Leigh Bordley | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Leigh Bordley

Candidate for Durham Public Schools Board of Education


Name as it appears on the ballot: Leigh Bordley
Date of Birth: 12/13/61
Candidate web site: www.votebordley.com
Occupation & Employer: Executive Director, Partners for Youth
Years lived in Durham County: seventeen

1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the school system? What are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

The most important issues facing our schools are:

The need to establish excellent schools throughout the system, so that all children at every school and at every point along the achievement spectrum are challenged and supported. The achievement gap. In 2005-6, 80% of our white students passed their End-of-Grade tests, but only 40% of our African-American students did. This is unacceptable.

The drop-out rate. We have a comprehensive High School Completion Plan which lays out the barriers that prevent students from graduating and strategies for overcoming them. We still have a tremendous problem. Our drop-out rate is 30%; only 70% of our ninth graders are still in school by the time they should graduate. More than 50% of our African-American male students drop-out. This is one of the primary issues that drew me into the campaign and is one I have spent the last ten years working on through Partners for Youth.

The proportion of our student population that is Latino is growing rapidly. Currently, 4,000 students, or 17% of our population is Latino. More importantly, 70% of these students are in elementary school. Fifty percent of the live births in Durham County are Latino children. The vast majority of Latino children do not attend any kind of program before they enter kindergarten that would prepare them for the structure of school or begin their bilingual education. Latino students are at risk for dropping out and under-achievement. Only 4% of our AIG students are Latino, and a huge number of Latino students drop out of our system.

My top three priorities as board member would be to:

  1. Make sure resources – human and material - are distributed equitably throughout our system. All of our schools must have a rich, rigorous curriculum. Exceptional children at all points along the achievement spectrum must receive appropriate services. We must encourage all students to take rigorous coursework and make sure they are receiving the support they need to do well in it. Students who have IEPs or need to be evaluated must receive the on-going evaluation and the high quality services they need to succeed. ESL students and their families need to have access to ESL teachers and translators so that they can fully participate in our system. Students must have access to trained tutors who work with them consistently, understand their learning style, and communicate with their teachers.

  2. We must find ways to provide our struggling students and schools with excellent teachers. I think teachers who teach at Title One schools, for example, should receive additional pay for working with students who have higher than average needs. I would support exploring the possibility of creating a Teach for America type model where experienced, skilled teachers would agree to go to high-need schools for a period of time in exchange for a pay bonus.

  3. Continue to narrow the achievement gap.

  4. Durham Public Schools must be a part of a community-wide effort to address the social issues that plague our community and the pervasive disrespect for education promoted by our broader popular culture. Currently 20% of our children live in poverty; almost 50% of our elementary age students receive free/reduced lunch. Children of all races and income levels watch too much TV, read too little, and many of them lack the social skills that are essential to be successful adults. The schools cannot solve this tremendous problem alone, but by working together, our community can send our children a more consistent message that we are depending on all of them to succeed academically, and that we will support them in reaching this goal.

    To continue closing the achievement gap, we must intervene with at-risk children at earlier ages. More of Durham’s children whose parents cannot provide adequate preparation for school need to attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs. A disproportionate number of non-white children begin school lagging in terms of language acquisition and reading readiness. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact that high quality early childhood development programs have on children’s learning; these benefits last a lifetime. Children who attend high quality programs are less likely to repeat a grade, drop-out of school, depend on welfare, or become pregnant as teenagers. According to a study published by the Economic Policy Institute, communities also experience rate of return of more than 3:1 for funds invested in early childhood education.

    I want to pursue establishing an extended day program, possibly at a middle school. I believe very strongly that our children need to feel a part of their school community by being part of an entity within the school where they are known and can make a contribution. I would like to identify a middle school where we could pilot a school model that would keep students until 5/6 pm and involve them in a variety of enrichment activities after school, from sports to the arts. I know that there are plans under-way to obtain funding for a pilot program along these lines and want to work actively to establish it.My own children participate in after-school activities, and I know it increases their allegiance to their schools and is something that makes them excited to go to school. Too many children don’t have that experience. My son went out for basketball at Durham School of the Arts last year. He made it, but 30 other kids who wanted to be a part of school activity were cut. Teenagers have a driving need to be a part of a social group. We need to provide them with more positive options through their schools. I want to see what we can do in collaboration with community partners to make this happen, evaluate its impact and consider expanding it if it is successful.

