AURORA VOTE 2021: Aurora Public Schools candidates focus on pandemic lag, new leadership focus

2450

Six candidates are vying for four seats on the Aurora Public Schools board of education this election.

AURORA | Candidates Anne Keke, Debbie Gerkin, Christy Cummings, Danielle Tomwing, Michael Carter and Tramaine Duncan are in the running for the at-large seats. Incumbent Marques Ivey was initially registered as well, but dropped out of the race in September without offering a reason why.

With Ivey’s departure, former APS teacher and principal Gerkin is the only incumbent. Equity in the classroom, increasing outreach to parents and community members and more focus on social-emotional learning are some of her main priorities, according to her campaign website.

Duncan is an eighth grade math teacher at APS and lists equity, building community trust and helping students succeed in and out of the classroom as his top priorities.

Keke is a teacher with a doctorate in criminal justice. Her campaign website lists reversing pandemic learning loss, recruiting more teachers of color and combating the school-to-prison pipeline as some of her main issues.

Carter is a criminal defense attorney married to an APS teacher. He told the Sentinel that making sure students from across the district are helped equally is an important priority of his.

Tomwing works in IT operations and is chair of the Vanguard Classical Schools school board, a public charter school in Aurora. Her website lists innovation, improving education opportunities for all students and strengthening the district’s support system as her top priorities.

Cummings has a master’s degree in psychology and has taught at community colleges across the state for over two decades. She has cited academic achievement, school choice and mental health as her main priorities for the district.

The Aurora Education Association has endorsed Gerkin, Carter and Duncan, the three candidates with connections to teachers. AEA president Linnea Reed-Ellis told the Sentinel that the candidates stood out because they all “see teachers as the fundamental piece of education.” AEA initially endorsed Ivey as well before he dropped out of the race.

Keke has been endorsed by state Sen. Janet Buckner, state Rep. Naquetta Ricks and outgoing APS board presdient Kyla Armstrong-Romero.

Cummings has been endorsed by Colorado Moms and Dads Rising for Action (MAD), an organization that opposed remote learning during the pandemic and has criticized school boards for being too deferential to teachers unions.

“Christy has worked tirelessly to reopen our schools throughout the worst of the performative school closures during the disrupted 2020-2021 school year,” the endorsement on MAD’s website said. “Christy will prioritize academic success and mental health support to recover from the devastation a year of closed schools has inflicted on our children.”

On top of the tumult of COVID-19, whoever is elected will be going into a school board that has been criticized repeatedly for an inability to work together.

In June, three former school board members published an open letter claiming that the current board is too focused on itself and not focused on student outcomes. The board has met with several different consultants over the four years to try and learn how to govern better, but has struggled to stick to its own policies.

This was especially apparent during the pandemic, when the board struggled to address the competing frustrations of district students, parents, teachers and administrators when making decisions about whether or not to keep school open.

Asked by The Sentinel what they thought of how the board handled the pandemic, candidate’s assessments varied. Cummings said that the board was “ruled by fear” and should have had more in-person learning, while Gerkin said that the board did the best it could do under difficult circumstances.

Several candidates acknowledged that the board had no easy options, and criticized what they saw as dysfunction and a lack of transparency.

“I believe the board spent too much time discussing issues like pay for board members, adult fights, and other non-student related matters,” Keke said.

All candidates except for Cummings said they supported the district relying on public health experts when implementing things like mask mandates, who said that “parents are and should be the sole authority in choosing what is best for their children.”

Along with reversing the effects of COVID-19, the district is also focused on bridging the achievement gap for students of color, retaining more teachers of color, implementing federal COVID relief funding in ways targeted to support students and implementing Blueprint APS, its building plan responding to demographic changes in Aurora.

These issues were reflected in candidates’ beliefs about the district’s most significant challenges, which focused on addressing inequality and improving student outcomes.

As of Oct. 5 the candidate who had received the most campaign contributions was Anne Keke, who received over $18,000. Tomwing received about $9,000, Duncan $5,595, Gerkin $4,617, Carter $3,275 and Cummings $680.

Meet Danielle Tomwing

Danielle Tomwing

Tomwing was raised in Trinidad and Tobago by her mother, a high school teacher. After completing a degree in computer science and business management in the West Indies, she worked as a software engineer and eventually moved to Colorado in 2008. She has worked in IT operations for various companies for 15 years and was elected to the parent seat at Vanguard Classical Schools, a public charter school in APS. She currently serves as chair of the VCS school board.

