Michelle (Shell) Brownstein | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Michelle (Shell) Brownstein

Candidate for Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board


Name as it appears on the ballot: Michelle (Shell) Brownstein
Full legal name, if different: Michelle Brownstein
Date of birth:
Home address: 105 Glenhaven Drive Chapel Hill 27516
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site: www.michellebrownstein.com
Occupation & employer: Education Advocate: N/A; Medical Columnist: Chapel Hill Magazine
Home phone: (919) 932-3695
Work phone:
E-mail: michellebrownstein@yahoo.com

1. If elected, what are your top priorities for the school board?

My first priority is to improve district accountability by:

*Requiring effective, research based instructional practice so each student makes appropriate progress as we work to reduce all achievement gaps.

*Addressing the inconsistencies in educational opportunities within our district that present some of our schools with greater challenges due to inadequate infrastructure or overwhelming student needs.

*Improving the evaluation of implemented programs so we better know what to eliminate and what to support.

My second priority is to improve collaboration by:

*Identifying existing expertise within schools and sharing that expertise across schools.

*Strengthening existing effective programs of community collaboration and fostering new ones.

My third priority is to improve communication by:

*Encouraging an open and fully inclusive dialogue between parents, staff, administration, our community and the board.

2. What is there in your record as a public official or other experience—e.g., career, community service—that demonstrates your ability to be effective as a board member? Please be as specific as possible about the relevance of your accomplishments to your goals for the board.

Over the last seven years, I have dedicated the majority of my time to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and education-related issues. I have gained insight into all levels of our education system (school, district, state and federal) by serving in leadership roles, participating on committees and advocating for educational change. Currently I serve several agencies: local (Special Needs Advisory Council (SNAC), Parent Advisory Council of the Family Advocacy Network and the Education Subcommittee of the Orange County Organizing Committee) state (NCPTA State Board Exceptional Children's Commission) and federal (International Dyslexia Association - Government Affairs Committee). Some of previous district committee work includes School Governance Committee (SGC) chairman, Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) member and participant on administrative personnel interview committees. Through the depth and breadth of my experiences, I have developed a sound knowledge base and demonstrated abilities to be an effective board member. These skills include: an ability to listen respectfully and with an open mind to all parties, an ability to think critically and ask penetrating questions, an ability to think strategically and an ability to weigh competing claims and make difficult decisions.

The most illustrative example I can cite that demonstrates these skills is my work on behalf of Twice Exceptional (2e) Children (gifted and disabled). Several years ago, when I became aware that our district and state lacked policy and procedure to identify and meet the needs of these students, I took action. I researched best practices across the country, and effectively lobbied district and state administrators, including this School Board, to affect concrete changes. As a result of my efforts, the requirement to identify and meet the needs of 2e students is now a component of District Priorities for our superintendent and new state standards regarding 2e students were just approved by our State Board of Education. The skills I used to accomplish such level of change included: sound judgment, effective communication, consensus building, research and professional development, networking, a willingness to learn from others, persistence and an ability to respectfully hold management accountable. I currently have an open dialogue with our administration as well as the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

3. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to the board help further that goal?

Over the past seven years I have focused my efforts not only as a supporter of our schools but also as a passionate advocate for equity. Whether working as a writing tutor, creating a mechanism to make sure all students have a book of their own at home, or serving more formally on committees, I have contributed to systemic improvements so that more children can better access what they need from our school system in order to be successful. As a board member I would have the opportunity to bring that experience to work for continued improvement but on a much broader scale that is, to work on behalf of all students and work towards closing all achievement gaps. Our public schools must provide an equal opportunity for all children to realize their potential. As a board member, I would speak up whenever I observed or was made aware of inequities in the system. As a board member, each decision I made would always be from the vantage point of considering its impact in terms of all students, ever mindful that the very nature of the bureaucracy of a school system creates an inherent problem where not all voices are heard and the loudest voices are not necessarily the ones with the greatest need.

4. What steps, if any, would you advocate to improve educational outcomes for at-risk students and to reduce dropout rates? How can the district close the achievement gap?

When children experience personal success, they have a better chance of maintaining their innate love of learning and consequently a better chance of staying in school until graduation. We need to explore relevant, proven approaches that are working in other regions and implement them into our community. To do that more effectively, parents, social workers, teachers, principals and faith-based and community leaders should be encouraged to provide constructive input to raise awareness of our local issues and identify practical solutions. Our schools do not operate in a vacuum; they cannot succeed in ensuring that every student graduates from high school with good future educational or employment opportunities without strong community support.

To work towards closing the achievement gap, it's critical that the methodologies being used in the classroom are research based and responsive to falling achievement well before end of grade/end of course testing. Early intervention is essential. I support programs that identify and address the needs of children who are at risk for starting school behind. Third grade reading proficiency is a key indicator of future risk of dropping out and incarceration which is why we must scrutinize and proactively address the reasons all of our students are not proficient readers by that benchmark. To more clearly meet the needs of all children so they make appropriate progress, I support the district's movement towards more individualized progress monitoring in the classroom with integration of the state/federal initiative of Responsiveness to Instruction (RtI). To be successful however, fidelity of implementation must be measured, followed and reported.

5. The district faced a tough budget this year. What would you do differently in hindsight? What was cut that shouldn't have been? What survived that should have been axed?

Beginning the budget process earlier in the fiscal year would be helpful because there would be more time for public and teacher comments for the board to consider. Also, I would explore options to smooth out the process for the staff especially given that this next budget situation is predicted be just as challenging. The current mechanism requires some teachers to be fired in the late spring and wait to hear if they will be re-hired which is demoralizing.

State funding for professional development was entirely cut. Local funds were used to restore 40% but I feel the funding is still inadequate because professional development is critical to maintaining high quality staff and needs to remain a core priority.

In terms of what should be cut, a continued area of obvious waste is duplication of papers sent home and in some cases, mailed, to families with more than one child. Even though the true cost savings will not be significant to the total budget, every penny counts and the district would be more environmentally friendly by using less resources and generating less waste for our local landfills. Another sensitive issue involves staff cuts. Because the majority of our budget funds salaries and benefits whenever there are significant budget cuts the unfortunate reality is that staff positions will be lost. Because of the long complicated budget process greater transparency is needed in terms of disclosing publicly what positions are cut and why the board chose to cut those positions. However the fundamental function of the schools are to teach so I feel the board needs to view classroom cuts as a last resort to be used only after all possible administrative cuts are made. This year the state budget cuts resulted in a net loss of nearly 32 teaching positions, while over the past three years, the administrative costs disclosed in the Combined Operating Budget Revenues and Expenditures Report have dramatically increased. While I realize those figures are difficult to interpret given the impact of opening Morris Grove Elementary and Carrboro High Schools, as a board member I will make sure I clearly understand the rising administrative costs and exactly which staff positions were being cut and which were not relative to classroom teachers losing their jobs.

6. In keeping with that line of questioning, what can the district do moving forward to make sure schools not only maintain the status quo but also become stronger even when they receive less funding?

We need to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. We need to improve the measurement of effectiveness of our current programs so the board only allocates money to what is working. Teachers and staff know where the waste is and we need to get their ideas and suggestions. In my recent work facilitating district focus groups as part of a broad Special Needs Advisory Council (SNAC) project, principals and staff emphasized a general need for improved identification of existing expertise we have within individual schools and making that more accessible across all schools. Collaboration needs to extend beyond the district lines. We need to better utilize the wealth of outside resources for teacher education and in-service training so that high quality professional development remains a priority. At Governor Perdue's recent Family/School/Community Engagement Summit, school districts have documented improved student achievement and improved success getting grant funding after committing to true community collaboration that involves strengthening existing programs and fostering new ones.

7. How will the policies you push, if elected, help develop students for the new economy? What kind of nontraditional education is now needed and how would you help provide it?

The policies I would push would be mindful that children in schools today are facing a future where the economy is global, jobs are more transient and technology is ubiquitous. To be successful, they must graduate from high school having mastered the fundamental skills of reading, writing and math. They must also learn world language, global awareness, excellent communication skills, critical thinking, creative expression and technological expertise. To be competitive as adults, today's students need skills essential in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a board member, I would support resource allocation with these demands in mind. We all need to work together to make sure all students have access to technology. Programs like the recent partnership with Time Warner Cable to provide Internet access to areas of subsidized housing is an example of collaborative efforts that need to be fostered.

The kinds of nontraditional education needed now includes such things as maximizing the benefits of virtual technology as well as supporting collaborative opportunities for local professional and business community to share expertise and creative use of resources. Ongoing professional development for staff to stay current on new technologies is critical. I support multi-sensory research-based approaches that link the curriculum to the real world and broad cultural awareness integrated into our curriculum.

8. How should student discipline be handled? What are your views on the district's current policies for long-term suspension? Do you think they are fairly applied? Along those lines, there have been reports of children receiving little, if any, education while on long-term suspension. How would you ensure those children are given an opportunity to be educated?

Discipline is vitally important, but so is education. No student or teacher should be threatened, bullied, physically in danger or exposed to drugs. We need accountability to make sure all incidents are being fully reported to school administration with appropriately trained staff and procedures in place to address them and that the consequences are consistently applied across schools for all students. I do agree with the district's zero tolerance of the most serious infractions. Trained personnel (like crisis counselors working with educators and assistant principals) administering 'in-school' suspension programs will keep the student's education in process and the student in school. Overall there should be very few out of-school-suspensions with long-term suspension being a last resort.

Through the Phoenix Academy, our district provides an option for maintaining education for students faced with a long-term suspension as well as other intensive needs. Since 2007, Phoenix has been expanded and moved into a newly renovated space to accommodate more students. This June, the Phoenix Academy was converted to a high school, which increased the funding options available to it from our state and federal government and resulted in a principal being hired to oversee that school. These changes should help insure these students are continuing to get a high quality education despite their suspension. Part of that programming must include appropriate interventions to address the complex reasons behind such a serious infractions.

