BLOOMFIELD HILLS SCHOOLS BOARD OF EDUCATION
Seven candidates are running for three seats on the Bloomfield Hills Schools Board of Trustees. Each seat is for a four-year term.
DIMA EL-GAMAL Dima El-Gamal holds masters and PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Wayne State University. She is the managing principal at Stantec Consulting Michigan and is a West Bloomfield Planning Commissioner. 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 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? I am not a firm believer in standardized tests being a true indicator of students’ academics levels. Per NICHE Bloomfield Hills School district ranked the third best district in Michigan. Our students reported an average 29 on ACT score, an average 1230 SAT, and 58 percent of the students scored above proficiency level on their state assessment tests. I think that there is some inherent unfairness to the students and teachers nationwide in the standardized testing process in general that is not really in our control to change. However, all districts should endeavor to identify student needs and improve literacy at an early childhood age. Focus should start in elementary and a sincere effort should be invested to make sure students who are passing the elementary grades are successfully mastering internal guidelines. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, we have a great system in Bloomfield that allows us to compete in the global world economy with the PYP and IB programs. It is important to continue to improve on, advance, and polish the implementation of our PYP program. We also need to improve and make use of our IB program by conveying its availability and it’s importance to the students. 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 Bloomfield Hills Schools. Should Bloomfield Hills 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. Racism is a cancer that eats communities from the inside and impacts the overall vibrant and healthy practices within. Unfortunately, it sometimes can make its way into the school environment through many avenues. For many years, the Bloomfield Hills School district has been actively involved in debunking racism. While I personally believe that adopting policies and creating programs at a local level are some ways to address racism, I also see the need for implementation plans and follow ups in order to measure the outcomes. Adopting policies and creating programs alone are not enough since racism is rooted outside school as it is a community wide issue. Therefore, solving this problem will take effort and patience. Adopting a districtwide curriculum infused with debunking racism from the early childhood stage is key to raising a generation that is educated in the classroom about equity, inclusion, and diversity. Furthermore, nurturing staff members who are well trained, comfortable to standup to handling bullying, racially biased, and discriminatory incidents in the classroom is critical. The staff needs to be well versed in unconscious bias and educated about cultural sensitivities related to their classroom populations. 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? Given the current and historical political divides between communities, I doubt that relying on the state for education reform is a realistic expectation. I believe that each local school board should be working to address the specific needs of its community. If elected, I would like to address mental wellness and inclusion in the curriculum. I want to work with the school administration on developing a curriculum that supports mental wellness and nurtures an inclusive and healthy environment for all students. An environment that reduces stress, solves problems and is sensitive to students’ challenges. One of my goals is to work with the superintendent and board (including Mrs. Southward and Mr. VanGemert, if also elected) to have BHS pioneer incorporation of mental wellness as a graduating requirement. With the superintendent leadership, BHS District can become one of the first districts in the nation to have a graduating class that has gone through mental wellness programming. With this programming we prepare our students to face life with all its challenges that allows our graduates to face the world and its problems. I also want to examine the district’s curriculum and infuse it at all levels through an equity and inclusion lens. SAFEGUARDING STUDENTS 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? The rise in school shootings is a sad reality that is generally caused by two major factors in my opinion, the first factor is individuals having access to weapons while the second factor is that these individuals are struggling with mental health. While I care about the safety of students, teachers, and staff, I do not believe that increasing the number of guards, police officers, or training teachers to carry weapons are effective methods to improve security at schools. I do believe in the deter and detect methods, which is why I supported the bond proposal for the district. The bond proposal included school improvements which allow for improved physical security measures at the elementary and middle schools. I believe in mental wellness education and it being a path for reducing possible internal threats. Please refer to my answer to education reform question above for my proposed mental wellness plan. Last but not least, I would like to clarify that I put the burden on our elected officials in Lansing and Congress to adopt gun control reforms to further minimize the internal and external risks from mass shootings in general and school shootings in specific. SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA After initially presenting a plan to offer five 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 commend the administration and staff for the tremendous effort that was put into planning for the next school year as I know that the plan will continue to be refined as the dynamics of this pandemic continue to change. It is sad that lack of leadership at the state level is forcing local school boards to make hard decisions that impact the future of families and students. While I sympathize with families with working parents or parents of different learners, I cannot underestimate the burden of safety or risk to public health that comes with the in-person option. Leadership is using the trust that people give us to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions in the best interest of all. This is exactly what the board has done weighing in public health and safety. I do understand that the distant learning decision is not permanent, and it could change based on COVID levels. Unfortunately, the dynamics of this pandemic continue to challenge everyone. Please before people disagree with the board, I ask that they hug their loved ones and remember that one lost life in the district is one too many. WHY VOTE FOR YOU Why are you the right person at time to be a member of your local school board? As a resident of the district since 2004, my goal is to give back to the district that gave my two kids an excellent education and a safe environment. In addition to my over 25 years of engineering expertise, if elected I plan on focusing my energy on mental wellness and inclusion. I learned the hard way that I needed to work with allies to promote equity and inclusion in every aspect of life. My 21-year-old son was called a terrorist in third grade. To me the phrases such as privilege and unconscious bias spark action that should be associated with measurable outcomes for every organization. I actively work as an education liaison on combating racism and debunking misconceptions through interfaith work and have been active in the various committees in the Bloomfield District by working with Global Education Teams, Multicultural Committee, Bloomfield Youth Assistance, Scope and Design, and many more. I am passionate about educational excellence that fosters mental wellness and creates inclusive environments for all students. I plan to drive advancement by translating that passion into action, and I would be honored to win the district residents’ vote in November.
