Distance learning programs, school reopenings and coronavirus safety procedures are just some of the topics on the minds of candidates running for the Nov. 3 Sequoia Union High School District board election. District residents will, for the first time, vote based on the geographical area of the school district they reside in.
Incumbent Georgia Jack is running for reelection against challengers Rich Ginn, a parent and business owner, and Shamar Edwards, former TIDE Academy principal and current Sunnyvale Middle School principal, in Trustee Area C, which represents Woodside, West Menlo Park and Portola Valley. Incumbent Carrie Du Bois is running uncontested to represent Area B, which includes Redwood City, Belmont and San Carlos.
The Sequoia District Teachers Association announced its endorsements of Ginn and Stevenson on Sept. 16.
Jacqui Cebrian, a candidate for Trustee Area E, dropped out in September to support candidate Shawneece Stevenson instead. Cebrian explained that she dropped out of the race because she believed Stevenson, as a Black woman, would better represent the area, which includes Menlo Park neighborhoods east of Highway 101 as well as East Palo Alto.
Along with the challenges of distance learning, the district, which operates the local comprehensive high schools Menlo-Atherton and Woodside, as well as TIDE Academy, is transitioning to new leadership. Superintendent Mary Streshly resigned last month following a call by the district's teachers union and 22 school administrators for her firing.
On Ginn's website he distinguishes himself from the other candidates by saying that he is the only candidate with a child currently enrolled in the district, the only candidate with a financial background (as a CFO who has an MBA), and that he has a technology background relevant to the current challenges with online learning.
"I served for two terms on a well-functioning school board and am proud of everything the (Las Lomitas district) achieved during my time on that board," he said. "Everybody that I served with and all of the current board members have endorsed my candidacy for this race."
Ginn said his focus is to improve student engagement and outcomes by providing appropriate rigor for each student and ensuring that all students have the required technology tools.
He would also like to enhance alternative academic routes for students who do not wish to follow traditional pathways.
During the pandemic, Ginn would like to bolster professional development for teachers and bring back extracurricular activities. The district, like almost all school districts, was not prepared to deliver services entirely remotely when school shifted to online-only learning in March, he said.
"Teachers invested significant time over the summer to prepare for online instruction and the current online offering is effective," Ginn said. "The SUHSD (Sequoia district) is making every effort to ensure that all students have access to the technology that they need to be highly effective online learners; and that all students have learning environments that enable them to concentrate and participate in online classes. This work will never be 100% complete as student situations change and is a significant ongoing challenge."
He said he thinks the school board's decision to transition to pass/no pass grading in the spring was not the right move.
"I believe that many other districts adopted an approach that I would have preferred which was a form of hold-harmless (in which students would have at least earned the grade they held prior to the transition to distance learning) with teacher discretion to lower a grade if a student was abusing the system," he said.
Ginn is endorsed by the San Mateo County Central Labor Council, former and current Las Lomitas school board members, Menlo Park City Council members Ray Mueller and Catherine Carlton, Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia and others.
As a school board member, she has demonstrated her commitment to her students, staff and schools by working to make balanced decisions, Jack said. Since the pandemic, she has been working on making sure all students are able to access their education through technology.
One of her top priorities if reelected includes addressing equity issues in the district.
"Nothing can compare to facing COVID-19," she said. "But pre-COVID-19, getting into a deeper conversation about equity in SUHSD is a top priority. ... This work supports my reason for running for my first term in 2015, which was ensuring a voice for Redwood City's students, who are disproportionately low-income students of color."
She'd also like to work collaboratively with the district's principals, teachers and unions to proactively plan on reopening schools, whether partially or fully.
"While we have a phased-in plan sketched out, there are many details that need to be tackled before we can fully reactivate our campuses," she said.
Jack has heard from teachers and students that there is a lot of good learning happening remotely.
"The challenges are specific to classes and students in that it's a challenge to run a lab-based class in a virtual world," she said. "And it's a challenge for our students who are at Redwood High School to handle fully remote learning. It's also a challenge for our students living in the county's 'internet desert' to make it online or stay online with sketchy connectivity. We continue to address the array of needs and rely on our principals and teachers to raise issues."
Jack has been pushing for partnerships with tutoring centers, so students can access live academic support as they need it. She said she has also been asking the district for increased mental health support for students and parents.
"It's difficult to learn if anxiety, depression, and other issues are clouding the ability to process new information and learn," she said.
Finding affordable housing options for teachers is also still top of mind for Jack, who said the issue isn't going away despite the current focus on the pandemic. Jack has been working with Vice Mayor Shelly Masur of Redwood City, San Mateo County Superintendent Nancy Magee, Armando Sanchez, executive director of HEART and Jessica Stanfield Mullin of San Mateo County's Home for All to work on housing solutions.
"We will need more than a new apartment complex to solve this problem," she said. "When I first took office in 2015, I did champion Landed being able to offer our teachers mortgage support, and I believe a small group did participate. And I would also like to explore the idea of a bunk-house, similar to what the Sherriff's Office has, because we have staff and teachers who own homes out in the Central Valley, down in Hollister, and up in Sacramento, who are looking for hotel space Monday to Thursday, as opposed to permanent shelter."
On the board, she has also focused on reducing expulsions through the discipline task force. The task force has helped reduce expulsions from 33 in 2014 to 3 in 2019, she said.
Her supporters include the San Mateo County Democratic Party, Magee, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Sequoia trustees Chris Thomsen, Allen Weiner and Alan Sarver.
Edwards has 20 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, principal coach and leadership consultant. During her career she has taken a particular interest in ensuring equitable practices on behalf of all students, with an emphasis on underrepresented students, and she wants to bring that experience to the board, she said.
