Round 1 goes to awkwardness.
The seven candidates for the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education took part in an unconventional virtual forum Thursday night.
Rather than just the candidates on screen, all 117 guests were visible in the Zoom forum, along with the chat box that was disabled about halfway through because of the vitriol that members of the public were lobbing at the candidates and their supporters.
Some of the questions from the group called Coalition for Neighborhood Schools were also puzzling: “Do you believe that every elementary student should be able to walk to school?” “Is it worth considering another location location for the Santa Barbara School District administrative offices to allow additional elementary facilities in the downtown area?”
Other questions seemed designed to favor the conservative candidate platforms: “What models of language instruction do you favor, particularly considering relative test scores at elementary schools at Franklin and Adelante? Do you approve of META (Multilingual Excellence Transforming Achievement) as a way to teach English to emergent English students?”
Candidate Elrawd MacLearn struck a negative tone throughout the forum, including bashing the incumbents and taking a wide swing at Adelante Charter School.
“What is going on at Adelante is not effectively teaching the children,” MacLearn said. “The board and the incumbents have renewed the charter at Adelante, even though they had decreasing scores.”
MacLearn also made generalizations without supporting them. For example, he said that district enrollment is dropping because “parents are taking their kids out of school. That is one of the reasons why we are losing revenue. Parents can see the lack of proficiency in education and teaching, and they are taking their kids out, which is leaving the lower-income students, the minority students, those who can’t adequately teach their children.”
Board president Laura Capps pushed back on the Adelante criticisms.
“Here we are in 2020, California,” Capps said. “We live in a bilingual society. This is the future, like it or not for some of you. I embrace it.”
She added that “Adelante is a magical place” where “the parents could not be more engaged” and “the students are learning incredibly well.”
She explained that it’s logical that the test scores in one language are not going to reflect what the students are learning in both languages.
“Of course, that is the situation when you transform this way,” she said.
Research shows that students who learn two languages in elementary school eventually outperform monlingual language speakers by the time they get to high school.
Capps also pushed back on the premise that the district is forcing dual languages on all of its students.
“We have one school in the entire district that is offering dual language immersion,” Capps said. “One school in Santa Barbara, California. We’re looking to expand that by another school. We’re taking this very gradually. There’s no forcing. There’s no indoctrinating. There’s many approaches. Come on. This is Santa Barbara. This is our heritage. This is our culture.”
Capps, along with incumbents Jacqueline Reid and Wendy Sims-Moten, are endorsed by the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party. Candidate Brian Campbell is registered Republican, and MacLearn is registered as “decline to state.” Candidates Virginia Alvarez and Monie de Wit are Democrats.
Campbell, like Capps, has children in the district.
“I love dual language,” Campbell said. “I think it is a great idea. It is going to increase my children’s proficiency. It’s going to increase their intelligence. My question about dual immersion is how is it going to help the literacy and education of half the students who not currently reading and writing at grade level.”
He pointed out that opponent Alvarez came to California from Mexico when she was 9 years old and “learned English within three months.”
“So why is it that we have children in the fifth and sixth grade who can’t read off of a children’s menu at the Hamburger Habit?” Campbell said. “That’s not right. That’s not proper.”
Campbell then quoted language statistics.
“If we are going to prepare our kids for a future outside of Santa Barbara and outside California, let’s take a look at that the United States has 239 million English speakers and only 41 million Spanish speakers. That’s a big disparity. In the world, Spanish is the fifth most spoken language. Mandarin and English are the top two. Whether you fly, or medicine, or anything else, you need to know English, so why are we forcing children to not learn English and not become proficient and literate?”
De Wit said bilingual education appeals to her, but that the district needs to focus on dyslexia. She said that one out of five people are dyslexic and that 80 percent of the special-education population is dyslexic. She said she wants the district to look at investigative reporter Emily Hanford and her “Science of Reading” curriculum that works for dyslexics.
“Our district currently needs to change their culture,” de Wit said. “They don’t even have the word dyslexia on special ed. I am dyslexic. My son is dyslexic. I know this. I can help you with this.”
Toward the end of the forum, moderater Lanny Ebenstein took questions from the audience.
He asked the panelists whether they supported the retention of the Teen Talk sex education curriculum or favored the HEART curriculum. The school board approved Teen Talk about a week ago, but the issue has been one that political conservatives have used to criticize the incumbents. He also asked the candidates whether they supported the Just Communities Central Coast implicit bias and cultural proficiency training that it provides to the district.
“I support the retention of the Teen Talk. The safety and health of our students is paramount, so I absolutely support it,” Sims-Moten said.
Alvarez, the chief business official and human resources director for Montecito Union School, said she supports cultural proficiency and culture competency.
“In regards to the vendor itself, which is Just Communities, I would like to have a review of the vendor, but I do support cultural proficiency,” Alvarez said.
Reid said there was wide community support for Teen Talk and that the district did thorough outreach. She said that nothing is set in stone, however, and that “teachers should have the opportunity to look at it and adapt it to their students and ensure that they are meeting the needs of the students in the class.”
She also said there needs to be an evaluation process of the cultural proficiency training.
Although there was no specific question during the forum about COVID-19 or a plan to return students to school, some of the candidates referenced it, including Reid.
“My No. 1 priority is the safe and healthy reopening of our schools, protecting students, staff and our community,” Reid said. “To bring back face-to-face learning is an optimum situation for our students, and I know this as a past classroom teacher. I was a single mother raising a child and struggled to return back to school to become a teacher, but it is way more challenging for parents today.”