9. How would you increase parental involvement in the schools? What should be the nature of that involvement? Where should the line be drawn?

A critical component of meaningful parent involvement in the schools is to ensure every parent has the information necessary to support their individual child's needs and navigate the educational system successfully preschool through high school. When a parent is able to do that the likelihood their child will be successful is significantly higher. Our community is very diverse and parents have all different time constraints, viewpoints and cultural backgrounds. The challenge is making sure all feel welcome, information is accessible and what is required of the parent is clear. To meet this challenge, I support endeavors that seek parent and teacher feed back to assess effectiveness of instruction and services in the schools as well as encourage constructive input from local faith-based and community leaders as an additional way to strengthen parent involvement for all children. I support our schools providing opportunities for all parents to come share their life experience with the school when it is relevant to the curriculum.

10. What should the district's budgetary priorities be? What areas are currently underfunded? How would you find the resources to better fund those areas?

The district's budgetary priorities must focus on accomplishing educational success for all children and address existing gaps in meeting the needs of all learners. We need to invest in high quality instructional programs with documented effectiveness that are research based. We need quality teacher retention rates. We need to keep classroom sizes down. We need to support effective professional development relevant to the areas of true staff needs. We need capital improvements in older schools so there is consistency across schools.

To consider what is under funded on a broad scale, I reviewed the Combined Operating Budget Revenues and Expenditures for the past three years and the most recent budget reports. Some of the trends include decreasing per pupil expenditures, decrease in textbook expenditures, fewer teachers, flattening of staff pay, and increasing classroom sizes 4th through 12th grade. Professional development is an area, which lost all state funding, and some local funding and is targeted for further local reduction in this year's district priorities. The district's current Capital Improvement Plan project timeline is also being impacted by the county's declining revenue, which lowers the debt load capacity so necessary infrastructure renovations will be delayed and elementary school #11 will also likely be further delayed.

In terms of finding resources, our school board has no taxation authority; the Board of Orange County Commissioners (BOCC) does and has a longstanding tradition of targeting 48.1% of their budget on schools. I would work to maintain a good working relationship with the BOCC and use all of my advocacy skills to be able to proactively advocate for the economic needs of the district and support transparency in the process. Working with community resources could increase opportunities for students and not further strain the budget as well as improve the likelihood of grant funding.

11. As Chapel Hill's population grows, what should guide future school planning. Can the district afford and obtain the land necessary to build these schools? How should the district manage its growth? How does redistricting fit in?

Future growth needs to be guided by a collaborative effort at long term, proactive planning between the CHCCS School Board, the Board of Orange County Commissioners and the Carrboro and Chapel Hill Town Councils and ultimately community input. In terms of future planning, I would ask for board participation on opportunities like the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force whose mission is to seek input from the community to explore how Chapel Hill should grow in the next 10 years. Between the topography, Resource Conservation District and University owned land, there are extreme limitations in terms of where future school sites can go. Future school designs should minimize the footprint and creative locations considered. Any schools that have outstanding plans for additions that would be less expensive than building additional schools should be reexamined.

Unfortunately the locations available for new schools tend to be on the periphery of our district which creates huge challenges in terms of redistricting to balance the diversity of schools yet preserve neighborhoods and minimize travel time and transportation costs. The redistricting process is a very sensitive issue that requires clear opportunities for full public comment and consideration of the impact of moving neighborhoods and transparency from a district level as to why an individual plan is selected. The Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (SAPFO) is being updated to improve the prediction rates per housing unit and better differentiate information across the different types of single-family homes we have in our community. This update should improve the accuracy of the information available to the Board moving forward.

12. Both CHHS and ECHHS have new principals this year. How will you measure their performance?

The Superintendent is the only employee of the school board. Therefore, the school board cannot measure staff performance, rather the superintendent must. It is my understanding that principals have multi year contracts so the board will not have the opportunity to provide any direct input on these individuals until their contracts are up for review in the years ahead. The board can only act on personnel changes brought before them by the superintendent. However, the board does set annual district priorities for which the superintendent is held accountable. This year's priorities include multiple goals focused on high schools where some of our district's largest achievement gaps exist. Those goals include such criteria as: raising the graduation rate, decreasing the drop out rate, meeting the school's strategic plan benchmarks and improving the school's results on the state accountability measures. The progress on achieving these goals is monitored by the board. If problems arise meeting the goals, then as a member of the school board, I would hold the superintendent accountable. He can in turn choose to make personnel changes.

I would expect the superintendent to have a measurement of effectiveness of administrators already in place. If elected, I would verify that in addition to looking at the quantitative test score benchmarks, part of the process should include additional qualitative measures like: teacher turnover, teacher satisfaction on surveys/from teacher organizations and parent community feedback in terms of the principal inclusively supporting open communication, being a good mediator, etc. If no such mechanism to incorporate full feedback exists, then this would be a timely area for accountability to be implemented.


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