Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
Two of five Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) board seats are up for election this year in March. Districts 2 and 4– covering a swath of the city from the LA River to the 605 Freeway, plus Signal Hill schools– will have new board representation. Incumbents Felton Williams and Jon Meyer did not file for re-election.
The six candidates vying for those two seats met Wednesday night at Browning High School in Long Beach to share their views on special education, at the invitation of the LBUSD Special Education Community Advisory Committee (SECAC).
John Mathews II, Erik Miller and Tonia Reyes Uranga are running for the District 2 seat, with Davina Keiser, Doug Otto and Nancy Valencia on the slate for District 4.
During the forum, two members of SECAC– Cesar Armendariz and Robin Weckerly– asked candidates to introduce themselves before answering five questions that SECAC had received from parents, followed by several questions from the approximately 50-member audience.
The candidates agreed about the need for training teachers and aides to better understand special-education student needs and reduce what some called “implicit bias” that might cause teachers to unfairly suspend or even bully some students.
But the candidates differentiated themselves mostly on their experience and perspectives they could bring to the position.
The three candidates for District 2– encompassing schools on the west side of Long Beach– described very different experiences that would influence their service as a board member, especially in terms of special-needs students.
Mathews, a lawyer working on criminal-justice reform, said it would be important for a school-board member to show up more to support district schools and address the needs of parents.
“The role of a board member is to be present,” Mathews said.
Mathews also said he would prioritize listening to parents and teachers in making LBUSD budget decisions and expand teacher professional development, student apprenticeship opportunities and student safety.
Erik Miller introduced himself as a product of LBUSD’s Resource Specialists Program (RSP) who now has an architect degree as a result of the school district’s Operation Jump Start and directs a local nonprofit helping children.
Like Mathews, Miller said he would support more teacher professional development, but stressed that his motivation to serve as a board member is not political but rather stems from his concerns as a father.
“Don’t politicize our kids,” he said. “This is about helping people and that’s what my career’s been about and that’s why I’m running.”
Uranga, a former Long Beach City Council member and educator, said she also supports professional development, especially to reduce what she called “teacher burnout,” with special-education teachers leaving after five years on average when it takes eight years to be certified.
She said she would also support more training of teacher’s aides who work with students on the playground and may give them contradictory messages about their special-needs classmates.
“Whether they’re part-time or full-time, we need to train [aides] to be more sensitive to the needs of special-ed kids so that they don’t undo what we’re trying to do in the classrooms.”
Uranga also said that she’d support efforts to mitigate teacher bias that might be contributing to LBUSD’s disproportionate suspension rate of special-education students, noting that while 13% of students have special needs, they represent 30% of those suspended at any time.
“Are they acting out or are they being punished for their disability?” Uranga asked.
In answer to a parent’s question about bullying in schools starting with teachers, Uranga said bias exists and intolerance can lead to “microaggressions” against students by teachers, which training would help illuminate.
The District 4 candidates similarly expressed unique experiences and perspectives they would each bring to special-needs issues in their district that includes schools from Signal Hill to the 605 Freeway.
Keiser spoke of her over 40 years of experience teaching math and music in LBUSD, including special-needs students, and said it is important to integrate those students in regular classrooms but also train those teachers in what to expect.
“There are varying degrees of normal,” she said. “It’s imperative that we include special-needs children in with our regular-ed. They need to learn how to get along, how to help one another and that’s what I’ve seen with my students.”
Keiser also said she would promote more parent involvement with two-way communication, as well as make the LBUSD budget transparent and increase technical and vocational education programs for the benefit of all students, including those with special needs.
“They don’t all need to go to college,” she said. “They can get a good-paying job, something where they can make a good living.”
Otto, a lawyer who has served on the Long Beach Community College board of trustees for 16 years, agreed that increasing professional development for teachers is a priority, including for “mainstream” classroom teachers.
“They need to understand what the characteristics are and what the issues are [for special-needs students],” he said. “If they don’t, then when they come into general classes, [the teachers] are not going to be as prepared.”
He also said data needs to be not only quantitative but qualitative when measuring teacher efficacy, including input from those who interact with students on a daily basis.
Otto quoted a LBUSD board resolution passed a year ago endorsing inclusive education practices. He said his experience lobbying in Sacramento would be effective in bringing more resources to the district to achieve that purpose.
After a parent in the audience said that her son had been attached at school, Otto said that student safety needs to be “job one” of the district, adding that bullying is intolerable and he would work to better accommodate all cultures represented in LBUSD schools.
“We need to work together,” he said.
Valencia, a former LBUSD teacher and executive director of local nonprofit DAYS that provides supplemental educational opportunities to Long Beach families, said she not only supports teacher professional development for special-needs students but also increasing parent involvement by making them aware of SECAC meetings.
“Talking to parents about this process is essential,” she said.
Measuring success is also a combined effort involving input from family members of special-need students as well as teachers and aides, Valencia said.
“I would like to see many more parent-engagement workshops,” Valencia said. “So they have the knowledge and so they, too, can support their child, just not depend on what’s happening inside the school.”