Sarah Smylie—Orange County Board of Education | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week

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Sarah Smylie—Orange County Board of Education

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Sarah Smylie
Campaign website: www.sarahsmylie.org
Phone number: 919-777-8700
Email: sarahforocs@gmail.com
Years lived in Orange County: Nine

1. In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing Orange County schools? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?

1) Make progress in giving every child the world-class education that enables them to thrive in college, career, and life. To accelerate progress for all and expand equity, we need to set clear goals, try new things, continuously ask what’s working, and adapt. We’ve also got to find and keep great educators, and support them to lead. As a board member, I will help the conversation stay focused on these highest priorities. I will ask questions to understand what the data is telling us and how the superintendent’s team is acting upon it, and I will encourage us to make additional connections to other districts working on the same issues - especially those who’ve seen successes.
2) Strengthen partnerships to support our schools. To maximize their impact, our schools need to collaborate in new and deeper ways, with both community partners and families. We have some strong partnerships and relationships, and we need more. As a board member, I will seek out the perspectives which are missing in our conversations, and personally work to build trust in relationships where it is low, whether between institutions or between people. I’ll also encourage the district to do a comprehensive mapping of needs and resources, to identify opportunities for additional/expanded community partnerships.
3) Strengthen stewardship of resources: We’ve got to work together with the county commissioners to make sure we’ve got adequate, sustainable funding, and that we’ve got a long-term plan for what to do with our older school buildings. We should establish a clear roadmap to anticipate this pressing issue. On a related note, it can be hard to understand the nuances of the budget, so I’d like to see us do more to help the public understand this issue - how our money is spent, and what the needs are in the short and long term. That will help everyone be informed and speak up to support our schools.

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

I will bring my perspectives as a parent of current OCS students, as a former teacher, and as someone who’s spent a career devoted to expanding educational equity and excellence. Each of those “hats” will help me understand the issues the board faces in unique ways.



Academic: My academic career included coursework relevant to service on the board (education policy, social policy, public finance and budgeting, etc.).
● Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Policy and American Institutions from Brown University
● Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) from Syracuse University

Community: I’ve been actively involved in OCS, and in supporting efforts to strengthen education locally.
● My two children attend our local OCS school (Cameron Park), where I tutor students in reading and am the co-chair of the School Improvement Team.
● I am on the planning team for Orange County’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR). The team helped create Orange County's proposal to become a part of the national CGLR campaign - a whole-community effort with the goal for all students to be reading on or above grade level by 3rd grade.
● I am an active member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, where I volunteer in the nursery and the children’s education program, and am on the racial justice and reconciliation task force.

Professional: I am a former public school teacher, and have dedicated a 20-year career to expanding educational excellence and equity for all children.
● I began my career teaching 2nd and 3rd grades at a school in New York City where 95% of students received free/reduced-price lunch - but 100% of students were just as brilliant and deserving as their peers in wealthier communities. My students made significant progress academically and personally, and I mentored new teachers at my school.
● Because I have seen that great success in education comes only when there is a great team of people working effectively together with shared purpose, I’ve spent the past 17 years helping organizations find, support, and develop their staff. Today, I work at Teach For America on its national talent strategy. I work on questions like: What strengths will help staff succeed in their work? How do you support and develop staff members? How do you create a workplace where they can really thrive? All of this is relevant as Orange County Schools works find, develop and keep our talented educators, and to create workplaces where they can be their best.

3. If you are a challenger, what decisions, if any, has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are the incumbent, what in your voting record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

I believe the school board should have acted more swiftly in response to the concerned raised by parents and students about the Confederate flag being worn/brought to school. I was there from the very first meeting, speaking in support of families who raised concerns, and heard the extensive public comment and legal arguments over the course of 9 months. I believe, given everything I heard, that there was a strong case for acting sooner. It should not have taken Charlottesville for the board to move forward with the policy change prohibiting hate symbols in our schools, in my opinion. However, I am glad that they ultimately did.

I also believe the board should be advocating more strongly for the full funding needed to address our aging facilities and make other improvements. From my point of view, the board has operated with an excess of deference to the fact that there are competing priorities and that the tax burden is high. These things are true, and we shouldn’t ignore them - I certainly don’t want to see the county raise the tax rate to the point that it makes it even less affordable for low-income families to live here! But the simple truth is if we want our school district to remain desirable, we do need a plan for our multiple 65+ year-old buildings, and we do need to be investing in innovative teaching and learning. Perhaps this can be addressed through reallocating things differently in the existing county budget. Regardless, I believe we should ask for what we need, and we should tell the story of our reality well enough for the public to advocate, alongside the district, for the investments our schools need.

4. Research, including a new report from the NC Justice Center, suggests that North Carolina’s schools are becoming more segregated by race and economic status. What do you think is driving this trend, and do you think this is an issue Orange County schools need to address? Please explain your answer.