Danielle Tomwing Q&A

Danielle Tomwing

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

With two years serving on the board at my daughters’ elementary school, it has given me incredible insight into the challenges our school community faces which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. I understand the importance of partnering with leaders in education to meet the needs of the school community - students, teachers and parents. As a parent I understand the importance of making sure families and teachers’ voices are heard as they face the challenges of our education system daily.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Inequity is the biggest challenge facing the district that existed before the pandemic. The layers of inequity exist across multiple areas - higher rates of absenteeism, lack of school materials and the need for before and after school care and of course higher mental and emotional needs for our low-income families. Couple this with the challenge of being able to retain talented diverse teachers and educators, it impacts how we can address inequity within our district.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

The district needs to ensure that resources are allocated to address the student learning loss from the pandemic. Funding such as ESSR funds will be crucial to our academic recovery. It will take implementing different options to ensure the needs of our students and families are met. For example, the district should focus resources into before and after school programs with additional mentoring and tutoring, together with providing more support for teachers within the classrooms. Options such as summer school can also help reduce the academic loss. It will be key to include teachers, educators and parents in these conversations and be part of the solution to ensure the district understands their needs and how they can be further supported.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

The needs of students of color need to be addressed more holistically in order to close their achievement gap. Their families live and survive day by day just trying to survive. It is important to acknowledge and understand this. As a result we need solutions that will address the increase in these students being absent, lack of access to school supplies, internet and technology, access and transportation to our school. Implementing solutions to address basic needs as well as social and emotional needs of these students has to be part of the solution to address the achievement gap for students of color.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

Safety within our schools is a must. Law enforcement is one of the supporting systems of our school community and should be involved as soon as students, teachers or staff lives are being threatened.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The school board’s role is to create, review and update policies to support the vision and mission of the district. The board is there to ask the right questions to ensure educated and informed decisions are being made based on the information and data available. A key role of the board is also to support and set up the education leaders for success by providing the resources they need to be successful. With that, the board’s involvement into curriculum is to ensure the right leadership is in place to formulate the curriculum and validate its success.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The school board’s role is to ensure there is open dialogue and healthy discussions are taking place across our school community including within the classroom in regards to critical race theory and discussions about systematic racism. It is the responsibility of our leaders to facilitate these conversations and provide the support our community needs in order to have these difficult conversations.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Transparency leads to increased trust and as a result increases school community engagement. With over 130 nationalities and 160 languages the district needs to continue to make using multiple communication channels a priority, including innovating in areas of technology to communicate across multiple languages. The process, tools and channels of communication needs to be well defined and understood. The role of the board is to ensure measures are put in place to verify these are all well known and accessible.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

Given the uncertainty, lack of information and resources available to our district, the way the board handled the district was the best they could have done. This pandemic was not something any leader could say with certainty they were prepared for. The board made the safety of the kids and their families their top priority, which absolutely should have been.

During a time of uncertainty, lack of consistent messaging and communication often times results in mistrust. The board could have engaged community leaders sooner within the process to ensure consistent messaging and information came from across the community from people our families trust, such as possibly religious leaders and community centers.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

The health and safety of our students and families must come first. These decisions are not made easily and with little data and information available during the beginning of the pandemic it was crucial the board leaned towards being cautious in their decisions. The board’s decisions must continue to be data-centric and informed.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

The district needs to ensure resources are not only made available but allocated appropriately. We need to continue to ensure teachers, students and their families are part of this discussion to ensure support is meeting their needs.

More about Danielle Tomwing

What was the last book you read?

3 mph: the adventures of one woman’s walk around the world

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Watching happy shows or movies on Netflix

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

I am thinking Halloween cookies!

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

Teleportation... Because travelling is complicated and takes too much time.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

A foodie adventure because Aurora has amazing food from lots of unknown family owned restaurants!

 

Meet Tramaine Duncan

Tramaine Duncan

Duncan grew up in Aurora and is a first-generation college student. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado he returned to Aurora, and began working as a paraeducator and a teacher’s assistant in APS. After several years he became a recreation coordinator in Denver Public Schools, where he worked with students in the juvenile justice system. He later returned to APS and is in his second year as an 8th grade math teacher for the district, where his four children also attend. Duncan has been endorsed by the Aurora Education Association.

