San Ramon Valley candidates for county education board debate the issues | News | #Education

The three candidates vying for election to the seat representing the San Ramon Valley on the county education board discussed their platforms and addressed questions from residents during a public forum last week.

Area 4 incumbent Mike Maxwell, along with challengers Anaité Letona and Cheri Calcagno, sought to clarify the role of the Contra Costa County Board of Education in the context of questions aimed at a wide range of issues garnering recent national and state debates, such as diversity equity and inclusion education in classrooms, potential changes to the state’s math framework, and the board’s relationship with county superintendent of schools and local independent districts.

“People need to understand what the role of the Contra Costa Board of Education is and what we oversee,” said Maxwell, who has served since 2014. “The court, the juvenile court, the court-appointed schools, and we have a very, very small section of students, and in fact our goal is to make our section of students smaller and smaller every semester. We want kids out of the court schools and back into the schools in their residence.”

The goal of shrinking the number of students under their oversight is one of the ways in which the county board’s aims and purpose differ from those representing local school districts. Nonetheless, as all three candidates emphasized in the Oct. 18 forum, the board’s work in supporting students throughout the county also includes working closely with local districts and the county superintendent.

“I want to believe anyone in these types of roles has a heart to want to serve the students and the community as best as they possibly can,” said Calcagno, a health care educator at Chabot College in Hayward.

She added that she was especially optimistic about the prospect of this priority with Lynn Mackey, the county’s superintendent of schools.

“I do think we share a heart for wanting to help underprivileged and underserved students, especially which is what the county board seems to service in part. So I would be excited to collaborate, and of course share differences of ideas as well, and to hopefully use collective minds to be able to serve the community as best we can,” Calcagno continued.

Letona said that from her perspective as a longtime educator, including with special education students, the need for the county board to collaborate with school districts and teachers in the classroom was especially clear, as was the board’s role in doing so.

“My role as a resource teacher is to address those learning gaps in students, and a lot of it is working with a teacher to identify teaching strategies at the immediate class level that can address the needs of the learners in the room,” Letona said. “And we can do that in our role. We can advocate for those strategies, we can put professional development, and we certainly should be ensuring that our most at-risk students are receiving the highest level of direct instruction.”

In addressing the needs of students in county and court schools under the Board of Education’s oversight, Letona said that it was best approached as a gap in services to be addressed by the board and other local educational bodies.

“An academic gap is a gap of access,” Letona said. “It’s a gap of lack of access for many children, not understanding how the content in curriculum could be addressed in the classroom to support all learners, so that is something that we have to address. I think in our county position where that can be addressed is through collaborations with the local school districts and supporting staff development in areas of universal design for learning, in areas of increasing access to content.”

As Calcagno noted, performance gaps and addressing the underlying emotional and academic needs of students have come into focus all the more since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing difficulties with a rapid shift to virtual learning, then return to the classroom after more than a year away.

“I sympathize with parents because a lot of kids have unique needs, and to be able to meet those at every level … I know a lot of teachers are trying their best to do that already, and then with what has been the last two years, I think (with) a lot of students that are already struggling that that gap has just gotten wider,” Calcagno said.

She added that if elected, she would be interested to see what COVID relief funding might be available to the county’s Office of Education compared to local school districts, and how the funds might be used to create programs such as peer-mentorship opportunities matching high-performing and at-risk students with one another.

Maxwell echoed support for more peer-mentorship opportunities in collaboration with school districts, but also emphasized the need to support all students in their career goals, not just those pursuing higher education.

“We should be challenging all of our students,” Maxwell said. “We’re realizing now that college is not the only vocation and not the only direction to go … We need to not be taking things away; we need to be adding.”

Maxwell, who is wrapping up his second term on the board, said that he would in general seek to continue and improve his work so far in the position.

But despite the incumbent’s insight into the board’s operations and goals, Letona and Calcagno both said their experiences as educators of often non-traditional students, as special education and community college instructors respectively, offered unique perspective into the board’s function and ideas for collaborating with teachers and school districts.

“Teaching college online and having our four kids doing online school from home gave me a valuable perspective of how the variety of students was learning online,” Calcagno said. “Talking with families whose kids weren’t doing well academically or emotionally gave me a heart to want to help in the recall recovery process that needs to happen over these next few years.”

Letona also pointed to a longtime passion for, and career in, education, noting that she would see her service on the board as another step in her role as a teacher-advocate.

“I’ve been a classroom teacher for 10 years in special education and before that I worked with adults with disabilities who were post high school,” Letona said. “I am the only candidate who has experience working in both the adult and K-12 system of education and services.”

In addition to advocating for at-risk students and collaborating with the county and school districts, Maxwell said that the board’s role was also to serve as a sounding board for parents, students and families, and to advocate for addressing concerns raised by all.

“I think kids, teachers, staff and family need choices in their education, and they need to be supported,” Maxwell said. “They need resources and they need someone to listen, and while the county Board of Education does not directly affect that in the school districts … we are there to be a lending ear and we are there to provide them with that opportunity to feel as if they’ve been heard.”

Full video of last week’s forum, hosted by 32nd District of PTAs and Las Trampas Creek Council of PTAS, and moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Diablo Valley, is available here.

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