Patch School Board Candidate Questionnaire
District A Candidate Helen Morris
Occupation: Part-Time Education Policy Professional and At-Home Mom
Incumbent or non-incumbent: Incumbent
If incumbent, how many years have you served on the board? 3.5 years
How long have you been an Alexandria resident? 10 years
Which neighborhood do you live in? Parker Gray/Old Town
Website, Facebook page or other contact information: www.votehelenmorris.com
What unique perspective, experience or expertise would you bring to the School Board?
I bring a 20-year career in education policy to the School Board. I have worked with local school boards and superintendents on math, science, technology and health policy issues. I also have in-depth knowledge of federal education law that impacts ACPS.
I am one of only three incumbent School Board members (out of nine) seeking re-election; I am the only one who has held an executive position—I am currently the vice chairman. I know the School Board's history and philosophy for the decisions we have made; I have a good sense of what is working and what isn't; I can see where we should double down on our successes and where a new start is in order.
I have built relationships with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and city executives. I trust that they know I will always be honest with them, and I work only for the best interests of all of the children in our schools. I do not aspire to a higher office; representing our children is the highest office in my book.
I have learned a great deal about how to balance competing and worthy interests when budgets are tight. We are walking into a difficult budget situation in the coming year, and the Board will need to make tough choices. I have the experience to make them—and, I hope, the trust of the people in my community that I will make them fairly and wisely.
What are top challenges facing ACPS and how do you plan to engage the community to address them?
Our top two issues are increasing achievement, especially for our struggling students, and building new schools for our growing student population.
Almost 60 percent of our children live in poverty and almost 25 percent are English Language Learners. We must address the significant needs these children bring to school AND, at the same time, educate them to high levels. Already, ACPS has rolled out innovative and rigorous reading guidelines and has increased the focus on using data for effective interventions. The community is a key component in supporting our students' learning. ACPS must continue to educate stakeholders about our needs and successes.
ACPS is planning three new K-8 schools. Jefferson-Houston is fully funded, and construction will begin in Spring 2013. Patrick Henry is fully funded, and planning begins July 1, 2013. Cora Kelly is needed, and the School Board has requested funding from City Council.
The School Board and the City have undertaken an extensive community engagement process for the Jefferson-Houston project, and I will advocate for a similar process for our future construction projects.
We will need two additional schools to accommodate students on both the East and West ends of town. The current School Board is educating the community about our capacity issues by reaching out to civic associations and PTAs, meeting with business leaders, and having discussions with current and aspiring elected leaders. I will encourage the new Board to broaden outreach to other community groups and leaders to ensure common understanding and support.
What role do the members of the School Board play in ensuring transparency and accountability at the ACPS Central Office?
The School Board has three defined roles: To set policy, to set and approve a budget, and to manage the superintendent. The Board's role in transparency and accountability is to assure our policies are clear and take public engagement into account, to oversee the budget by reviewing quarterly reports and working annually with outside auditors, and to hold the superintendent responsible for carrying out policies and managing the budget to legal requirements and policies set by the Board.
What is your opinion of the superintendent’s job performance?
Dr. Sherman inherited problems that were many years in the making, and he has carried out the directives of the Board in addressing them. Specifically, he has:
- Created a new organization and direction for our middle schools.
- Taken T.C. Williams through “Transformation,” resulting this year in the highest SOL pass rates across all demographic groups since 2001, the highest number and diversity of students taking and scoring passing grades on AP tests, and high numbers and diversity of students taking and scoring well on the SAT.
- Led two of our highest poverty schools, Cora Kelly and William Ramsay, to achieve the highest SOL pass rates in ACPS.
- Improved our special education services, which had been found repeatedly out of compliance by independent panels for more than a decade.
- Reformed our programs for English Language Learners, who are now enrolled in content subjects while learning English.
- Managed the budget to create cost-effective strategies for serving the 20 percent more students who have entered our schools in the past four years, while per-pupil expenditures have decreased.
How can a School Board member improve communication between ACPS and parents/caregivers?
Each board member is assigned to one or more PTAs. Board members should nurture these relationships and share ACPS information with PTAs and take information from PTAs back to ACPS.
Board members should interact with different groups of parents, formally and informally, to learn about their concerns, monitor their understanding of ACPS information, and advise the superintendent on how to get good information out to families more effectively.
What are some of your ACPS budget priorities? For example, do you favor spending more money to keep class sizes low or a longer school year or day? Are there certain areas that should be trimmed financially?
Over the past four years, the ACPS operating budget increased by a few percentage points while our student enrollment increased over 20 percent. In addition, Alexandria takes pride in our small class sizes; our enrichment classes like art, music, and PE; and our robust offerings of AP classes; and programs like culinary arts and nursing at T.C. Williams. We run a tight budget but manage to keep these priorities funded. I would not advocate any cuts to programs or initiatives at this juncture.
My budget priorities include developing programming for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) at the middle and high school levels; evaluating our extended learning time in this fiscal year for potential expansion in the coming years; and supporting the interventions and changes at T.C. Williams that have begun yielding successes in the transformation process.
The next School Board likely will need to address the possibility of boundary adjustments and attendance zone changes. What are your guiding principles regarding economic or racial segregation, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, class and school sizes, busing policies and other considerations?
This is a complex issue. There are no easy answers and few answers that will meet the desires of all stakeholders. That said, there are some key issues we must consider in a comprehensive review of our attendance zones:
We must follow federal law regarding school boundary adjustments in any attempt to address racial or socioeconomic imbalance. Our ability to redistrict to adjust these imbalances is limited.
Until there is significant new elementary capacity available when the new building at Patrick Henry is finished, redistricting would only move students from one full elementary school to another.
I would like to research how other communities are creating open enrollment schools to see if there are any lessons to be learned and any good ideas to be replicated.
Whatever decisions are made regarding school boundaries, ACPS should avoid placing too many students into schools that can't handle the size. For example, if there is only a small cafeteria, we don't want to have so many kids in the school that lunch has to start at 10:30 a.m.
What role does a School Board member play in helping raise academic achievement for all students and close the achievement gap?
As ACPS's leadership, the School Board as a whole can and should affect achievement and the achievement gap by directing the superintendent to implement the necessary reforms with due speed, making sure the effects of the reforms are measured regularly and rigorously, and using the budget to reflect our priority areas.
The current School Board does this work by setting achievement and achievement gap reduction priorities each year. These priorities are aligned to the strategic plan and are measured by level of achievement compared to the state and/or percentage reduction in the gap between Black, Hispanic or special needs students and the group of “all students.”
The new School Board should continue to set the tone that all children can succeed, and they must monitor and refine metrics to assure we are closing the gap.