Tramaine Duncan Q&A

Tramaine Duncan

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

My mother and father both attended North Middle School and Aurora Central High School. As an elementary school scholar, I spent time at Laredo Elementary, Elkhart Elementary and Tolgate Elementary. I also was at Aurora Hills Middle School for a semester before moving to CCSD. Eventually, I graduated from Overland High School. I say this because I am an Aurora baby at heart. This city means a lot to me and my family. My duty as a father and citizen is to create a better future for our youth and community. This is what makes me the best candidate for one of the four seats on the APS School Board.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Retaining, recruiting, and hiring teachers that reflect the demographic of the students that we serve is a pressing issue for our district. We must find better ways to achieve this goal. It will benefit our district in ways that will improve both the morale and production of our students.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

I think that the district should address student learning loss by investing in programs that are backed by data and research. After school programs that are targeted and affordable to the families and students that need it. APS should lean on the efforts that are already being made by community organizations to address this issue.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

I think that our job as a school board is to bring forth a vision that is community driven and equitable for all students.That vision should be carried out by the superintendent and his team. We as Board members monitor the progress and assess data to ensure that he is doing what the community asks of him. If the community desires a specific type of curriculum to be taught in their schools, then that ask should definitely be heard and taken seriously.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

I think that law enforcement should only be involved with schools when the situation is serious and out of the control of mental health professionals/Administrators. Weapons on campus, immediate threats of harm to self or others, etc. Outside of that, they serve no role in our schools. We need more counselors and less cops.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

I think that our job as a school board is to bring forth a vision that is community driven and equitable for all students.That vision should be carried out by the superintendent and his team. We as Board members monitor the progress and assess data to ensure that he is doing what the community asks of him. If the community desires a specific type of curriculum to be taught in their schools, then that ask should definitely be heard and taken seriously.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

As a school board, we have to be careful with the information that we expose our children to. However, teaching both the good and bad parts of history is important because it lessens our chances of repeating it. Critical Race Theory is a college level course and is too complicated for some of our students right now. To be frank, some adults are not too educated about what CRT actually is. Lets develop or adopt a curriculum that highlights the achievements of all BIPOC and their contributions to our country.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Having more opportunities for families and staff to voice their opinions outside of board meetings. Families and district staff need to be engaged face to face. They need to feel like their board cares about them and their needs. I want families to know who we are, what we do, and how they can get involved in the process of creating an equitable school system in APS.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

I think that the current board did the best job they could. This pandemic was a shock for all of us and presented challenges that we were not prepared for.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

Yes. I do support the mask mandate for all students and staff P-12 in APS.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

The district should play an active role in ensuring that our students and families receive adequate mental health services around the clock. It should not be limited to school hours either. Students need support inside and outside of the classroom.

More about Tramaine Duncan

What was the last book you read?

Grading For Equity by Joe Feldman

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

My pandemic guilty pleasure has been experimenting with the Ketogenic Diet.

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

I will be handing out pencils for halloween lol. My students go through so many pencils in one week!

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

I think we need to invent a machine that drys and folds clothes. Folding clothes is a dreaded chore lol

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

If I were on a staycation in Aurora, I would wake up early and cook breakfast for the family. We would then take a family trip to Lava Island so that the kids can burn off some energy before nap time. We would probably rent an Air BNB near the Quincy Reservoir so that we can go fishing after nap time. Eat some Buddahs BBQ for dinner, watch Coco and fall asleep on the couch.

 

Meet Anne Keke

Anne Keke

Anne Keke is an instructor at Colorado Early Colleges, a public charter school in Aurora, where she teaches languages and career and technical education. She also serves as the school’s restorative justice coordinator. She lives in Aurora and has a student in APS. From 2010 to 2012 Keke worked in the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s office, and in the Arapahoe County Juvenile Probation Department. She has a master’s degree in criminal justice and a PhD in management. A native of the Cote d’Ivoire, Keke is a volunteer at the African Leadership Group, which supports Coloradans in the African immigrant community. Keke has been endorsed by state politicians Janet Buckner and Naquetta Ricks and current APS board president Kyla Armstrong-Romero.

Anne Keke Q&A

Anne Keke

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

I am a parent, I am a teacher, if elected I will be the only African immigrant on the board, and we know representation matters. My education and professional background speak for me. I understand restorative justice which is very needed now in our schools (a practice that helps resolve issues among students and reduce drastic disciplinary measures against students). As a matter of fact my doctorate is in criminal justice. I am very involved in Aurora as a citizen. I tutor K-12 students in the community, I also co-facilitate public speaking classes for adult immigrants. I am part of the volunteer restorative justice coordinators who help our youth in the 18th judicial here in Arapahoe county.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

