time; he still feels that online school works for some and equally not for others. Although Solomon has not directly worked in MCPS, he believes his experiences at his radio company have shown him that virtual learning is not easy at all.
The main issue MCPS faces this year is how schools will transition back to in-person instruction. Based on evidence from other school systems, Harris concludes that since there is no way students can return completely, MCPS needs to work with public health departments to come up with a hybrid model. Similarly, Fryar and Solomon believe that the county can learn from the lessons of many other school systems when preparing for the transition.
Dasgupta places emphasis on maintaining equity, as he feels that MCPS should consider the choices of staff, teachers, and families, and prioritize those who are most impacted by online learning. Smondrowski wants to provide options for each family, use necessary resources to ensure the safety of the staff, and has already proposed a hybrid model that brings in the youngest and most vulnerable first. Evans disclosed that she has sent out a letter to the staff regarding going back to in-person instruction and is currently working with other partners to discuss reopening plans.
Diversity in MCPS
Another major problem addressed during the event was equity in the school system. Recently, studies have revealed that a drastically small percentage of Latino and black students from low-income families in MCPS take Algebra I in seventh grade compared to the rest of their peers, even if their scores at the end of sixth grade were the same. The candidates were asked about a policy they would recommend to close this gap.
Fryar believes the key question MCPS needs to answer is what is occurring systematically that is preventing certain children who scored appropriately from being able to access higher level courses. By looking at different areas including resources, teachers, and programs, Fryar hopes to find a remedy to this “tragic number”.
Smondrowski claims that MCPS should focus on universal screening, expanding seats in special programs, and ensuring that every school has a rigorous curriculum. In her opinion, students should be looked at as individuals, and do not have to “be in an advanced program to get the advanced opportunities”. Solomon also is in favor of universal screening and bringing special programs to a wider range of schools.
Shebra fully supports and hopes to continue the actions that the Board is taking right now to solve this issue, including conducting an anti-racist audit. She wants to try to analyze how students learn in sub-groups, using that information to make a change so they are not impacted by the quality of education.
Being part of Montgomery County since 1996, Dasgupta finds it interesting that equity problems like this are not something new. He feels that there is no one single solution, but fixing resource allocation can help.
All the BOE Candidates demonstrate a desire to help the county and support schools. This forum was a great way to receive a quick run-down on the candidate’s stances, but the limited response times made it difficult to get to know each one individually. To learn more and get into contact with each, visit the addresses below.
For more information, visit the League of Women’s Voters at lwvmocomd.org or vote411.org for personalized, nonpartisan voting information. Remember to vote by November 3rd, 2020 and have your voice heard.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.