  5. Continue to reduce the drop-out rate.

  6. Our smaller, alternative high schools – The Performance Learning Center, The Clement Early College High School, and the Middle College High School at Durham Technical Community College are great innovations. I enthusiastically support our creation of Holton School to provide vocational education. We desperately need this alternative for students not interested in or suited to college. We must make sure Holton provides the most advanced instruction possible that will prepare students for well-paying careers. I’d like us to strengthen and raise the profile of our specialized and vocational pathways at our major high schools (e.g., Automotive Engineering at Southern) and make sure we communicate that these are legitimate, rigorous tracks that students are encouraged to proactively choose.

    I strongly support extended day programs such as the Twilight School, which is providing a second chance for high school students who need to re-take a class they have failed. I understand there are plans to establish evening schools at two additional high schools.

    I support on-going efforts to involve the broader community in supporting our schools such as the At-Risk Youth Collaborative which has brought five groups that work with at-risk students together to provide comprehensive support services. Obviously, I think other programs that work to support our students such as Partners for Youth, the Achievement Academy, and Student U are important. The impact of these programs should be thoroughly evaluated, and we should replicate effective practices.

    Because suspensions contribute to our drop-out rate, I am very pleased that our suspension rate has been reduced by 50% in the past four years. It is currently 18%, but this is still too high. I know that administrators have been thoughtfully managing class changes, implementing the Positive Behavior Support System, and training teachers through initiatives like Capturing Kids Hearts as ways to reduce discipline problems and engage students. The current board has done a tremendous job of insisting that suspensions be reduced and this has made a significant impact. We must maintain our focus on this issue and continue to support effective practices.

    I support programs like the one that will be piloted next year at Githens Middle School. Through this plan, support teams of teachers, social workers, and appropriate staff will meet with students who have had problems with attendance and behavior in the past before the school year starts to make a plan for avoiding those problems in the coming year. The plans will outline clear expectations for students and parents, identify support systems at the school, and establish a proactive plan for success.

    Similarly, I support the Truancy Triage Center where truant students are assessed in a variety of areas including their academic ability, mental health status and social service needs. The Center is providing comprehensive support to students with truancy problems and getting them back in the classroom.

    In my work through Partners for Youth I have seen a tremendous need for mental health services for our teens who are struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. I would like to explore the possibility of placing therapists in the schools, maybe on a rotating basis, which would eliminate the logistical barriers to students receiving counseling and hopefully reduce the stigma that too many people still associate with mental health.

    I support lobbying the General Assembly to require compulsory school attendance to age eighteen. I recently had a student tell me that he planned to drop out when he was sixteen because it would be legal, and he didn’t want poor grades to interfere with his getting his drivers license.

    We must continue to search for ways to make in-school-suspension an effective method for enforcing discipline expectations and making sure that the intervention addresses the core issues motivating behavior. Students who are long-term suspended must receive support services and excellent instruction. We must have highly skilled teachers and professionals working with these students. I think we can do more to support Lakeview School and ensure that those students continue to learn and are also prepared for high school graduation and beyond. This is a complicated area that defies easy answers; I look forward to learning more about it and devising solutions.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the board? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

I have not held public office before. Through my work and as a parent with children in the schools, I have developed a variety of skills and strengths that would make me a good school board member. They include:

  • I have worked for ten years with low-income African-American students -- precisely the group we must reach to resolve the achievement gap and drop-out crisis we face. I have coordinated the efforts of more than 100 volunteers each year – community members, teachers, Duke students, and business owners and employers. I have a network of contacts within similar organizations, the area colleges, and funders. I have researched effective practices and am grounded in the reality of what works with this group of students.

  • At the same time, my own children have given me a window into what we can do to better challenge and support students at all levels of achievement. As a parent of three children who have attended four system schools so far, I have directly experienced many of the diverse options within the Durham Public Schools: elementary, middle and high schools; magnet and neighborhood schools; and transportation by bus, carpool and walking.