I think the biggest issue facing APS today is inequities in the quality of education depending on where students live. We know that our city and district suffer from an inequitable distribution of resources with some parts being particularly well off and others not as much. Unfortunately, the quality of education in the district seems to be divided along these same lines, and these inequities were only heightened by the pandemic. I am hopeful that in my work as a board member I will be able to highlight the inequities and support policies that target resources in a way that helps all students succeed. We should be able to bring our different communities together by recognizing that the needs of our children are not so different, but that the way we provide for them is. With board leadership we can do more to bring the broader community together and close these gaps.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

My central focus on the school board will be ensuring that all students have access to high quality schools and that academic outcomes improve across the district, particularly for the students we have historically not served well. This means we must collect consistent data, have rigorous and honest conversations about what is working and what is not. Those conversations must include parents and the community, too often what is truly going on is not shared with everyone that needs to understand school performance. I expect and will push the district to prioritize the resources necessary to address challenges, bring in effective alternatives, which may mean stronger curriculum, more tutors or other resources. We must then hold ourselves accountable to tracking progress and making sure our strategies don’t just sound good but are driving better outcomes.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

I want to acknowledge all of the effort that educators have put into helping students during the last year of crisis and thank them for the efforts. As a teacher myself, I know how hard the work has been. It is frustrating to see that despite our best efforts, many students are behind and falling further behind. Pretending that this is not the case does not help our students. Rather than being divided, addressing these needs provides an opportunity for our education system to truly unite with the community.

As a board member, I will encourage the district to use the federal and state funding we’ve received to partner with community groups to offer tutoring, to find volunteers who will be trained and will help students make learning gains. I will also encourage the district to offer students the support they need to accelerate their learning.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

My experience in both education and the criminal justice system gives me unique insight into the ways the decisions we make in education interact with the criminal justice system. Inequities in the way punishment is meted out, harsh discipline practices including suspension and expulsion, as well as the presence of police in schools demonstrate the “school to prison pipeline” in action.

As a board member I will advocate to end practices that remove students from the classroom, except in the most egregious of cases. Finally, I will also engage the community around the presence of police in our schools, meeting with both those who support and oppose the idea of removing them. Our schools should be places of community and learning not of control and that vision is what I will work towards.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The buck stops with the school board. Therefore, we must hold ourselves as a board accountable for the areas in which Aurora Public Schools currently is not serving families. The board has one employee: the superintendent. The board must be clear in outlining a vision for the district and directing the superintendent to make day-to-day decisions that reflect that vision.

This vision must be developed in partnership with the community. I believe that students, families, and communities are Aurora’s most important assets in improving results for all students in the district. I am running to represent them, because when we do more to listen and invite the community into the discussion and decision making, we will build a better, stronger education system.

I will also be focused on bringing communities that are disconnected from the district into the conversation. In my work as a volunteer, I’ve learned how communities can be built despite cultural differences within the immigrant community. I will apply those lessons to being an accessible and open-minded board member with all the various communities that make APS the most diverse district in the state.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

Critical race theory is not a part of the APS curriculum in our elementary, middle and high schools.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Right now, we have a major problem in Aurora Public Schools (and in other districts, I am sure), with parents being completely disengaged from their children’s schools and learning. I believe that to address this, it is past time to begin providing these parents, as well as students, with a direct and immediate role in the co-creation of what is taught in schools and how it is taught.

By co-creation I mean that our schools and districts must stop ignoring their students and parents, or stop going to them after decisions have been made on their behalf and seeking to buy them in.

The typical response is to blame parents for their disengagement, but people working multiple jobs and with many worries gnawing at them may not have the time or inclination to fight against enormous bureaucracies that seem intent on locking them out. No, the blame lies with schools and districts, and this must change. Schools and districts have to put real effort into meeting those they serve in ways that are relevant and accessible.

Additionally, we must allow our educational experts (school-based and district staff) to be active participants in designing the future of Aurora Public Schools, because ultimately they will be the ones tasked to implement the vision.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

I am focused on moving the district forward. I wish the board had been bolder in the steps that it took. The past year and a half exposed many inequities that previously existed, and it is the board’s responsibility to do everything in its power to address those inequities. I believe the board spent too much time discussing issues like pay for board members, adult fights, and other non-student related matters. The focus should always be on students and I will do my utmost as a board member to ensure that conflict amongst adults takes a back seat to the needs of our students.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

When it comes to the public health guidance in APS, I am 100% supportive of the steps the district has taken to ensure student and educator safety. I am on the record as saying that students should be in school in person full time. As an educator I’ve seen firsthand how the pandemic disrupted learning. This disruption isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the reality of a system that was not prepared to ensure student success in remote learning, and that was set up to be face to face in a classroom setting. The district, and all of us in the community, need to do whatever it takes to support our schools and students and ensure they are getting the education they need; masks and vaccines are key components of that.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

As an educator and a mom, I know that the impacts of COVID have had serious impacts on the well-being and mental health of children across our state. There was already a serious need before the pandemic to invest in more access to school counselors and to shift to more restorative and student-centered practices. As a member of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Directors, I will push the district to sit down with students and have conversations so they can be a part of the conversation in identifying what supports would be most effective. I will prioritize school counselors in our district budget in order to reduce student-to-counselor ratios and ensure students can access the supports they need.