RENITA JAMES Renita James is a former elementary teacher who currently is a departmental analyst with the state of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency. She has an undergraduate degree from University of Detroit and an MBA from University of Phoenix, and is a literacy tutor with Oakland Literacy Council. STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS In Michigan, I believe the stark deterioration in reading and educational levels is due to the lack of funding in early literacy. Literacy in the early stages is a crucial component for a student success, otherwise by the time a student reaches 3rd and 4th-grade level, it may be too late for resolution. The district has addressed the literacy issue by placing students into smaller groups based on their reading levels. Preparing students to compete in a global world economy would be beneficial by exposing them to diverse learning. This includes preparing them at an early age to diversity and inclusion. Students should be taught (recommended at preschool level) what different cultures are learning through curriculum. Another ideal to discover is what career skills are in high demand, and how to utilize training in that field. Lastly, for consideration what qualifications will they need to compete in a global market? Having that knowledge and expertise will put them at a higher level for success in all arenas of global development. When it comes to education, one of the quotes I firmly stand by is; “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Nelson Mandela). RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS I believe Bloomfield Hills Schools should be taking any special action or creating policies or programs to address this issue on the local level by having more inclusion and changing the narrative of disenfranchisement. Our district needs to have annual training on anti-racism within our schools, communities, and organizations. Dialogue should be encouraged through role play, via presentations and participations. The policy should provide clarity on what is considered racism as a health crisis and how to identify and address the issue head-on. Finally, I believe the district needs to be more transparent with the outcome of the student(s) that committed any forms of racial incidents. This will potentially help to deter other students from repeating the same incident. If elected, I will get into the trenches and work with the district to get to the root of the issues and rectify them, for the sake of our youth. CONTROL OF REFORMS As a district, educational reforms should spring from local boards while following the guidelines established by the state department of education and the state school board. They know the needs and wants of their students, schools and communities as they are residents of the district themselves. One of the silver linings during this pandemic is that virtual learning was necessary to meet the needs of our students. I support, and will seek if elected, teachers receiving online training to teach virtual learning. As we veer into the new century of technological and informational advancement, one must consider that online learning will be very important now and in the future in meeting the terms of societal standard. SAFEGUARDING STUDENTS I believe the district is doing enough to safeguard students and staff, however there is always room for improvement. There should be more security guards and liaison police officers specifically at the high schools. Having more safeguards in place will prevent escalated matters from occurring. As for Pre-k to middle schools, I believe there is enough adequate staff in place to stagger schedules to monitor school safety. School shootings is a significant issue that has increased in recent years. What the district can and should do to better prepare teachers and staff for the possibility of a rogue individual with a weapon, is to hire more school counselors. They help to foster and develop the social and emotional aspect of each student. More attention and funds should be spent on raising the awareness of mental health as many Americans are impacted by this chronic illness. “Mental illness awareness means acceptance and love rather than judgement and shame; it means an end to the stigma and the beginning of hope” (Annie Slease). The overall goal is to improve and prevent mental illness. SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA In this evolving situation, I support the current board of education decision to start the entire district online. We all have to work together to keep every student and staff safe. Having schools reopen too soon could lead to a potential outbreak, which would cause a new school closure. However, I do understand online learning does not provide the same level of human interaction as in-person learning, but this is a short-term substitute for classroom learning during a pandemic. WHY VOTE FOR YOU As a former elementary school teacher, I knew early-on that I had a passion for education. Making a difference in the lives of youth was and is still my top priority. Now as a proud parent of a thriving nine-year-old daughter, I have kept this same tenacity by dedicating countless hours to ensure the success of her education. My parental engagement has included (but not limited to), being hands on with homework, attending monthly PTO meetings, and being an advocate for education. Currently, as a public servant for the last 18 years, I understand what it takes to have integrity, character, be diversified, compassionate, and be a voice for the voiceless. If elected, my top commitment will be ensuring that not only my daughter’s best interests are being heard and met, but the community as a whole. “Follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” (Oprah Winfrey).