  • I have an active interest in – and considerable experience -- working with diverse groups of people. I attended North Carolina Public Schools (graduated from Chapel Hill High School, 1979 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1983). I chose to live in Durham when I returned to the area in 1991, after being away for graduate school and other jobs, because I wanted to live in a diverse, urban city. I have relished the opportunity to live and work with an amazing cross-section of people. I have an ability to communicate and share ideas with people who are different from me and find common ground. I can see challenges from a variety of perspectives and am comfortable working with groups of people to brainstorm solutions. I strongly believe in the power of collective thought and action.

  • I am a creative problem-solver. As far as I know, there is no other mentoring program in the country that provides each participant with four different mentors, as does Partners for Youth. I created this model after researching effective practices, and communicating with a range of people in Durham about what was being done and what needed to be done. In 2000, Partners for Youth won the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Gold Medal for innovative program design. Partners for Youth has been successful because my staff and I think creatively about solutions and can inspire and organize people to work towards common goals.

  • I have a Masters of Social Work with a concentration in Community Organizing (University of Maryland, 1986). My education and applied experience with Partners for Youth have given me an appreciation for and experience with program evaluation. Although it is difficult to assess the impact of some interventions, it is essential that we do so. I think this background would be useful as the board strives to assess the impact of various initiatives. We are fortunate to be located in an area with plenty of expertise in this area, and we must avail ourselves of it. We must make sure that we are using the most effective models available, tailoring them as needed for our community and schools, and making sure they are improving our children’s education.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am a Progressive Democrat. I have worked for over twenty years now as a social worker for a variety of organizations dedicated to education, multi-culturalism, and economic justice. I believe my political philosophy is evidenced by my past achievements which are listed on my attached resume and my platform as described in this document. A few past achievements that I would highlight are:

  • Founding program coordinator for the Frankford Human Relations Coalition – a coalition of churches that came together after an incidence of racially-motivated violence in Northeast Philadelphia to prevent and respond to incidents of racially motivated violence.

  • First director of development for NC Equity-- organized first grassroots fundraising campaign for a state-wide public policy organization dedicated to the empowerment of women and children.

  • Founding director of Partners for Youth, an award-winning mentoring program for teens in Southwest Central Durham.

4. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

An educated citizenry is vital to our democracy and the creation of a just society. All of our citizens must be prepared to work in our increasingly competitive economy and to engage as active informed participants within civic life.

As stated above, as a board member, I would work to address the inequalities that exist within our system and to make sure that all of our students are both challenged and supported. I first became active in the schools because of my support for successful and genuine merger of the county and city systems. My interest in creating a unified system that addresses all of our students’ needs remains my primary motivation for being involved.

5. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you know might cost you some popularity points with voters.

I am often aware that my feelings about expanding our choice plan are somewhat unpopular.

I am supportive of our current magnet plan and two of my children have gone/are going to DSA, but I think we need to proceed very carefully as we are pressured to add still more magnets and to created feeder systems for magnets. We do not want to create a closed system, so that a child attending a certain elementary magnet would then get preference to attend a magnet middle school, while other students’ chances of ever breaking into the magnet system would be reduced. Because my goal is to build an equitable system, I would view proposals to create additional magnets very carefully and weigh the impact of any decision in light of the effect it would have on the entire system.

6. Creekside student reassignment recently has been a controversial topic. Since, given Durham’s growth, it is likely the board will continue to reassign students, what are your guiding principles when considering such action? How would those principles be transformed into policy? What financial issues are influencing the decision? How can those financial issues best be addressed? Land-transfer tax? Increased property taxes?

I was gratified to hear at the February 2008 School Board meeting that Durham Public Schools, the city and county, are entering into a contract with a professional firm that studies demographic trends. Hopefully, this information will help us do a better job of projecting growth and development trends. It is inevitable, however that reassignment will be necessary as the system continues to grow. The following principles should be used for determining student assignment:

  • Parental Choice – We have an array of options available for families to choose from. I want all of our students to be in a school that meets their interests and learning style. I want all of our schools to become schools that families assessing the options would potentially choose.

  • Diversity – I believe all students benefit from attending school with a diverse student body. This is why my own three children attend Durham Public Schools. I think we have to actively work to ensure that a sub-set of our schools don’t remain racially isolated by making them schools that families of any race would choose.

  • Neighborhood Schools – are the backbone of our system. The vast majority of our students attend neighborhood schools. We must make sure that resources – human and material – are distributed equitably among our magnet and neighborhood schools. I will work hard to ensure that our neighborhood schools get what they need, and that families attending those schools can feel confident about this option within our choice system.

These principles would be expressed in policies that would continue to offer families a wide-range of choices, would ensure that the magnets’ special programs at the various schools (e.g. centers of specialization at our high schools) are advertised to a cross-section of families through a variety of methods, and that resources of all kinds are distributed equitably throughout our system. We will need to continue to offer our schools that are not doing well according to standardized-testing additional support to improve their performance.

We also need to recognize and be prepared for the reality that there will continue to be schools that are over-crowded from time to time. We need to make sure that these schools receive the extra resources they need to serve additional students in terms of janitorial support, supplies and staffing (teachers’ aides). There may be new resources we should allocate, such as an additional type of aide who would be responsible for simply managing transitions between rooms and buildings, and other movements that are necessary when a school is over-crowded.

Obviously, there are financial constraints on what we can do. We must make sure that we are implementing programs and distributing resources in ways that maximize their effectiveness and impact. The school board does not decide how funds will be raised – that is the purview of the county commissioners – but in my opinion, a land-transfer tax is the fairest way to pay for the new construction that growth necessitates.

7. In paying for new schools and other county needs, what role would you like to see assigned to:

a. Property taxes?

I think property taxes are a fair method of funding our schools, because it a progressive means of taxation. I anticipate and support it being our primary means of funding our schools.

b. Impact fees?

I also support impact fees. It makes sense to me that the additional people moving to our area (and the developers profiting from it) would help pay for the additional services, including schools that are then required.

c. Year-round schools?

Year-round schools could be a way of staving off new school construction if they run on a multi-track calendar. I’m not sure this is a practical solution for Durham at this point, as there are a limited number of families interested in participating in a year-round schedule.

d. More charter schools?

This is not an issue that local school boards decide. The state has set a limit of 100 charter schools for the state; Durham has eight. I would not support increasing this number, primarily because the research comparing the performance of students at charter and standard public schools, indicates that students at charters consistently under-perform their peers at standard schools.

e. Sales tax?

I am not in favor of increasing the sales tax. It is a regressive tax.

f. Other revenue-raising or cost-cutting methods?

I cannot suggest any additional means of revenue-raising. I do think we should recognize some cost-cutting measures we have taken. One example is that our new small, alternative high schools are using space provided by community partners at very little cost. The Performance Learning Center at Northgate Mall, for example, represents an excellent private-public partnership. Soon we will have over 2,000 students housed in locations created by these types of partnerships.

8. The No Child Left Behind Act has set a goal that all students would be proficient in reading and math by 2013-2014. Only seven of 21 Durham Public Schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB. Specifically, what can the school board do to help the schools that didn’t make their AYP? Secondly, what is your opinion on NCLB’s emphasis on standardized testing? Is NCLB a fair and effective program? What can be done to help low-performing schools?

I think there are advantages to NCLB. It highlights areas where schools need to improve. Based on my experience in PFY, I think testing motivates some students to do well.

There are, however, a number of significant disadvantages as well. I think the most serious disadvantage is that it provides an incentive for staff to avoid teaching at schools with significant numbers of struggling students. Because of the way AYP is calculated, schools serving more diverse populations, have a harder time doing well under this standard. I can appreciate that it would be difficult for an experienced talented teacher to decide to work in a school that has had low scores and has to struggle to meet the needs of multiple sub-groups. I have seen the stifling effect “assistance teams” have on principals and staff; it’s not surprising that teachers choose to go to schools where they will instead receive stipends if their school is declared a “school of excellence”.

From the standpoint of student assignment, NCLB provides an almost irresistible incentive for families to choose schools that are already doing well, and this is contributing to the segregation of our system. Parents can be unduly discouraged from sending their child to a school which may be serving a population that is not performing as well, but where their child could be well-served nonetheless, and they could become advocates for addressing deficiencies within the school. The combination of NCLB and our choice plan contribute to the segregation of our system, with more informed activist parents choosing schools that perform better under NCLB and other families passively “choosing” to remain at schools that do not. The system is mutually reinforcing and has the potential to create a system that is just as inequitable as the city/county systems we worked so hard to equalize just over a decade ago.

The other serious problem I have seen is what our emphasis on testing does to teachers’ sense of empowerment and the narrowing of our curriculum. I am interested in learning more about what we can do to support creative teachers who are hampered by following a scripted list of objectives they have to cover within tightly proscribed timeframes. As we struggle to attract and retain excellent faculty, we have to make sure that skilled teachers have the latitude to practice their craft. We also have to ensure that subjects that are not tested such as history, and until recently science, are not ignored and that all subjects are taught in a way that enable students to do well on the test without making that the primary objective.

9. What is your opinion of the 2007 personal leave bill, which, had it passed, would have allowed teachers to take personal days without being docked $50 in pay? What guidance would you give state legislators on crafting a bill?

I support giving teachers a limited number of personal leave days without docking their pay. Many teachers have their own children or family obligations and other professionals are generally given the benefit of flex time or ways to fulfill these obligations. I think benefits like this are evidence of our recognition that teachers are professionals who work many hours in addition to the hours they are in school. I trust our teachers to use this flexibility responsibly. So, I support the current board’s support for this proposal.

I would advise our state legislators to limit the number of days to perhaps one personal leave day per semester in recognition that it is a hardship for the administration and the students when a teacher is not present, and the system does have to find and pay for a substitute.

10. The Durham school board underwent scrutiny last year for failing to comply with the state open records law. Public documents requested by the League of Women Voters have yet to be disclosed. For incumbents, explain why those documents have not been turned over; for challengers, what concrete steps should be taken to ensure transparency in the board? Be specific.

I am strongly in favor of making the school board’s proceedings and discussions as transparent as possible. I agree with the school board’s new email system that will allow official communication to be shared. The public must understand and support decisions the board makes if we are to continue building the trust that is essential to an effective educational system and raising the funds we need for programming as well as construction.

As a school board member I would carefully observe the public documents and public meetings laws in place. Moreover, I would strive to abide by the spirit of these laws by looking for opportunities to include the public in discussions, sharing information and looking for input.

11. Special-needs and gifted children present unique educational challenges to the district. Evaluate how the district is meeting the needs of these children. How could the district better meet their needs? What are the obstacles to these goals and how can they be surpassed?

Providing special-needs and gifted children with the individualized instruction they need is an important challenge we face. This is an area that I believe requires more resources and our focused attention. I understand our services for exceptional children were just recently reorganized, and I think we should monitor the changes carefully to make sure they are having the desired effect.

Special-needs children present a unique challenge to our system. We must make sure that we are providing our teachers and administrators with the support they need to meet each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and that these students are being appropriately challenged. This is a very resource-intense endeavor that I do not think has been adequately addressed. While I support inclusion whenever possible, I want to ensure that our classroom teachers get the support they need from assistants and resource specialists, so that they are able to effectively teach their class. I also want to do whatever we can to free up our teachers from the administrative paperwork that serving special-needs children requires.

In terms of our academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) students, I am pleased that we have made substantial progress in the recent past, but we must continue to ensure that these children are being provided with the challenging curriculum they need to remain engaged and stimulated. Duke and DPS have done an excellent job of partnering to train an additional 150 of our teachers to receive AIG certification in the past three years. Through Dr. Harris’s emphasis on advanced academics, and the creation of the new Office of Advanced Academics, we have also increased the number of students taking AIG level classes to 3,200. We have also, very significantly, created an AIG nurturing program that serves an additional 3,200 students. We have also increased the diversity within the AIG student population, which is now 59% white, 30% African-American, and 4 % Latino. But given that our system is 54% African-American, 23% white, and 17 % Latino, we clearly have some room to go. I am very supportive of the additional evaluation that we now do at kindergarten, 3rd and, 6th grades to identify students who may be missed if they are only evaluated at one point in their development.

We should continue to look for children who may not be as academically prepared, but are intellectually gifted, by refining our screening methods and giving full consideration to student portfolios and other evidence of students’ potential. I think we need to continuously monitor the quality of the AIG instruction to make sure it is appropriate. It is not enough for these children to simply receive more work; it must be qualitatively different.

12. What steps, if any, would you advocate to improve educational outcomes for at-risk students and to reduce dropout rates?

Because this is one of my top priorities, I have already addressed this issue in my first answer.

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