More about Anne Keke

What was the last book you read?

The slight Edge by Jeff Olson, It was also part of the reading requirement for the public speaking class African Leadership Group offers in the community that I help co-facilitate.

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

My pandemic guilty pleasure was cleaning. I find relief from stress in cleaning. Sometimes I would find myself cleaning the house over and over!

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

I love twizzlers. I will be handing out a lot of that. I also found out there is a new mystery flavor, so that will be fun!

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

How about waterproof books? I am sure avid readers will love that.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Binge watching junk TV like “90 days fiance” and “Darcy and Stacy” to catch up on the episodes I missed.

 

Meet Michael Carter

Michael Carter

Michael Carter is a criminal defense attorney at the Carter Law Group in Aurora, and his wife has been a teacher in the district since 2003. Carson first arrived in Colorado while he was stationed in Fort Carson while enlisted in the military. Afterwards, he went to college at the University of New Mexico and returned to Colorado to get his law degree from University of Denver. He has been an attorney for the past 14 years. He has three children in APS. Carter has been endorsed by the Aurora Education Association.

Michael Carter Q&A

Michael Carter

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

The most important part of Aurora Public Schools is the students, and I am the best person to prepare them to be successful. About 8 years ago my wife and I moved to the district for the specific purpose of raising our kids in Aurora Public Schools. I currently have a Middle School Student, an Elementary School Student, and a High School Student. My wife has been employed with the district as a teacher since 2003. I first arrived in Colorado in the early 90’s while I was stationed in Fort Carson Colorado. After my term of enlistment ended, I enrolled at the University of New Mexico earning a Double Major in African American Studies and Political Science. Finally, I received my law Degree from the University of Denver and have been a practicing Criminal Defense Attorney for the last 14 years. I bring the background and experience to represent the Students, the Parents, and the Teachers.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

The hardest part I have seen from afar on this board is the challenge of understanding that you must serve the whole school district. If a certain part of the district needs a helping hand that should come from the internal workings of the district. The “achievement gap” is just a symptom that the board and the Superintendent need to work harder.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

I am in favor of all students in the district having as many opportunities as possible. If a school is willing to make a commitment to the community it will have my support. Any schools that cannot make that commitment will not have my support. We should be looking at as many resources as possible to find these kids that have fallen through the cracks and bring them back to school. Tutoring, extra time and extra instruction. Whatever it takes to get the student back on track.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

Accountability will not be a dirty word if I become a member of the school board; however, it will not be used as a bludgeon to attack teachers, students, or parents. I am in favor of oversight without intrusion. Teachers should feel comfortable in doing their job, but everyone must understand we are here to serve the students. The Student Achievement gap is only going to be closed by the grownups in the room taking accountability to serve the students.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

Aurora should continue to expect that any law enforcement officers on our campus should receive specialized training addressing the unique laws and circumstances present in the educational setting.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The superintendent’s job is to manage the day-to-day operations of the district. He/she must be able to communicate with the Board and carry out that mission. If the Board has a clear vision the Superintendent has no choice but to follow. Issues arise when the Board does not have a clear vision and the Superintendent is left to fill in the blank. The Superintendent is not elected by the people, he is hired by the Board and only has one job: To carry out the Board’s mission.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The current curriculum is an open book and can be accessed easily. All decisions regarding curriculum will be as transparent as possible when I am elected to the school board.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

The more transparent our district is, the more you can trust that decisions being made are in good faith for out students. The board will achieve this transparency with outreach to the teachers’ parents and students. As a board member I would increase the number of meetings that can be accessed by video. I also will do more townhall type assemblies; going into people’s neighborhoods and wards to get the message out.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

It is not an understatement that the current board were given an impossible task when it comes to the pandemic. I would be more transparent with the parent’s students and teachers. The board’s inability to come to a consensus meant that the Superintendent was the person making board decisions. As a board member I will deal with the dysfunction of the board through constant communication with other board members.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

I support the continued reliance on Tri-County health to make those determinations. We have this service in place for a reason.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

We need to take a holistic view of education for our students. Not just educating the student but creating an environment that will foster learning. That must take place at school and at home. Mental health is part of that holistic view of teaching our students. I would continue to increase the mental health gains that the district has achieved. I want as many mental health professionals as possible helping our students.

