DeKalb School District 428 School Board candidate Valerie Pena-Hernandez submitted this questionnaire, answering the Daily Chronicle's questions in the 2017 DeKalb District 428 School Board race.
Name: Valerie Pena-Hernandez
Office Sought: District 428 School Board Member
1) Why are you running for school board?
As a result of my strong beliefs in our educational system and the need for high quality education for all students, my desire to run for the District School Board is based on my philosophy that high quality education should be available to all students including those who are ESL/ELL students, those from minority groups, those in need of specialized services, and those in need of academic challenges. Since residing in DeKalb, I have been an active community member and have placed considerable efforts into assisting these individuals in particular in their attempts to more easily access resources and opportunities. DeKalb School District, like numerous school districts in the United States, is a reflection of the diversity in cultures and ethnicities that make our country what it is today.
Hence, in order to embrace this diversity, a board must be able to incorporate diversity into our mission and demonstrate its’ importance within our school system As a result of my cultural background, my experiences, and my educational experiences and training, I strongly believe that I can be an asset to and contribute to the school board and the community in a manner which celebrates diversity and provides all students with the experiences and opportunities necessary to excel.
2) Were you satisfied with how the school board handled the controversy that led to the removal of its superintendent earlier this school year?
As a community member, I trust that the Board of Education has specific rules, processes, values, and standards that they must uphold. Schools are reflections of society and our norms and values. Controversies are typically difficult to handle and all individuals are not always happy about decisions that are made in the midst of controversy. This decision had an impact on the schools and the community as a whole. From my point of view, the best way to deal with such a challenge is to come together as a community, move forward, and create a system that reflects transparency, and upholds the standards inherent in justice and integrity.
3) What qualities would you look for in a new superintendent?
I strongly believe that, we, as a community, are searching for a superintendent who reflects many qualities necessary for an individual in this leadership position including not only the knowledge needed but strong morals and virtues. In addition, I strongly believe that we must search for an individual who’s views align with those of DeKalb School District. He or she should be an individual who values excellence, can work with a variety of stakeholders, and places student learning for all students above all else. Such an individual, while fiscally responsible, must view the school system as a place of education and be devoted to creatively working with all involved to assure the attainment of our mission and the goals we have for all students.
4) What, if anything, can the school board do to reduce the tax burden on homeowners?
This question is an extremely important one. As a community, we must understand the complexities of this situation and realize that, we, as a community can and do need to work together in perhaps a more creative manner and explore other options. More specifically, I believe that in order for DeKalb to reduce the tax burden on homeowners, we, as a team, must collectively and collaboratively work with local government, city council, and business developers to ensure that we create a systematical approach to making the necessary changes. In addition, I strongly believe that we need to research and review the strategies implemented by other districts that have been successful in this regard.
5) Does the district do enough to respect and celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity of its students?
While efforts have been made with respect to this issue, I do believe that continued effort and improvement is needed in this area. As a district and community, we must come together on a more consistent basis to celebrate and promote diversity. We have to understand the difference between equitable and equality. We must step out our comfort zone to see that our community is composed of undeniable differences that can be capitalized upon to progress as a school district and as a community. However, this must come from a conscious effort to understand each other’s differences and to remove any bias and any walls that divides us. Such changes can more easily begin in the education of our youth.
6) Class parties for holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day were eliminated at district elementary schools this year. Do you agree with this policy? Why or why not?
As some of you may know, I worked for DeKalb School District for some time. During this time, I became more aware of the diversity that is present within our schools and the numerous languages and cultures represented. The board’s decision to eliminate the holiday parties at the elementary schools had to be a difficult one to arrive upon. I do agree, however, with this policy as the amount of instructional time available is critical to achieving student outcomes and to seeing the growth we strive for.
It is my belief that there are a number of ways to celebrate diversity and holidays that are not related to a religious affiliation and that some of these can occur within other environments and settings. In addition, while celebrating diversity, we do want to assure that we are not excluding any cultures or groups of individuals which can be challenging as a result of the number of cultures that are represented in a school district as large as ours.
7) As a school board member, how will you approach teacher contract negotiations?
Our educators are amazing, dedicated, and hardworking individuals who work very hard on a daily basis to meet the various needs of each and every student. As a potential board member, I believe it is crucial to treat them with the respect and integrity that all individuals deserve. Open lines of communication, a willingness to compromise if need be, and understanding among all parties will be needed as negotiations can be complicated and need to address many factors including economic realities and our priorities as a district. This can only occur when a board and employees have a positive relationship built on trust and working towards a common goal. In addition, I strongly believe that we need to be a unified team working in a positive manner to assure a “win-win” situation for employees, district leaders, our students, and the district and community.
8) Does the school district do a good enough job promoting the positive things that its students achieve?
While I do believe the district does an adequate job promoting the positive things that its students achieve, I do believe that improvement can always be made in this regard. Unfortunately, the media, at times, has a tendency to focus on the negative- what they believe students, schools, teachers, or school boards don’t do correctly. Hence, I do believe that additional efforts are often needed to counteract the negative type of publicity that schools, in general, often receive.
We have an excellent school district, made up of incredible individuals including students, parents, teachers, staff members, and leaders who go above and beyond each and every day to facilitate student achievement. Good enough isn’t as option for our district – we do need to make a concentrated effort to display all of our many achievements, particularly those related to student achievement and student efforts as we strive for excellence.