Filed Under:  Education, Politics

Former Teach for America ED runs for School Board

15th October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

District 3 Orleans Parish School Board candidate Sarah Usdin remember that her third year of teaching as a fifth-grade teacher, “I had a particular group of boys who could not read. Knowing that if they left fifth grade unable to read, their opportunities in school and life would be limited, I committed myself to guarantee that each and every one of them would be reading by the time they left school.”

“We read aloud, they listened to books on tape (ones that I had read into tape recorders for them), we learned phonics, we had small group reading—everything was oriented in the day to ensure that they would be able to read before they left elementary school and went onto middle School. I made every decision based on what was best to help my students. I want to bring that same decision making calculus to OPSB—every decision should be based on what is best for students to ensure that more students get an excellent education.”

That’s why Usdin said she decided to run against incumbent School Board member Brett Bonin and challenger Karran Harper Royal in the November 6, 2012 election. Currently, she outpaces her opponents in fundraising reporting $110,468 in donations in the period running from Jan. 1 to Sept. 27, compared with Bonin’s $24,990 and Royal’s $5,569.

She also claims high-powered endorsements from Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chief; Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix; and Walter Isaacson, the former Time magazine editor, native New Orleanian, and author of a recent best-selling biography of Steve Jobs.

The reason, she explained, were her unique qualifications. “My entire professional career in education has prepared me to serve on the Orleans Parish School Board. The foundation began 20 years ago in the classroom-teaching students in inner-city schools where I was named Teacher of the Year. Though some of the boys in my class of 37 entered the fifth grade not yet reading, they left my classroom reading. I work for them. I resolved, no child should be in 5th grade unable to read. Every child deserves an excellent education.”

“Working as the Executive Dir­ector of Teach For America at The New Teacher Project cemented my belief that the single most important factor for a child’s education is the quality of his/her teacher. As Founder and CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, I have nurtured effective schools, raised tens of millions of dollars to support school improvement, expanded what works, and brought needed supports to schools to drive student success.”

“My professional experiences uniquely position me to understand firsthand the policy challenges facing OPSB. I have experience working with disparate interests and success in creating solutions to these challenges.”

“Every decision that the board makes must answer: Will this give more children an excellent education?”

That question also happened to underline the debate over private school scholarships, and the state’s authorization of them in failing schools. Critics say that vouchers could affect existing public schools negatively. Usdin says that is dependant on how good the public school is. “How vouchers impact enrollment in public schools—OPSB-run and OPSB-charters—will depend upon how well the public schools perform and how well the voucher schools perform as parents will seek out higher-performing schools for their students. Our answer to vouchers needs to be improving the performance of all of our public schools.”

Some Board members have suggested that OPSB properties be donated to the charters to give responsibility to the school operators over the properties and their expenses—so as to reduce OPSB overhead. Usdin did not think much of the idea. “Orleans Parish School Board owns the school facilities, whether an RSD or OPSB school occupies the facility. These properties were paid for with public funds and belong to the citizens of Orleans Parish for the benefit of today’s students and future generations of students.”

“I do not support giving these facilities to charter schools, as they may or may not properly maintain the facilities for future generations.”

“As your school board member, I will work to have OPSB adopt a facility maintenance policy. In addition to ensuring the proper maintenance of all schools owned, it must also outlining what the charter school is responsible for as tenant, and what the OPSB is responsible for as landlord.”

When asked, from a landlord’s perspective, on her thoughts on the system’s master plan to spend the $2 billion in FEMA money for reconstruction, she replied, “My number one concern on the master plan is to insure we are getting the best value possible. We need to find ways to lower the cost of construction by design build, smaller structures or other cost saving methods, so we can better serve the facility needs of all schools.”

Usdin also avoided a specific answer on Superintendent John White’s proposal for a complete Charter system in Orleans. “I am for quality—excellent—public schools,” she explained, “whether charter or direct run. A student does not care if a school is charter, OPSB, or RSD. What they and their families want is excellence and a great education. We should ensure that they all receive the opportunity to attend an excellent school.”

Critics argue that the availability of special education has deteroirated in Orleans Parish post-Katrina—that Charters are hesitant to accept Special need students. When asked about the contraversy, Usdin noted, “We have a responsibility in public education to ensure that we are educating every child in our city. Currently there are examples of schools who are effectively educating their special needs students. Others are not. We must ensure that all families have access to schools to meet the needs of all students. Funding must be fairly distributed so when a school is educating a special needs child who is more expensive that they are compensated accordingly. And the schools must be prepared to serve the children with special needs in their care.”

Usdin declined to comment on the redistricting controversy that pitted her opponent Brett Bonin against fellow OPSB member Thomas Robichaux, simply saying, “I do not know enough about the issue to have an opinion.”

As to whether we will we see a NOCCA Prep back in operation in the next four years,” she observed, “One of the benefits of charter school autonomy is that the school has the freedom to define its own curriculum and focus. Given the strong history of music and the arts in New Orleans, I hope a school chooses to focus on the arts, whether or not it names itself NOCCA Prep. I have supported arts education by serving on the KidsmArt and Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp Boards and will continue to be a supporter of arts in education.”

Usdin concluded tackling the big question of this School Board election, will the OPSB be given the authority over the RSD schools in the next four years?

She said yes, in time. “Current policy allows individual RSD schools that have met certain performance standards to decide if they want to return to OPSB. It will take a change in BESE policy or state law for all RSD schools to return to OPSB. I think the schools will return, but I do not have a crystal ball to predict when. One reason I am running for the school board is to help ensure that when the schools return, it is in a manner that will support continued improvement in schools.”

This article was originally published in the October 15, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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