More about Michael Carter

What was the last book you read?

All the Pieces Matter – Jonathan Abrams

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Pickle ball

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Full size Candy Bars… I’m buying in Bulk.

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

Time travel

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Aurora Reservoir

 

Meet Debbie Gerkin

Debbie Gerkin

Debbie Gerkin is running for a second term on the APS school board, where she currently serves as vice president. Gerkin is a retired teacher, and spent her entire career in APS, where she was a principal at Crawford Elementary School. She has also served as a clergyperson at Fireside Christian Church, and received a Master of Divinity from Iliff School of Theology. She is a member of the Aurora Rotary Club. Gerkin has been endorsed by the Aurora Education Association.

Debbie Gerkin Q&A

Debbie Gerkin

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

I’ve lived in Aurora for 45 years; all that time has been in Aurora Public Schools. I’m a retired APS teacher and principal. My daughters all graduated from APS; two of them are teachers in the district now; and today, my grandchildren are learning in APS. No wonder I care about it so deeply. My ability to see issues from multiple perspectives – that of a teacher, principal, parent and now a grandparent of APS students – gives me a distinct advantage for understanding different points of view and making decisions with everyone in mind. Having already served on the board for four years, I can hit the ground running. I know effective decision-making must be preceded by a thorough study of the issues and knowledge of a decision’s consequences. I intend to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and can make difficult choices when necessary. I will focus on student achievement, conduct respectful, civil conversations, and work to find common ground. Above all, I have a strong desire to serve children and families in Aurora Public Schools and a fervent belief in the moral imperative of public schools to educate all children with equitable opportunities to make success a reality for everyone.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

If we count the current pediatric mental health crisis as a component of COVID-19 recovery, then the biggest challenge facing APS is meeting the needs of a changing city. Blueprint APS, the community-created plan to “dream big” and imagine what APS could look like over the coming years, tackles declining enrollment on the west side of town, potential for rapid growth on the east side; parent choice; and student engagement. Blueprint APS provides exciting new possibilities throughout the entire district while it addresses the realities of a shifting population. Nevertheless, change is hard, especially when it’s your child’s school that’s closing. Incredibly, APS loses over $21 million per year to keep under-enrolled and under-utilized schools open. That’s over $21 million per year that could be used for students. Clearly, these are difficult choices, yet our choices must demonstrate responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars as we move forward into the future.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

APS has made good gains in student achievement, closing learning gaps, and graduation rates over the past few years. Sadly, the pandemic turned that upside down. Though we must continue to focus on student achievement and ensuring that all students receive high expectations and equitable opportunities for learning, we must also be mindful of the social emotional challenges that our students and staff have faced over the past year and a half – and will surely continue to face in the months ahead. Mental health supports are essential for pandemic recovery. Student achievement and social emotional learning must go hand in hand as we move forward. While it’s tempting to put the pedal to the metal and push for faster academic growth, we need to center the whole child and meet students where they are now, not where they typically should be. With that in mind, the Board of Education should reset its goals, which were set before the pandemic, make 2021-2022 a baseline year, focus on impacting learning rather than on accelerating it, and allocate funds to hire more classroom support for teachers.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

When it comes to educating children, one size does not fit all. Students need different supports to meet different challenges. All children need to work with grade-level content and receive the same high expectations for learning, but teachers must differentiate instruction to build on students’ individual strengths and next steps. Students of color face additional challenges. Research shows that students do better in school when their teachers look like them. Students feel supported; they feel understood; and they graduate at higher rates when they see themselves reflected in their teachers. White teachers often lack the cultural competence needed to fully understand all the students in their classroom. As we work to hire and retain more teachers of color throughout the district, APS must also make sure teachers develop culturally responsive teaching practices. Additionally, we must develop strong parent-teacher-student relationships that truly engage families as partners in their children’s education.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