Some of the factors at play in Orange County are: 1) existing segregation by neighborhood, paired with ongoing growth in more expensive housing, and 2) more white, economically advantaged families than families of color and economically disadvantaged families are choosing charter schools, which have grown in Orange County over that time, and/or choosing our year-round elementary school option.

Studies show that racially and economically integrated schools can have big benefits for all students. Attending school together can enhance all students’ skills and set them up to succeed in a diverse world. Our district’s rich diversity in all ways - economic, racial, social, political, etc. - is one of its biggest assets, and a real differentiator from a lot of other districts! I know it appeals to me as a parent.

For the school board, student assignment plays a big role in the level of integration in schools. OCS is preparing now to redraw school assignment zones to address significant overcrowding in some places and anticipate future residential growth. The school assignment policy, recently revised, includes among its priorities a balancing of student achievement and of social-economic diversity among schools. This should promote greater integration. I look forward to seeing the options presented by the superintendent later this summer.

I’m paying a lot of attention to how this process will move forward, to make strong decisions but also to ensure transitions are successful. Having spent time in a number of our schools not known as the most desirable among parents, I have been blown away by the quality of teaching and learning happening, and by the innovative things going on. We’ve got to give parents the chance to visit and really see the great community and learning opportunities in each school.

A final word of caution: I believe in the incredible value of racially and economically integrated schools, but we have got to be careful to remember that greater integration is NOT a silver bullet. That’s clear in Orange County today, where even within the same school, students of color, and economically disadvantaged students, are far less likely than their white and economically advantaged peers to be on track to thrive in college and their career. These in-school differences in experiences and outcomes are wide, persistent, and problematic. So while I support greater racial and economic integration in our schools, we can’t expect it to solve all of the differences in student experiences/outcomes for us.

5. What effects do you believe the popularity of charter schools is having on the school system? Is it exacerbating segregation or draining resources from neighborhood schools, as some critics contend?

I understand that families choose charter schools for many reasons. In Orange County, unfortunately the net effect is that charter schools probably are exacerbating segregation, given the demographics of OCS compared to that of local charter schools. And because the dollars follow the student, yes, that means fewer resources as well. Historically, the Orange County Commissioners have helped backfill much of that money, so that it is not hitting OCS in the same way it is in other districts. However, it’s not clear that the county will always be in a position to do this, so we need to be prepared. The loss of resources is particularly challenging for the parts of the budget which are relatively fixed costs (for example, a school which has fewer students still needs a principal, cafeteria staff, utilities, etc.). I have not yet gotten deep into the budgetary implications in OCS, but plan to do so. This is particularly important since the local charter school population is growing.

I’d also like to see OCS learn more about what’s causing families to choose charters locally. Are they drawn by a particular pedagogical approach? By particular enrichment activities? Did they encounter a challenge in OCS that wasn’t addressed adequately? Asking families about those decisions would give a really interesting lens on what our schools are offering and how to refine our own approaches.

6. In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, what do you think should be done to make schools safer? Do you see preventing such shootings as a “school safety” issue?
First of all, I’d like to see sensible gun control legislation - the same things which surveys show are widely supported by the vast majority of Americans. But in terms of what is within the scope of the school board, I will focus on building security, school resource officer (SRO) training, and student supports:
1) Prioritize building security improvements in the capital improvement budget - speed up the timeline
2) Be more specific in policy about SROs. Right now this policy lacks detail. We should define the role of SROs, and codify training requirements (ex: active shooter response, implicit bias, mental health crisis intervention).
3) Invest in supports for students - I’d like to look at how we’re investing in wraparound supports like social workers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, etc., and understand how we’re getting all students the help they need, whatever those needs are
(Like most Americans, and law enforcement and teacher groups, I do not support arming teachers.)

7. In a similar vein, do you support the placement of school resource officers in Orange Public Schools? If so, what do you think their role should be? If not, what do you propose as an alternative?
Having SROs in our schools can either be an important asset - for school building security and to create conditions for positive two-way relationships between law enforcement and children - or it can have a serious negative impact, most notably on students of color who can be subject to disproportionate discipline. It all depends on how the role of the SRO is handled - how responsibilities are defined, the professional training taken by officers, and whether the district looks regularly at the data (quantitative and qualitative) and takes action to address areas of disproportionality or other negative outcomes.

Orange County Schools works with the Sheriff’s Office, and the two have effectively responded in partnership to external threats to school safety in the past, including a school shooter at Orange High about a decade ago. One improvement I will advocate for is improving the policy as it pertains to SROs (see previous question). I want to ensure officers are receiving the highest-quality training, and that their role is clearly defined as focused not on student discipline, but on school safety.

8. In the most recent data, Orange County Public Schools had a graduation rate of 89.1 percent, a little bit lower than Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools’ rate and considerably better than Durham County’s. What steps can the school board take to ensure that more of its students graduate?