SIVA KUMAR Siva Kumar is a senior director at DWH, a consulting firm, and has 30 years in strategy and finance. He holds an engineering degree from Wayne State University and an MBA from University of Michigan. STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS I have not seen the exact report that you are quoting from, but I believe your statistics are directionally correct. Michigan is facing an education crisis. Successive elected legislatures in Lansing have woefully underfunded education over the last few decades and we are seeing the result of that underfunding. For Michigan to thrive in the future global economy, we need to make funding for education as one of our top priorities. In today’s world, our students at BHS have held onto our lead versus Michigan’s other school districts. For BHS students to thrive in the world of tomorrow, we need a combination of academic achievement along with a focus on development of social and behavioral skills. RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS I believe BHS has made strides in improving policies to address racial incidents when they occur. However, there are explicit events on which action can be taken. My bigger concern is whether there exists an implicit bias in the school system which may be driving significant disparities in academic achievement among students. Students of color, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, special ed students and all students continue to perform significantly below average levels. We need to do more work to identify the reasons for such disparities and have concrete, measurable actions to eliminate such gaps. CONTROL OF REFORMS I think educational reform should go both ways. Clearly, funding for education is decided by our legislature, based on recommendations from the state board of education and the state school board. I see funding as well as a guideline setting coming from the state level as a top-down decision. I also see some reforms working their way up from local school districts. I support immediate educational reforms on a) closing gaps in student achievement for underperforming groups, and b) concrete steps for improved of social, emotional and physical well- being, and c) increased focus on post-high school readiness. SAFEGUARDING STUDENTS The safety of our students and staff should always be our number one priority. While there is always something more we can do to improve safety of our students and staff, I know that BHS has a great working relationship with the police departments in Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield and the city of Bloomfield Hills. During these budget constrained times and particularly when we have a SRO (school resource officer) on campus at BHHS and security officer dedicated to BHS on deputation from the Bloomfield Township police, I think we are best served by holding current spending levels for security. SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA I am a strong believer of in-person learning, whenever possible. However, I also believe that one has to evaluate risks carefully when the well-being and lives of our students and staff are at stake. There were many recommendations and guidelines from the Governor’s office but few hard rules. The BHS School Board chose to lean on the side of caution and BHS administration reworked their plan to develop a hybrid model for in-person instruction which increased distancing to six feet per student from the original proposal of three feet. I support the current plans developed by BHS administration and approved by the board for offering both virtual learning as well as a phased approach to move students from distance teaching to in-person instruction in line with a decline in risk levels. WHY VOTE FOR YOU We have been fortunate that our children received a great education going through Bloomfield Hills Schools and I chose to run because I would like to give back to the community. Our two children graduated recently from the IA and both attend college at the University of Michigan. I am a senior director at DWH Corp, a consulting firm. I also serve as lead advisor at Inventev, a startup based in Detroit. I have over 30 years of experience in strategy and finance, and I’ve served in leadership roles at firms including Meritor, Ford & Tenneco. I’ve successfully managed large projects and built up businesses while working with boards to manage interests of multiple stakeholders. I came to the US as a graduate student over 32 years ago, have MS in engineering from Wayne State and an MBA from the University of Michigan. My priorities are: Equitable education for all, including students of color, economically disadvantaged students, special dd and all students; work with BHS on prudent investment of our $200 million bond approved by residents and prioritize spending in a post-Covid world; and effectively implement the BHS strategic plan with a focus on mental well being and post high school readiness.