School Resource Officers serve an important function when security is needed immediately to maintain safety or stop destruction of property. The danger is that some school leaders may set a very low bar for determining when safety and security are needed, and SROs may place students into the school to prison pipeline by issuing tickets to students as a matter of practice. It is essential for SROs to be well-trained so that they put student welfare first and policing second. If schools have SROs, they should be used in conjunction with mental health professionals, where both the SRO and the mental health professional respond to incidents where safety and security are in question and teachers need support. In a case study in which APS participated, referrals and out of school suspensions were significantly reduced due to intentional efforts to utilize mental health professionals first or in combination with an SRO.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The most effective school boards focus on student achievement rather than on day-to-day operations of the school district. The board’s role is to set focused goals for learning and to hold the superintendent accountable for achieving those goals. Additionally, the board sets limitations on the superintendent to keep the work within certain parameters. Ideally, the board and superintendent work together. The board sets the goals; the superintendent operates the district to fulfill the goals; and the board monitors and evaluates the work. The board approves the budget to assist the district in achieving the board’s goals. Day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the superintendent. Teaching is the responsibility of teachers and the school leaders who supervise them. In the case of what gets taught, the board’s role is to ensure we approve a thoroughly vetted, highly effective curriculum as a resource for teachers, so that students can demonstrate the Colorado State Standards and Essential Skills.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

Critical race theory is a scholarly approach to examining how race, public policy, and laws are intertwined, as well as the study of how concepts such as the “melting pot” and “color blindness” are barriers to racial justice. While I don’t think we should teach graduate level critical race theory in the K-12 classroom, I do think we should discuss how various points of view affect our laws, policies, and daily lives. We cannot teach history without addressing actual, historical facts and events – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Teaching students to be critical thinkers is essential. We must teach them to analyze the consequences of the individual and collective choices we’ve made in the past with the goal of making better, more informed, and just choices in the future. The board’s role is to approve a strong social studies curriculum and put it in the hands of a skilled teacher.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Trust and community are developed over time with multiple opportunities to engage in authentic dialogue, work together, and find common ground. Finding time and space to have genuine interactions can be a challenge. One thing we learned during the pandemic is how to use new technologies to bring people together, even when we were forced to be apart. Zoom, Google Meet, and other similar platforms increase opportunities for engagement that we didn’t utilize until recently. Members of the Board of Education could conduct listening sessions, town halls, Q&As, and other types of community meetings online, thereby increasing the number of people who could attend and provide feedback. These meetings could easily be recorded and posted for others to view at their convenience. Stakeholders may have additional ideas for productive ways to increase community engagement and transparency. Improving community interactions, communication, and trust is always a top priority and a goal worth pursuing.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

Early in the pandemic, there was little known about the spread of COVID-19. Schools shut down across the country believing we would be back up and running in just a couple of weeks. When that didn’t happen, APS went into action providing Chromebooks and hotspots for remote learning to children who didn’t have computers or access to the Internet. Nutrition Services prepared millions of meals to feed hungry children and families. Teachers learned quickly how to teach remotely by utilizing new applications and workspaces. Students who needed more personalized learning received services in-person for a time, but even these students eventually remained at home. Every decision we made was an excruciating Sophie’s choice between safety for children and safety for adults. Hearing conflicting advice from different health agencies, erring on the side of caution seemed the best course of action. As health professionals learned more, health guidance changed to reflect new understanding, and the Board of Education gained confidence in the mitigation measures we had in place to restart in-person learning. It was a bumpy road, but one I’m proud to have taken.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

A school district’s first priority is to keep students and staff safe. Because we aren’t public health professionals, we must defer to the expertise of those who are. Outside of vaccinations, health professionals tell us that masking is our best protection against the virus. Tri-County Health Department issues guidance based on our community’s current circumstances, and so I fully support following those guidelines. I also support our district’s vaccine mandate for staff. In-person learning is not possible without healthy teachers and support personnel. The more positive COVID exposures we have in classrooms, on buses, and during sporting events, the more quarantines become necessary. To keep students in school, we need staff to be vaccinated. Masks and vaccinations protect our community of learners and their families.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

I’m very grateful to APS voters for passing the 2018 Mill Levy, which provides mental health supports in all our schools. Our mental health professionals were already developing relationships with students before the pandemic shut us down. It’s important to note, however, that pandemic isolation exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis. Simply going back to in-person learning is not enough to turn the tide of depression and anxiety that our students experience daily. Students need social emotional learning imbedded across the curriculum and more down-time during the day. Teachers need professional development to skillfully support their students’ mental health and to recognize when students need professional expertise. The Board of Education should reset its goals, which were set before the pandemic, make 2021-2022 a baseline year, focus for the time being on impacting learning rather than on accelerating learning, and allocate funds to hire more classroom support for teachers.

More about Debbie Gerkin

What was the last book you read?

It’s not light, but it is excellent: I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chaniqua Walker-Barnes.

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

A glass of wine every night

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Full-size chocolate bars and Reece’s Peanut Butter cups.