Graduation rates in OCS are lowest for students with Limited English Proficiency (64%), students with disabilities (73%), and economically disadvantaged students (77%). These are stark numbers, with real-life consequences for kids, and we have got to change this. As a board member, I’d first want to learn a lot more about what’s going on here. Who specifically is dropping out? How early were there signs? What signs? Did the system try to intervene, and if so, when? Usually dropping out is the last link in a chain that begins really early in an educational career, and I’d like to pressure-test that entire chain to find our biggest opportunities to make a difference. For example, whether students are reading on grade level by 3rd grade is a huge predictor of whether they will later drop out in high school. This is why early literacy is a focus for so many educators, and why Orange County recently joined the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. It might not change the graduation rate overnight, but changing trajectories for kids when they are little can eventually pay massive dividends.

9. According to the most recent data, 47 percent of Orange County Public Schools students receive either free or reduced lunch. In your experience, what are some challenges that economically disadvantaged students, in particular, face day-to-day? What steps can the school board take to help these students?
I’ve learned so much about how poverty manifests locally by attending meetings of the Northern Orange Initiative on Poverty over the past three years. And I do believe it’s really important for school board members to listen and learn: I was a teacher at a school where 95% of students received free or reduced price lunch, and was a recipient myself as a child, so I understand some of the challenges on a personal level - but I deepen my perspective whenever I talk to people who are experiencing those challenges here themselves. For example, transportation was rarely an issue for me as a child, or for the students I taught, yet for economically disadvantaged families in rural Orange County, reliable transportation can be a fundamental barrier to participating in school activities (and for adults to get to work).

The families of economically disadvantaged students often need to make impossible choices about how to parse out limited income on food, housing, utilities, health care, transportation, or other essentials. Depending on individual circumstance, families may also have less of other types of “currency” - time to spend overseeing homework or visiting the school, for example, or knowledge about where/how best to advocate to make schools work for their children. And when these challenges all pile on top of each other, this can cause stress, anxiety, and depression for both adults and children, often untreated, which makes it even more difficult for young people to thrive in school.

The school board should support efforts by the superintendent to meet ALL of the needs that children bring with them into our schools. There are strong examples in OCS already. For example, OCS is in its second year of offering universal free breakfast, and has also dramatically expanded the number of meals it serves over the summer by building partnerships with local individuals and organizations. There is a social worker in every school. I believe the path to meeting needs even more fully is through expanding and deepening our partnerships, and I would like to see the school board dismantle any barriers to doing so (policy, prioritization, etc). Orange County is full of incredible organizations with expertise in all of these issues which impact our families. How are we working together so that every family has what it needs to thrive? In the end, that’s going to make our job of educating children so much easier.


10. Last year, Orange County schools earned seven Bs and five Cs under the state’s scoring system. Do you think the current state grading system is fair and truly reflects school quality?
I really appreciate the goal of providing parents with information to help them understand the quality of our schools! I don’t think these letter grades are the way to do it, though. Unfortunately, by combining achievement and growth data for a single year, they oversimplify things to the point of meaninglessness. As a parent, I can’t figure out how high-quality the experience will be for my child at a particular school. I would urge parents to proceed with caution regarding these letter grades. Instead, look at the rest of the information in the report card. For example, did the school “exceed growth”? That means that, on average, it’s moving students ahead further than would be expected in a year. Is that a sustained trend? I’d also urge parents to visit schools for themselves, and to ask questions to better understand how well a certain school might work for their child, as the best way to get a holistic picture of school quality. And I’d like to explore whether there is more we can do as a district to paint a full picture for parents who can’t easily take time off to visit a school, or don’t know what to ask.

11. What do you think the system could do to keep down suspension rates in Orange County schools?
I’m not sure, but it’s crucial to figure out. I’m particularly concerned about higher rates of suspension for black and Latino students and want to understand more about that. Every student needs as much learning time as they can get. The district has implemented restorative justice practices, which seems like a good start, but we’re not seeing the kinds of declines in suspensions yet that I’d hope to eventually see. This is a place where I’m interested in learning more about what’s working and what’s not - in our district and in others. At least one neighboring district has seen major declines in their suspension rates after implementing restorative justice, as have many other systems - are there opportunities to learn from them about effective implementation?

12. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
I believe that as a public school system working to ensure that every child receives an excellent education, we have an obligation to have inclusive policies for all students, families, and staff - no matter their income, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ability, family status, language ability, etc. I intend to apply that lens to various decisions that come before the board: Is this policy creating an inclusive culture and meeting the needs of all students? Are there barriers to some students or families which other students or families do not face? If so, how can we change that? It’s especially important to ask that question for/about those who have traditionally been less-well served by public schools in the United States - because understanding those gaps in access/experience/support is where we will find opportunities to improve.

Because our district is diverse in many different ways, I don’t expect that everyone will agree with my point of view all of the time. However, what I can offer everyone is integrity - that my leadership will be grounded in a consistent set of values, always centered on doing right by all children.

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