JONATHAN VANGEMERT Jonathan VanGemert received his bachelors degree in economics and management from Albion College and his law degree from University of Detroit Mercy. He is an attorney with Zausmer PC. STUDENT EDUCATIONAL LEVELS Statewide, the reading scores on the third grade MEAP went from a mean of 430.3 in 2010-2011 to 433.6 in 2013-14. From 2014-15 to 2018-9, reading scores were not specifically identified on the M-Step, however the mean ELA scores were consistently in the 1290s for those years. In 2013-14, 70 percent of third graders were proficient at reading. In 2014-15, we switched to the M-Step, which was taken online as opposed to pencil and paper, and has been a bumpy road in terms of technology. In Bloomfield Hills, a similar story – 446.3 in 2010 to 448.3 in 2013-14, and consistently around 1310 in the years from 2014 to 2019. From 2010 to 2014, proficiency rates went from 84 percent to 90.6 percent. Following the switch to M-Step, Bloomfield has maintained a 70 percent proficiency rate despite technological issues with the test. Calling this a stark deterioration is disingenuous, and factually inaccurate. Improvement is always the goal though, and I would seek the superintendent’s assistance in determining what specific deficiencies in our curriculum are leading to less than perfect proficiency. RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS Bloomfield Hills is taking action and will continue to take action. Bloomfield Hills currently offers multiple Global Education opportunities for students, staff, parents and community members. Examples include Global Champions training, Dismantling Racism retreats, and Student Global Leadership workshops. Each school in Bloomfield Hills has a Global Champions Team consisting of administrators, teachers and parents. These teams support and brainstorm initiatives that ensure educational equity. Additionally, the district has been trained in and utilizes Restorative Practices when handling conflict, which aims to repair harm and rebuild relationships. Regarding diversity across the curriculum, Bloomfield Hills has made a concerted effort to ensure representation and the inclusion of multiple perspectives and backgrounds in its curriculum. This is done both implicitly and explicitly through book studies, awareness and respect of cultural observances, robust classroom libraries/media centers, and speakers. Specific subjects such as history (social studies) are infused with perspectives and contributions of all backgrounds throughout the curriculum and not just in specific months of the year. We will support that essential and ongoing work. CONTROL OF REFORMS The state should concern itself with general educational standards, school funding and specific science-based guidance regarding return-to-school plans. On a local level, school boards can work with or suggest reforms to the superintendent. The two initiatives that candidates, Dima El-Gamal, Michelle Southward and I, will work to spearhead should we be elected, are mental wellness across the curriculum, and continued expansion of diversity throughout the curriculum. Specifically, our plan would require students take a course in mental wellness, including curriculum designed to teach students about dealing with stress, anxiety, internal and external expectations, success and failure. In addition to a course, the goal would be to discuss mental wellness throughout the curriculum. We need to use evidence to build and expand upon what works best for students and teachers when it comes to developing essential conceptual skills. We also need to take stock of what we are already doing that is impacting students and/or staff in a way that improves student achievement, student mental and physical health, and educator innovation. I would look for ways to support students who are not being provided with the correct tools to overcome obstacles that are placed before them; and on the opposite side, on those students who need a more challenging educational goal or a different type of goal altogether. SAFEGUARDING STUDENTS With the passage of the bond, plans are in place to supplement the security features at all district buildings. At present, the response time of the Bloomfield Hills Police Department and surrounding police departments has proven to be quick and proficiently coordinated during our mandated drills. I don’t think additional officers would make our students and staff feel safer, nor would they be safer. When it comes to better preparing teachers and staff, preventative measures such as bullet resistant glass, and more efficient locking mechanisms throughout our school buildings are a start. As discussed above, our plan is to require mental wellness as part of the curriculum, which would focus attention on appropriate responses to stress, anxiety, loneliness, and a variety of other factors that contribute to anti-social behavior. SCHOOL IN THE COVID ERA I agree with the decision for the basic reason that taking stock of what happens in other districts throughout the country is invaluable, and to wait, perhaps for a short period, is prudent. I fully understand that virtual school imposes a severe hardship on working families and students’ mental well-being. School is not going to look like it did before March, 2020. When our kids do return to school, it will not be a return to normalcy, at least for a while. The argument that working parents need a place for their kids during the day, and that kids need the social and emotional interaction that school provides is one that I understand – very personally. I can only say that I will take that need into strong consideration if I am tasked with making such a decision in the future, as the consequences of the decision affect me as well. WHY VOTE FOR YOU I am a parent of three children – a four year old, an eight year old, and an eleven year old. I have a personal interest in the curriculum and success of our district through at least 2035. My vision is long-term, not short-sighted. I have a background in economics, accounting, and the law, which means that my insight into the budget and bond will be invaluable. I am data-driven and have a unique ability from my years as an auditor and attorney to find solutions in the details of the data. My wife, Laura, has been a teacher in the district since 2005, which gives me a unique perspective of the workings of the district. In making decisions, I will focus on whether each decision and/or expenditure benefit students now, and whether it benefits future students. Finally, I think this board needs a new voice of reason, someone who is pragmatic, and someone who understands the ethical responsibilities of the board. Dima El-Gamal, Michelle Southward and I, if elected, hope to carry forward the legacy being left by the retiring board members, and work in concert with the present board to continue making Bloomfield Hills Public Schools a district that we are all proud of, and that prepares our students for whichever direction they choose.