"Given the challenges of educating our youth in these times, the changing demographics, and the social unrest we witness daily, I believe that it is the right time to ensure that there is diverse representation on our school board and I believe it is the right time to have an educator's perspective on the board to help navigate the new landscape of education," she said.
Edwards said she would advocate for the following: social emotional learning for students; resiliency coaching for staff; open forums for community stakeholders; and expanding parent outreach coordinators and counselors. She would like a district office of equity and diversity and to support the site equity teams. She also supports special education inclusion efforts.
Education is a core function of society, and the pandemic shifted the way the entire society operates, she noted.
"What is reassuring is that school staff are finding ways to be resilient and provide students with an education, although it is clear that the dynamic of teaching in person cannot be duplicated in a virtual setting," she said. "Adolescents need to interact, collaborate, and engage with their peers. I don't think there is one school district or school that got distance learning 100% right, but it is critical to examine who has access to technology including Wi-Fi and devices."
The next critical area to continue to monitor is who is attending and engaging in their classes, she said.
"Far too often, it is usually students who come from lower socioeconomic groups that are tasked with an added layer of complexity so it behooves school districts to put in explicit supports to ensure no student is left behind," she said. "Once the health professionals give schools the green light to reopen, I am a proponent of choice. ... For some students, focusing on their school work, without the distractions that come with going to school is optimal. For those who are high risk or live in homes with family that have high risk medical conditions that should also be considered."
For students who may have fallen behind during distance learning, it is critical to first assess where students are before moving into the learning process, she said.
"It is always the case that students learn at different paces, but given the virtual modality that students are in, it is critical to first assess, teach, assess and intervene if the learning goals are not met," she said. "As an educator, teachers identify power standards and narrow the focus to essential content and skills. This practice would need to exist to ensure that student's time is maximized and there is still opportunity for skill development."
She is endorsed by Menlo Park City Council member Carlton, San Mateo Union High School District trustee Peter Hanley, Menlo-Atherton High School's athletic director, Steven Kryger, and others.
Stevenson said she would like to bring "a fresh voice for families living in Ravenswood School District and Redwood City and North Fair Oaks."
Stevenson serves on the Menlo-Atherton Foundation for the Future board, SUHSD Academic Operation Reopening Task Force and Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services.
Being a mom of three children two of whom attend Menlo-Atherton High School with diverse learning and health needs, coupled with her social work background, has prepared her to serve on the school board, Stevenson said.
Her top priorities as a board member would be to engage parents and students from Area E; improve opportunities for students with diverse learning needs and special needs; and bring a lens of equity and consider all perspectives when making policy decisions.
Stevenson said she has seen improvements in distance learning from the spring to the fall.
"We are a resilient school community, however I worry about the emotional, mental and social health of our community including teachers, staff, students, and parents," she said. "And when we do come back to in-person learning, our students and teachers would have had 'distance learning' for at least six to seven months. Our students' and teachers' emotional and mental health must be supported there is a direct correlation with students' academic success and access to an engaging learning environment."
She said it will take a "true village" to reopen schools given the public health guidelines. She also believes the district should consider which students most need to return to in-person first before expanding to more students.
"For example, I live in (East Palo Alto) and we have the second-highest rates of COVID-19 in the county," she said. "I am very mindful of this and the increase of exposure in high schools. In addition, the district will need to ensure our students, teachers and staff are safe and get the health resources they need, including COVID testing, basic sanitizing resources and personal protective equipment."
The district could explore partnering with other districts, especially those that have a high teacher turnover, to tackle teacher housing issues, she said.
"It's so special for families to see their teacher at the grocery store, jogging around the neighborhood, or even attending church with them," she said. "I think it's important to create a positive, open, working environment where feedback, growth, and support are provided. Teaching and working overall in all positions are hard in the district."
Stevenson has also been working across the county on the vaping epidemic that has impacted youth health, providing education and advocacy.
She is endorsed by Weiner, DuBois, the San Mateo County Democratic Party, Mueller and East Palo Alto council members Larry Moody and Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier, and others.
Rich Ginn, 49, is managing director and CFO of Costella Kirsch, a structured debt provider to early-stage technology companies. He has lived in the Sequoia district for about 22 years and formerly served on the Las Lomitas Elementary School District board for eight years, including two as board president. He currently serves as a member of the Las Lomitas district's Bond Oversight Committee. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's in engineering from Stanford University. He has an MBA from University of California at Los Angeles. His campaign website is richginn.com.
Georgia Jack, 56, has served on the Sequoia board since 2015. She has lived in the district for more than 24 years and has two decades of experience volunteering in schools, including the site council, the Woodside High School Foundation and the Redwood City Education Foundation. She works in development at Stanford University. She has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. Her campaign website is georgiajack2020.org.
Shamar Edwards, 42, is the former principal of TIDE Academy and describes herself as a "transformational school leader with 20 years of experience in public education." She is principal of Sunnyvale Middle School, where she is leading trauma-informed restorative justice programs, according to her candidate website. She holds a master's degree in education administration with an emphasis in social justice from University of California at Berkeley, along with a bachelor's degree in communication from University of Southern California. Her campaign website is shamaredwards.com.
Shawneece Stevenson,48, is a social worker, a parent of two children at Menlo-Atherton High School and a 22-year East Palo Alto resident. She has served on the Menlo-Atherton Foundation board and worked closely with Black Student Union clubs at Menlo-Atherton and Sequoia high schools. She also served on the district's COVID-19 reopening task force. She has a bachelor's degree in social work from Wright State University and a master's in social work from University of Cincinnati. Her campaign website is shawneece.com.