This is the final installment of a four-part series about D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE) races. The winners will advocate and organize policy on behalf of students, teachers, and parents in Wards 2,7 and 8,and throughout the entire city. In this article, three of the four candidates are vying for the Ward 2 SBOE seat currently held by Jack Jacobson, weigh in on the recent change in leadership at School Without Walls and School Without Walls at Francis Stevens, in addition to other issues of concern.
Allister Chang: A Lion for Literacy
This candidate, who grew up in the D.C. metropolitan area watching his father struggle with illiteracy, has spent much of his career tackling issues similarly affecting those living in marginalized communities throughout the world. He told The Informer that, in the midst of fear and uncertainty, it’s critical to communicate relevant and reliable information to all education stakeholders.
If elected to the Ward 2 SBOE seat, Allister Chang said, he will strengthen partnerships between schools and entities like the Washington Literacy Center to expand literacy opportunities across the city. He also expressed a desire to strengthen communication between various stakeholders in the local education space, especially in light of School Without Walls Principal Richard Trogisch’s sudden departure.
Chang, one of several people who converged on the Foggy Bottom campus in protest last week, said the situation highlighted a lack of transparency that has intensified under mayoral control of schools.
In regards to increasing the quality of instruction, Chang said that the Ward 2 representative has a unique opportunity to advance policies that guide the District’s long-term education plans to the benefit of all students. He touted the creation of high-caliber early childhood programs as a viable means of closing disparities that exist on the first day of pre-K.
“If you can’t read by the fourth grade, opportunities are severely limited. At the macro level, it’s very important to strengthen community schools first,” said Chang, a Halcyon Fellow whose experiences include expanding library partnerships in more than two dozen countries as executive director of Libraries Without Borders, a local education nonprofit group.
“Every child deserves an education that helps them fulfill their potential, and they shouldn’t have to take the bus for a customized education,” he added.
“It’s important that we develop a long-term strategy. We need to do more than put a band-aid on problems as they come up.”
Sarah Mehrotra: Teacher’s Advocate
As a data and policy analyst at The Education Trust, Sarah Mehrotra has advocated to increase teacher diversity and retention, and close opportunity gaps across the country. She described the Ward 2 SBOE seat as an opportunity to apply pressure in this area, ultimately to the benefit of District students who would receive consistent and quality instruction.
If elected, Mehrotra, a special education teacher and daughter of an engineer from India, would be the first Asian American to sit on the state board. While she reflected on the need for another middle and high school in Ward 2, Mehrotra’s main area of concern involves the IMPACT evaluation, a tool that leadership within the Washington Teachers’ Union said has been weaponized against those who question administrators’ decisions.
Mehrotra told The Informer that, in addition to providing teachers mental health resources, the DC Public Schools’ central office should also consider not using IMPACT as a means of assessing teachers’ performance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, Mehrotra too counted among those who converged on School Without Walls in search of answers about Trogisch’s departure. She acknowledged his reinstallation as the most ideal situation.
“Teachers of color are important, not only for students’ socioemotional development, but their academic growth as well,” she told The Informer.
“The mayor and D.C. Public Schools took away a trusted leader, and that furthers the divide between the mayor’s office and parents and families. One teacher told me that his pattern repeats itself over and over again,” she added.
“Other high schools have seen abrupt changes to leadership. In order for it to end, the D.C. Council should use its bully pulpit to vocalize the problems with mayoral control to expand our voice and help with our priorities.”
Christopher Etesse: The Education Tech Guru
While other candidates in the state board races have been critical of mayoral control of schools and charter expansion, Christopher Etesse, an education technology consultant, has touted both as steps in the right direction for a school system that once drew the ire of parents, students, teachers and education advocates.
If elected, Etesse said he would increase dialogue between various education stakeholders and build on the work done over the last decade to improve the quality of the District schools. For him, there’s no more of an ideal time to actualize such plans than during a pandemic that has relegated young people to their homes and pushed District schools further into the digital age.
Etesse, whose technology and education experiences include stints at Blackboard and as a trustee board member at Loudoun Country Day School, said that though he would only represent Ward 2, his inpact would ripple throughout the city, specifically by upgrading the technology infrastructure and streamlining the manner in which students receive virtual instruction.
Regarding virtual learning, Etesse said that teachers should’ve been better trained to facilitate students’ opportunities for self-guided instruction. He also supports a phased school reopening plan, stressing that students and parents would appreciate the diversity of options during a time of uncertainty.
Effective communication and execution of long-standing systems are at the foundation of what he said he wants to accomplish to expand access to a quality education for District families.
“I had a sixth-grade teacher who taught us to play with computers. We can have those opportunities for kids throughout the District,” said Etesse.
“I just did a tour of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and was blown away by what’s being offered there,” he continued.
“I think that having a place like that in multiple schools to develop talent in D.C. is incredible. You have to have more opportunities for more of our students so that we can touch on anything a student wants to learn. That has to be the goal.”
James Harnett didn’t answer The Informer’s request for an interview. For more information about the Ward 2 SBOE candidates, and candidates for other offices, please visit DCBOE.org.