Candidate Questionnaire: Debbie Gerkin

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RISE Colorado did not edit or alter candidate’s responses in any way.

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1. Aurora is a unique and ever-changing community. Based on your research and understanding of key issues in Aurora Public Schools, what are the top priorities or concerns you have that you’d want to address and what do you see as the strongest assets of this school community?

Priorities:

  • Achievement
    • Increase student achievement and growth through personalized instruction
    • Recruit and retain a diverse, highly-qualified team of teachers
  • Equity
    • Create safe, welcoming, culturally-rsponsive classrooms
    • Prioritize classrooms when making budgetary decisions
  • Community
    • Strengthen community groups by bringing all voices to the table
    • Engage in genuine dialogue through open communication

Strongest Assests:

    • Our rich diversity – though we have not yet learned how to embrace it
    • Passionate teachers and administrators who are truly dedicated to children and families
2. As you know, in the 2016-2017 school year there were 19 schools on the accountability clock. What will you do to improve the lowest performing schools and keep them from closing? What strategies do you have to increase academic achievement in Aurora?

A razor-sharp focus must be placed on two things: best practices for instruction and student attendance.   Student achievement is accelerated when teachers use ongoing, formative assessments to determine their students’ knowledge of curriculum, carefully evaluate their students’ strengths and next steps, and differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs. They must match students with appropriate resources, approaches, and strategies, set high expectations for learning, monitor student growth over time, and work hard to meet the diverse needs of everyone, including second language learners, high performing students, and students with special needs. But all the best practices for instruction won’t matter if students aren’t in school. We must work tirelessly with parents to ensure that students are in class and ready to learn every day.

3. A strong connection between high-level decisions made on the school board and the day to day realities of teachers, students, and families is essential. How are you connecting to teachers, students, and families at the school level? How will you remain connected while on the board?

Having worked in Aurora Public Schools for over twenty years as a teacher and as a principal, I still maintain many connections with teachers, administrators, and classified staff. Before I entered the race, I met with members of each of these groups to ascertain the needs and concerns that each of them saw from their own perspectives. I remember well the conerns that parents brought to me in my position as principal at Crawford Elementary School, and I continue to listen to neighbors; I even listen to parents standing in line at the grocery store to hear what issues are on their minds. As a Board member, I will continue reaching out to parents by instituting “Town Hall” type meetings in schools. Even though there is always an “opportunity for audience” at each Board meeting, those opportunities can be very intimidating; and furthermore, those opportunities do not provide a time for dialogue. I much prefer conversation, which can only happen in a setting outside of regular meetings.

4. In recent years, we have seen improvements to academic achievement in Aurora Public Schools. However, transformative change and widespread improvements remain to be seen. Why are so many Aurora Public Schools in the situation we currently see with low performance? What is the Board of Education’s role in serving those students of those schools and what were the root causes that brought us to this point?

All schools are not the same; it would be impossible and unfair to say exactly what the root causes of difficulties are without first doing a careful analysis of each school. Teaching and learning are complex, as are the challenges that schools face. With that said, however, possible causes might be the inability to retain teachers beyond a few years, resulting in always having an inexperienced teaching staff; not hiring enough teachers of color to whom students of color can more closly relate; not adequately educating and empowering parents to work in partnership with the children’s teachers; not having a razor-sharp focus on best practices for instruction; and not adequately addressing the needs of English language learners. The Board’s role in transformative change is to ask important questions, keep expectations high, hold people accountable, and continually keep the focus on children.

5. Considering the diversity in Aurora and the fact that new students and families arrive to the public education system daily from other countries, how do you intend to support new students and families with integrating into Aurora Public Schools successfully?

Different families have different needs depending on their experiences. It’s important to first determine exactly what is needed, as one size does not fit all. Refugee families may be suffering from the effects of terrible trauma. Some immigrant families may be fearful regarding their legal documentation status. Other families may be struggling with language barriers and cultural differences that make integration a challenge. The Aurora Welcome Center must reach out to schools, not only to help children and families, but also to help school staff members develop a greater understanding of the challenges of newcomers and how schools may be more welcoming and better prepared to assist families making the transition to life in Aurora.

6. Many families express the desire for additional extracurricular activities for their children. Tutoring, clubs, enrichments activities, and sports all contribute to a holistic education experience for students. How would you support additional extracurricular activities for students from Preschool-12th grade?

Enrichment activities add the spice to life! I support paying teachers a stipend for sponsoring school clubs, providing tutoring after their duty day, and so forth. When that isn’t possible due to budget constraints, I would work to partner with local businesses to provide such activities, either in the form of financial support or volunteers. Parent volunteers are also a great asset!

7. Students continually express concerns around bullying and racism in Aurora Public Schools. If you become an APS School Board Member, how will you ensure the safety of all students in APS and help to build an anti-racist and anti-bullying community among students, families, and teachers from different cultures?

School climate and culture make or break the teaching and learning experience for everyone.  Aurora Public Schools must provide a safe and welcoming environment for all students and staff members. A welcoming environment begins with acknowledging and appreciating the great variety of individuals that make up our community, including those who are native-born, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ+, variously abled, and religiously, ethnically, culturally, and politically diverse. Keeping each other safe becomes everyone’s aspiration and responsibility when we learn the value of those who are different from ourselves. Only with respect does trust become a possibility. From an individual classroom to the entire District, the Aurora Public Schools community is enriched as we cultivate a climate and culture of respect and trust for one another.

8. Based on the diversity in Aurora, how would you leverage the assets of the community to provide support to schools such as interpretation, jobs as Paraprofessionals, and mentoring opportunities for students from community members who speak their same language and reflect the student population?

As a principal, I saw first-hand the value of hiring our own parents to work as paraprofessionals and interpreters. Parents are invested in the school community and care deeply that it succeeds. By becoming heavily involved in the school, they understand the challenges of teaching and learning and are great ambassadors in the community. Mentors are especially important as students need role models to whom they can relate both in language and in cultural experience.

Please respond Yes or No to the following questions and provide an explanation.
9. Families and students often struggle to receive the interpretation and translation services they need to interact with teachers and engage about academic achievement. Would you support an increased budget for interpretation and translation services to support ELL students and families across the district? Yes or No? Please explain your answer.

Yes! We have to be able to communicate! Translation and interpretation services are expensive, but well worth the cost. Parents are our children’s first teachers. We must partner with them to get the job done. Without communication, there is no partnership. The ability to communicate is a critical component of all three priorities I listed in Question #1: achievement, equity, and community.

10. The community-led resolution to support students regardless of immigration status passed on May 16, 2017. Here is a link to the resolution: APS Resolution. Would you have voted in support of this resolution? Yes or No? Please explain your answer and provide your thoughts about the resolution.

Yes! In fact, I spoke before the Board in favor of the resolution! This is what I said:

“On December 12, 2006, ICE officials carried out a raid on the Swift Meat Packing Company. It spanned six states, including Colorado. That day, thirteen hundred undocumented workers were swept up and taken into custody. In Greeley alone, more than 200 children came home from school that day to find that one – or both of their parents – were gone. Many more parents pulled their kids out of school that day; they had heard a rumor that the government was coming for the children next.

Although Greeley is 60 miles away, it didn’t take long for the ripple effect to reach Aurora. That morning, I was working in my office at Crawford where I was principal. All of a sudden, I heard a loud commotion out front. Frantic voices. Crying mothers. I ran to see what was going on.

‘What’s wrong? What happened?’ I asked. I reached out to hug the women who closest to me, but before I could get my arms around her, she grabbed my hands, got down on her knees, and begged me – to keep her children safe. She begged me.

Sure – parents want us to teach their children – but the number one thing that parents want us to do – is keep their children – safe. While this resolution doesn’t have the power to guarantee a child’s safety from all possible calamities, it does have the power to send a critical message. It intentionally names the baseline of school culture for all our students – whether immigrant or native-born – that Aurora Public Schools is a welcoming community, that we embrace our strength of diversity, that we protect families’ rights, that we care about students’ emotional wellbeing – not just their test scores – and that we stand beside all of them – as they work to shape a successful future.

Directors – Speak with a voice of courageous leadership. Pass this resolution. I’m begging you.”

11. Do you plan to engage the community’s voice, ideas, and opinions in decisions made by the Board of Education? Yes or No? Please explain why and how.

Yes! One of the priorities I lift up is community, and specifically, strengthening community groups by bringing all voices to the table. As challenging as it can be at times, there is no doubt that we will be a better school district by working together in community with parents and local business leaders. Strong neighborhood schools start with strong leaders from the neighborhood. Partnering with RISE Colorado is one way to develop closer community connections within individual schools. And as I mentioned in Question #3 above, I would also like to develop more natural “Town Hall” or “Round Table” type meetings where we can sit down together and have a conversation about both our concerns and our celebrations. When everyone has a voice, everyone is empowered.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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