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

A way to capture carbon in the atmosphere and reverse the effects of global warming.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Go for leisurely walks, sit in the shade of beautiful trees, and eat at different restaurants every night.

 

Meet Christy Cummings

Christy Cummings

Cummings has a master’s degree in psychology from Regis University and has taught psychology, English as a second language and special education at the middle school, high school and community college level for over 20 years. She has taught at Colorado Mountain College, Metropolitan State University and the Colorado Community College System. She has clinical experience working with children and families in a community mental health center on the Western Slope. Three of her children went to school in APS. Cummings has been endorsed by Colorado’s Moms and Dads, a group that opposed remote learning during the pandemic.

Christy Cummings Q&A

Christy Cummings

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

For over 20 years, I have been an educator, mental health professional and most importantly, a mom. In all of these roles, but first and foremost as a mother, I want to represent the families of the district. Families and students are the primary stakeholders and I believe all decisions should be made with students’ needs as a priority.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

The biggest challenge facing the district is the fact that even pre-pandemic (2019), only 26% of our children (3rd-6th grades) were reading at grade level and only 19% of 3rd-6th graders were proficient in math. Plainly stated, this is unacceptable. These percentages set our children up for lives in which they will not be able to compete for the best jobs and innovations of our city and society. It is imperative that these numbers significantly increase.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

The district should address the learning deficits which have resulted from remote learning during the pandemic. Smaller class sizes for younger students should be a priority, as should after-school tutoring services in core subjects such as reading, writing and math. Reading intervention groups should target kids below grade level in the earliest grades (K-2) so that they can then be successful when reading for content in the higher grades.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

The International Dyslexia Association estimates as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole has at least some of the symptoms of dyslexia (Legistar, 2016). We can be strategic about early identification and intervention for our students in Kindergarten and First grades. Such intervention is vital for these children to be able to read at grade level by the Third grade, which is the standard predictor for how students will fare in later grade levels. This type of early identification will significantly help all students, especially students who may be unfairly labeled by broad generalizations based on skin color.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

Law enforcement should be present in schools and involved when laws are broken. It is a given that students cannot learn in an unsafe environment (see https://www.eln.co.uk/blog/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-for-learners).

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

In Aurora Public Schools, the board of education provides oversight to the superintendent, executive staff, and the school district overall. The board of education is voted upon to represent the vision and implement the values and direction determined by the community which elected them. The school board’s primary role is to ensure that students are meeting all educational outcomes. The board’s role is not to micromanage the day-to-day operations of the district, but to hold the district accountable for effectively educating our students.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

Again, the school board is elected by the community members of that district and is charged with direct oversight of the superintendent, executive staff, and the school district overall. Critical Race Theory plays an important role in evaluating and changing unfair judicial practices, but when it is utilized to socially separate children from one another along racial lines, it interferes with the goals of a cohesive society and sets us back 50 years in terms of racial understanding and cooperation for common goals.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

The school board can make sure that grade level proficiency scores are reported on the APS website in the various languages, by individual school, so that parents and the community at large are aware of these scores and can make the best educational decisions for their children.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

Aurora Public schools had the fewest number of in-person learning days of any of the major school districts on the front range (see below). I blame the APS Board of Education for this. They were controlled by fear and wouldn’t allow the superintendent to administer the flexible plan that the executive staff had developed to deal with the rise and fall in case numbers last fall. Rather than follow this fear-based course of action, I would have preferred to see students learning day-by-day in-person, with appropriate safety measures being taken. As it is, our students have suffered educational set-backs which may be irreparable.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

Parents are and should be the sole authority in choosing what is best for their children, whether it be educational or medical choices. Parents and their pediatricians are the ones who should be involved in these decisions. Statistics show that the rates of illness and death among school-aged children do not warrant the severe measures which have been adopted in the past year.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

I am gratified that this question is part of this survey because it is a primary concern of mine. In Aurora, we have seen a rash of childhood suicide attempts and a significant rise in eating disorders among children even as young as eight years old! We, the adults and parents of the APS community, are responsible for the well-being of the whole child. Therefore, the school district should immediately implement a return to normalcy, especially for teenagers who are being deprived of opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and sports. For many students, athletics and extracurricular activities are a means of scholarships and higher education, which studies show are essential steps to a brighter future.

More about Christy Cummings

What was the last book you read?

Persuasion by Jane Austen

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Any and all Marvel Comic Universe movies and shows, my favorite being Wanda Vision.

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Candy

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

A means of true community interaction and appreciation of one another.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments