Four candidates are running for two seats on the Birmingham Schools Board of Trustees. Each seat is for a six-year term.
Lori Ajlouny is a former Birmingham Public Schools teacher who taught in the district for 31 years. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wayne State University, and is currently completing a term on the Birmingham Schools Board of Education.
STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS
Michigan has fallen in nationwide rankings educationally to 37th out of 50 states, with over 50 percent of third grade students failing at reading. More alarming, for affluent white students, who had ranked 17th in the nation for fourth grade reading levels in 2003, they came in dead last in 2015 – one of only five states that had actual reading performance level declines. What do you believe has attributed to this stark deterioration in reading and education levels, and how would you work to turn around your district? What can be done to best prepare students to compete in a global world economy?
In many high-performing countries, educational success is achieved by curriculum or syllabus-based instructional and examination systems, around which everything is aligned. These countries with higher scores tend to invest in teachers and provide time and opportunity for collaborative work among teachers and other staff within or across schools to raise the quality and consistency of classroom instruction. Whatever approach a nation or state uses for its success, one thing remains apparent about ours: the educational system in Michigan needs reform. It must come through vision, leadership, high standards, and commitment to equality which are crucial starting points, supported by creativity in how we allocate our funds. Yet, no reform takes place unless it positively impacts teaching and learning in the classroom. This also includes classroom-level interventions like focus on early literacy and math support. Our system also needs to provide a variety of family and community supports outside of school. To best prepare our students to compete in a global world economy, we have to look at the most successful practices. Whether they lay with other countries, states, or districts is for us to research and learn. If I were to prioritize what has to be done, I include this list: Be sure BPS consistently funds and provides affordable and high-quality First Fives and early childhood opportunities for families. High-quality would include programming with a focus on age-appropriate exploration where learning through play is prioritized along with early literacy. Culturally responsive educational practices must be prioritized. We have amazing teachers at BPS and supporting their growth as educators to better meet the needs of all students must be prioritized and explored. Continue to attract and recruit high-quality educators with competitive compensation packages and attractive working conditions that provide quality professional development opportunities for all staff. This includes teachers, administrators and support staff. Social emotional needs of our children must be prioritized. Prioritizing the mental health of our children will not only improve academic success but also support safer working conditions for all.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declared racism as a public health crisis and is appointing a committee to address this issue and has ordered implicit bias training for all state employees, including everyone in the administration. Over the last decade, there have been a number of racial incidents in Birmingham Schools. Should Birmingham Public Schools be taking any special action or creating policies or programs to address this issue on the local level? Please provide details for your response.
As a long-standing member of the Birmingham Community and 31-year veteran teacher with Birmingham Public Schools, I have had much insight into the dynamics and problems that have plagued our schools, indeed our society as a whole surrounding racism. Building relationships and creating opportunities to develop true understanding of all others is the foundation to addressing this plague. To merely tolerate is not enough – we must work towards understanding one another. Birmingham has engaged many resources outside and within our community to combat racial discrimination. For the past four years, BPS has made a commitment to train every staff member in Culturally Responsive Teaching. CLT is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references and differences in all aspects of learning. We have also provided both staff and students with the opportunity to learn about different religions, cultures, and traditions through a program called Religious Diversity Journey. Staff have been trained and practiced Response to Intervention and Restorative Practices to prevent the number of suspensions and other escalating causes of tension. We have supported outreach and mentor programs to address students’ needs at every level. My proudest moment in my tenure as a BPS Board Trustee was when we passed the Eradicate Racism Resolution in May 2020 to established zero tolerance for racism. I believe through these programs, which has been a central part of my service, we have empowered teachers and students to advocate for mutual understanding and respect of human dignity.
CONTROL OF REFORMS
Should educational reforms spring from local boards of education or from the state department of education and the state school board? If this is a local determination, why should it be made at this level? What immediate educational reforms do you support, and which will you seek for the district if you are elected in order to maintain the district's high performance level?
States outline educational standards. However, the state levels are broad and must be adapted with specific input at local levels to match expectations of the school community. The fact is standards are created and it is our job to make these standards equitable and accessible for all. That is where collaboration between the state and local levels becomes an effective strategy to provide the necessary means to meet individual student needs. I wholeheartedly support reforms that build long term vision, help students achieve ambitious standards, provide a commitment to equality, and pledge to hire diverse high-quality teachers and school leaders. Common Core State Standards are a good first step towards higher performance but won’t become the real standards in the classrooms unless curriculum, teacher preparation, professional development, and assessment are all aligned and consistent. Reforms should also include attracting the best people into the profession. The teacher shortage is bad and problematic. As a board member, I shall continue to work with my colleagues in the educational sphere to create and improve working conditions so that high-quality teachers and staff are attracted and retained.
With the rise in school shootings in the last few years, has the district done enough to safeguard students and staff? Should there be more security guards and liaison police officers at schools? What can and should the district do to better prepare teachers and staff for the possibility of a rogue individual with a weapon? Should more attention and dollars be spent on mental health awareness and help?
It used to be schools were considered one of the safest places for students. Sadly, we have come to a new reality of having to safeguard our children from school shootings. Under my tenure as a trustee, Birmingham has taken a variety of measures to protect our schools, students, and staff. Every building has a redesigned front entrance security system with locked doors and security cameras. There are strict policies in place for anyone entering a building. We have also passed a resolution to adopt ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate). In partnership with our local police departments, the ALICE program has educated and trained all staff in every building to be proactive in any emergency situation. We have also installed in every building a Blue Point System which notifies the police and provides alerts to every classroom. In continuing my service to the community, my next effort is to direct the district to invest in more training, resources, and support for the mental health and well-being of our students. I believe student learning and safety are intertwined and our approach must be holistic, where the mind, body, and spirit of a child can thrive.
SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA
After initially presenting a hybrid plan to offer half-days of in-person education along with a virtual option for families who preferred that for fall 2020, the current board of education discarded the in-person option and is starting the entire district on-line. Do you agree with that decision, and why or why not?
I loved being a teacher; I have always connected with kids. I wouldn’t have stayed in my profession as long as I have if I didn’t. I know first-hand the importance of being in a classroom. What takes place in a classroom cannot be emulated in a virtual setting. Having said that, I also am keenly aware of our current worldwide pandemic that has turned everyone’s lives upside down and sideways. In a pandemic, priorities must shift. Safeguarding our children, staff, and community as a whole became our number one focus. We as a district knew we had to provide and maintain not only a standard of educational excellence but see to the safety of our children, our families and all building staff. The pivot in our decision was made for that reason alone. We currently sit in Phase 4 of the governor’s Roadmap to Schools, where at any time, especially with the approaching flu season, we could regress to Phase 3 where all schools would have to close their doors. Our thinking was to concentrate on one school program, the virtual school for now, in order to maintain Birmingham’s high standards of excellence. We simply did not have the resources to open two programs of schools. Attempting to set-up and manage both an in-person and virtual school simultaneously would have left students either unfulfilled and unsafe. It comes to a point of trust. People who choose Birmingham Public Schools are trusting our educational community to not only provide for the academic and social emotional needs of our children while virtually learning but also trust the education professionals to pivot and address and course-correct to the learning needs of all our students when we safely return to in-person instruction. The world is adjusting to pandemic education structures and we are working hard, doing our best with the science and information available to us as we consider this decision. I have full confidence in our district at every level, that we can meet this challenge with professional excellence.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
Why are you the right person at this time to be a member of your local school board?
As a BPS alumni, parent and former teacher, I have a personal attachment and dedication to our school community. I am passionate about access to high-quality public education as a cornerstone of our democracy and our community. As a former educator, I have the knowledge and skills to understand and consider the intricacies of our high-performing school system and what is needed to continue our journey to excellence for all. I have the heart, determination, dedication and integrity to prioritize the needs of our BPS educational system. I have the passion for education at every level, be it the classroom or the boardroom. Any decision I make for the children in our BPS community, I would make for my own children. We are in this together, collectively. Serving on our school board these past three and an half years has given me not only experience, but insights of where we need to go and what must be done. I have learned so much that I would not require a “learning curve” and can hit the ground running. During these uncertain times, my re-election would serve our community to maintain some semblance of consistency and cohesiveness. This can and should be used as an advantage. I believe for all of the above stated reasons, that my continued service on the board qualifies me for another term to best serve the entire Birmingham School District Community.
Luke Joseph is the controller at a construction firm. He has an MBA from University of Phoenix and a masters in taxation from Walsh College. He has served on Birmingham's Housing Board of Appeals.
STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS
I believe that there are multiple reasons to why there was stark deterioration in reading and education levels between 2003 and 2015. The biggest one I believe is the lack of parents and family involvement. Parents need to be involved at all levels from academics and athletics, to just simply a family night outing. Parents cannot just wait for once or twice a year for teacher-parent conferences to find out how their students are doing. Teachers need to voluntarily communicate with parents on constant basis on the positives as well as the negatives and suggest any possible improvements. Have families do for example a 5K walk/run as fundraiser and a networking event where people meet. Offer PTA after work hours so more parents can attend those meetings and maybe offer extra credit for their kids if they attend. Private schools force parents to volunteer and do community work, I think that would be wonderful to adopt in one way or another in public schools as well. Another reason is the ratio between students and teachers. Children need more attention to succeed and to have a thorough explanation of various difficult subjects. Children should also be able to socialize which is extremely critical. Many children get left behind because they do not fit into a clique. The best way to tackle that is (a) Every so often change the seating in the class, (b) form a group of friends where they work as a team and change that group every so often and (c) establish and motivate students to buddy up with a Special Needs child to help them. Third main reason is to continue to educate and evolve teachers to keep up with all the changes that our society experiences from one year to the next. Extend a merit for all teachers to meet for their students and help them to do that. Talk to teachers from other school districts from all over the country to get possible ideas on various issues that would help us improve our educational levels. Finally, text materials. We need to be competitive and keep up with rising schools over the last few years and see where they went right and use that to help us to stay competitive and remain in the top notch of school districts in the nation. Offer International Baccalaureate for example, have various actual career oriented people come in and tell them about the real life of that career. Have a few students from high school to guide 8th graders throughout the whole 8th grade and of course when they actually get in high school in the 9th grade. Do the same thing for 8th graders and 5th graders. If we create a program like that, it will be the talk of town. Offer more sports in elementary and middle school, for example soccer if there is not enough demand at one school, combine two schools together and I am sure there will be enough interest to form a team. Offer opportunities for Special Need children to be in sports as well and give them that pride to be part of the team. We need to have everyone play a role, nobody should be sitting out because we are not offering enough educational/sporting/rewarding programs.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
Racism is extremely critical, but so are multiple other things like bullying, discriminating based on ethnic background, or just the fact that you are not cool. We cannot just take one issue and create a special extra policy just for that one. Racism is and will always be included in the continuing education for our teachers. The education of all these issues should also be extended to students and their parents. This is where communicating with parents is also critical. Involving students in community services as a requirement will help them be around other less fortunate people financially and physically. In conclusion, Birmingham Public Schools should not be taking any special actions or creating a special policy to address this issue on the local level.
CONTROL OF REFORMS
Educational reforms should start at the local level. Every district has their own needs and Birmingham is no different, they have their own needs and goals as well. An immediate education reform that I would support is to immediately visit our curriculum standards and compare them to others from around the country and to offer International Baccalaureate for our high school students. There has to be a long-term vision for the district, sustain strong leadership, have ambitious standards, continue the high quality teachers and school leaders and make sure that only the best of the best are recruited, motivate and engage students, and be connected nationally and globally. We must stay competitive and this is the way for our students to be able to go into the “real world” after graduation. Birmingham School District should be Number One and we need to do everything possible to achieve that standard.
I do not think the answer to any question would be “Have we done enough.” We can always improve and be better. We need to increase access to mental health services and pay more attention and dollars on the mental health awareness to students and their families. One of the biggest reasons for violence like shootings is because of bullying. We must stop bullying once and for all. Create a clear discipline policy that addresses various issues for students who are “testing their limits” and establish a zero-tolerance policy. We can prepare teachers and offer them continuing programs to help them to deal with situations like this. We need to have students and their families be more educated and be more aware of their surroundings whether it is a gun or kidnapping. Establish a buddy system for example, be in groups. Partner with Neighborhood Watch programs and local police. Mental Health is especially important and should have constant educational programs to teachers, staff, and students alike. One possible suggestion is start of school have students wave a fob to unlock the doors, doors should always be locked and avoid crowded situations in beginning of the school and the end of the school. Having guards might make people act out, so that would not be the answer. Finally have a set schedule for various staff to walk the building on various times of the day which would allow monitoring for things not just violence, but graffiti, bullying, running around. Once again parents involvement is important here as well.
SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA
I do not agree with the decision of making it entirely online. Everything is getting political now and the children are suffering because of it. How would you educate special needs children virtually? How do relay the same explanation that you have in class with all the interaction versus virtually? How do you tackle the mental health of the students? If the students are safe from Covid-19 going virtually, they are not safe from having a mental health issue which lasts a lifetime. The current plan is to go virtual until November 1, then what? Why do I have this feeling they will keep delaying it? Everything in life has a solution including safely going back to school. Offer various times of the classes, for example the hybrid was great idea with one addition make the school full day with the same classes offered twice so the number of students will be less (example students who attend math in morning will attend science in afternoon). During the duplicate classes, have Band/Gym/other and alternate that between the two groups. Going back to school, face to face is a MUST and has to happen ASAP. November 1 is way too long to wait.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
I am the right member for the Birmingham School Board because of many things. First, I am a father of two boys who are enrolled in the district. I am an accountant who knows how to budget, how to handle the money and how to raise funds for the school without increasing taxes. I am a licensed real estate agent that understand a good school district only increases the value of the homes and the demand for the district. I am very motivated and driven to make Birmingham number one school district not just in Michigan, but the nation. I will serve with honor and dedication to every single member of our district. A vote for me is a vote for your child.
Samuel Oh received his BFA from Harrington College of Design, and his masters in architecture and real estate from the University of Michigan. He is the family office manager of an investment firm.
STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS
Ironically, data has shown that by focusing more on math and reading, this has actually caused our educational level decline versus improving it. Rudimentary reading and math skills will not develop reading comprehension. Our students need to go back to spending more time learning about science, history, and the arts. A deep and wide knowledge base is required as a foundation for reading comprehension. This will also improve student engagement as they can explore and discover what they are interested in. We need to capture our students’ imaginations and motivate them. I would suggest establishing a reading program where our students choose and explore from a carefully teacher-curated option of books. By implementing this program by virtually incorporating technology, we can enable instantaneous choice. For example, one week they could choose from a list of historical fiction and the next from a choice of science articles. One becomes a good reader not by learning how to read, but by discovering the joy of reading itself.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
There is a famous quote by Nelson Mandela that can be paraphrased “No one is born racist.” Racism is rooted in ignorance and the solution to combat that is through education. I believe diversity education should be incorporated and woven directly into curriculum via deliberate planning and thought from leadership and staff. Last year my son’s kindergarten class was more than one-third minority, and more than half of them were Asian. However, there are no Asians at the principal, superintendent, or board of education level in the Birmingham Public Schools system. Nothing ever changes unless there are numbers and representation at the highest level, and not just tokenism. Leadership needs to reflect the incoming class diversity. This is one of the reasons why I am running for the board of education. In the fight against racism, you can’t fight evil with evil but evil with good; hate with kindness; ignorance with education.
CONTROL OF REFORMS
Schools are not robotic factories and therefore should always have a hands-on evolving human perspective. However, the local policies must not go against any state mandated policies. To maintain the district’s high-performance level, I propose that we look at some of the most successful examples in the district’s educational system and look to expand the models. For example, Birmingham Covington’s Choice Program provides rich, after school supplementary education for students that goes beyond standard after school care. I would explore how we implement this at other schools. Additionally, there is great pent up demand for admittance at BCS itself. How can we creatively increase the school population to accommodate more families?
I believe safeguarding our students must take a multi-pronged approach. Technology such as surveillance cameras could be used to deter incidents. Also, from a human behavior standpoint, there have been studies that showed that almost 50 percent of school homicide perpetrators showed warning signs such as social withdrawal, discipline problems, outbursts of anger, etc. Raising awareness of both staff and students of these warning signs coupled with training staff on how to communicate and diffuse in these situations are two additional proactive measures that I would promote. Finally, and most importantly, we want to get ahead of even ideas of such violence. We can do this by fostering an environment of tolerance, inclusivity, acceptance, and diversity.
SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA
I disagree with this decision to only offer online education. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Our families need to be provided choice. In some ways the 100 percent online approach is the path of least resistance. There is some futility in sitting on our hands and waiting for things “to go back to normal.” Even with a vaccine, experts predict 50-70 percent efficacy. So a new operating model must be identified sooner or later. This is the new normal and we must adapt. If hospitals and businesses can stay open during COVID, the schools should adapt best case practices wherever possible. We need to study and consider the same precautions taken by those entities – be it contact tracing, temperature scanning, physical environment adaptation, offering hazard pay for on-premise staff, etc. We should tap into the incredible volunteerism of intelligent, resourceful, and passionate experts of this community to come up with the safest most effective solution. We are in a war against a common enemy and everyone must adapt a wartime mentality. We have zero chance of winning the war if we do nothing and wait for someone else to solve our problems for us.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
The recent events have shown that Birmingham Public Schools is woefully ill-prepared for the future in technology applications and infrastructure. For example, when COVID-19 first hit, virtual learning was an embarrassment. Even now there are still glitchy issues.This small example is indicative of an overarching future problem – Birmingham Public Schools needs to be laser-focused on growing population density. BPS is in a unique situation in that we need to compete with private schools as well as other districts. Unless we strategically take steps to achieve population density, the school district will become a diminishing asset, over-staffed and underfunded. My family having moved to Birmingham in 2013, I consider myself more of a recent resident. I have no political agenda and only care for what makes strategic sense for our schools and children, including my two elementary sons. Coming from a corporate background and family full of teachers, professors, healthcare professionals, and technology experts, I hope to bring a new perspective, positive change, and valuable best-case practices from other industries to the BPS community.
Nash Salami is a recent graduate of Seaholm High School, and is currently attending Oakland University, majoring in political science. He is also an executive with the Stepping Stone Foundation.
STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS
Michigan was among the first states to embrace charter schools as an alternative to the very public education system which has been the backbone of the American economy for generations. Now, the negative effects of years of charter schools siphoning money from the coffers of our public school districts are being felt. A decline in funding for public education is directly to blame for this stark deterioration in reading and education levels. There is some work to be done on the local level to encourage state reforms. I would work directly with our district leadership to ensure that we are effectively and responsibly putting our dollars to work in the classroom to equip our kids with the best resources necessary to prepare them to compete in the global world economy. This would include our board of education taking into account factors like test scores and reading levels when determining the effectiveness of our superintendent. We should also keep in mind that our kids are best prepared to compete when they’re well-rounded students, experienced in multiple areas of interest. I would promote and advocate educational extracurriculars to build skills and character to set our kids apart from the rest.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
For me, this is personal. I’ve been a student at Seaholm during some of the most appalling racial incidents that have occurred in our district. Racism within our school district is not and should not be tolerated under any circumstance. As a trustee on the board of education, I would support the formation of a special committee on diversity to review our policies as they pertain to ensuring a safe and welcoming school community for all students and families. I would also support the review of how our schools are funded, how much we’re allocating to schools that serve more underserved families, and how we’re making sure we bridge the gap for those underserved communities. I also support more restorative action and the implementation of restorative justice at our schools, including more access for our students to see school psychologists and social workers to prevent troubled students from falling through the cracks.
CONTROL OF REFORMS
Local boards of education are more acquainted with the communities they serve and more familiar with the individual needs of their constituents, therefore more capable of making decisions tailored to those needs. The state board of education cannot possibly make one-size-fits-all policy decisions given the vast diversity of needs of school districts across our state. For these reasons, I believe most educational reforms should be entirely left to the discretion of local boards of education. While some determinations, such as the way our schools are funded, are made on the state level, the board does have jurisdiction of the money once it’s allocated and can direct the superintendent to focus it on one area. As a member of the board of trustees, I would like to see more of a focus on career and college readiness, so I would support measuring the success of the superintendent based on things like overall grades, the graduation rate, and how many of our students go to college or join trade apprenticeships.
Being a student during a point of time when we would hear of another school shooting virtually every week, I know the sinking feeling of fearing that my school might be next. I’ve been an advocate for proper legislation on the state and federal level to reduce these risks, and until action is taken from state and federal lawmakers, all a school district can do is be prepared for if a rogue shooter does enter our schools. I think we should take any necessary actions and precautions to ensure the safety of our students and staff on campus. As a district, I believe we should put a lens on mental health and focus on how we can get kids the help they need in school to prevent a troubled future. A cornerstone of my candidacy, one of the reasons I got into this race, was to push for more of a focus on mental health services for students and a more robust, cooperative restorative action plan for troubled kids.
SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA
As the brother of an incoming Derby Dragon and a Seaholm senior, we were sad and disappointed, as many families were, that we could not get back into the classroom this year. The start of the school year was incredibly difficult for us, just as it was for so many families across our district. Whether we agree or disagree with the decisions that were made, we must now plan for how we will go forward. I believe that it’s extremely important that board members take a direct approach to examining the data, expert opinion, and accurately analyze opinions from parents and community stakeholders on the decision. As a board member, my top priority will be the safety and well being of our staff and students. If we’re able to develop a plan to safely get our kids back to the classroom, I would support it.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
Right now, what we need on our school board is someone who is going to listen to the needs of our community. Someone who will join the board and be a bridge between parents, students, teachers, and the board of trustees. I’m proud to be able to offer the perspective of a recently graduated Seaholm Maple to be a guiding light and connecting bridge while we navigate the tough times ahead of us. My deep connection to student groups at our schools gives me a direct inroad to the culture, relevant experiences, and perspectives necessary to make decisions that are best for our students. Being the brother of a Seaholm Maple and a Derby Dragon, I only want the best for our kids, because strong schools make strong communities. As a trustee, I’ll not only be your advocate at the board office, but I will actively represent and advocate for the best interests of our community. I’ll be a cooperative partner with all groups in our community, and I’m committed to being an efficient member on the board. I have complete faith that I am the best advocate for our kids, and our kids deserve nothing short of the best.