Bringing up MAP scores in PB is a priority
By PAT PRATT
Three candidates vying for two open seats on the Poplar Bluff R-I Board of Education can agree on the biggest challenge facing the district - how to improve performance in the classroom.
The Daily American Republic spoke with all three school board candidates prior to the election, asking why they were running, what they saw as the biggest problem in the district and what they felt they could as an individual do about it.
Incumbents Cynthia Brown and Gary Simmons and challenger Roger Hanner - pointed toward academic performance as the "elephant in the room," as results on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test fell below state averages again in 2015, the third consecutive year.
District averages at Poplar Bluff public schools on the MAP in 2015 showed 56.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 proficient or advanced in English, only 39.8 percent proficient in math, 43.8 percent in science and 69 percent in social studies.
However, while all three cite the need for a greater emphasis on academics, all differ in their approaches and perspectives as to why test scores remain low. The following summarizes their answers to the aforementioned questions and offers some information on the candidates prior to Election Day April 5.
Long-time local business owner, coach, and three-term board of education member, incumbent Gary Simmons, says he is running simply because he wants to improve the school system for the children.
"It's all about kids. I sat by for years doing sports and watched kids be cussed, belittled, made fun of over different things and I thought that's just not right. We need to change the system and somebody has to stand up for the kids," he said.
Simmons too says that something must be done to increase scores on the MAP, and get the scores "in-line" with other schools of a similar demographic.
"People ask me why the smaller schools around us got better scores than us. Well, it's easier for smaller schools. In larger schools it's a little harder to get the scores up," Simmons said.
As far as a plan for achieving that goal, Simmons says he has been in discussions with soon-to-be Superintendent Scott Dill, who Simmons believes will change the school climate and consequently improve academics.
"I've been talking to the new superintendent since we hired him. He's got a plan and I'd rather wait and let him tell you about it. But I think with different leadership, and nothing against the current leadership, but sometimes different leadership will help. I think the new superintendent will put a different philosophy in everybody's head," Simmons said.
Incumbent Dr. Cynthia Brown, a graduate of Fordham University, Columbia University School of Public Health, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and currently serving her fourth term on the board, says her desire to retain her seat stems from the treatment her son, Rex, received as a student.
"My son has autism and the school was so great in helping him. We went through early childhood all the way to high school and I feel the school has done so much for him. Me serving on the school board is a way to pay back the community," Brown said.
Brown says the district has seen some improvement in the area of academic achievement - graduation rates have climbed over a five-year period and attendance has seen better numbers at some schools - but there is still a long way to go.
"There have been improvements but we still need to focus on student achievement. In my opinion that should be our main focus. We have other things, a new superintendent and major construction going on, but to me, student achievement should be our biggest concern," said Brown.
To accomplish that goal, Brown says she will focus on giving administrators and teachers the support they need in the classroom.
"I've really been impressed over the years with the dedication of the administrative staff and the teachers, they are always bringing in good ideas, new ideas, and ways to improve. They are focused on the kids. It's more than just a job," she said.
Brown is currently pursuing a bachelor's in social work through Hannibal LaGrange University, a degree she says will help her in her duties as a board member, as many of the problems students face begin in the home and are reflected in their coursework.
"It's more than just reading and more than books, there is the social element," she said. "This social work internship has really opened my eyes. It's not just the teachers. The family has to be involved. The community has to be involved. We as a community have to be actively involved in supporting the students and their families."
Roger Hanner is a lifetime resident of Poplar Bluff and while he has not served on the board of education, he is an R-I parent, and concerned with the quality of education in local schools.
"I've got kids in school and feel like the incumbents have been on the school board 9 and 12 years and it's time for a change. I want to be a voice for the students and teachers of the school system and help make educated decisions for our school system," he said.
Hanner too cites a need for academic improvement, but says a greater effort by the board is needed to prioritize funding academics and class environment over extracurricular activities and new facilities. His example - the ongoing construction of the Mules new $5.8 million athletic complex.
"We took the early childhood center over and we have kids who are 4-5 years old. They have to walk outside from building to building, whether it is snowing, raining or 30 degrees," he said. "Yet we are out here spending millions of dollars for a football stadium when we already have one."
He says he has nothing against sports, and is a sports fan himself, but the district's mission to educate students needs to be the number one priority for the board.
"I'm not saying our school doesn't need a football stadium, and if they can fund a football stadium, that is fantastic. But, the priorities of certain things should come before sports. And I'm a sports guy. I've coached sports for 20 years and my son's baseball team for seven. I just feel certain things get in the way of the true priority, which is the students' education," he said.
Hanner says if elected he will not conform and would "stand up for what's right" in order to effect a change, but also says he will try to work with the other board members and administrators to do what is best for the district's 5,000-plus students.
"Can I persuade somebody to vote the same way that I see fit? I don't know. Can I change things with one vote? I don't know. Some of them may or may not have the same views as me and I will always respectfully agree that we can disagree, but we have to come together to keep the number one focus in place - the kids' education," he said.
The Board of Education is composed of seven citizens elected for three-year terms. The board is a policy-making body that determines the direction for the school district and exercises leadership primarily through the formulation and adoption of policies, according to the district.
The Board of Education is responsible for the fair and uniform application of all federal, state, and local laws in the operation of the district schools. Board members receive no pay for their services.