There are 14 candidates vying for nine seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education. Eleven of them attended a forum last week at R.J. Reynolds High School.
The candidates were asked about how the school board, with regard to policy and practices, should relate to students who find their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion marginalized.
Some candidates disagreed about the role the district has in promoting an inclusive environment.
At-large Democratic candidate Sabrina Coone-Godfrey is a mother of two, a reading tutor, and was a finalist for the district’s 2022 Volunteer of the Year award.
She says she supports the district’s current equity policy. It states that a commitment to educational equity involves the removal of institutional barriers so all students can benefit from the learning environment.
“It’s the duty of the board to ensure that we offer a safe and inclusive environment for all of our families,” she said. “Everyone deserves someone who sees you. I see you.”
Other candidates said inclusivity shouldn’t be the district’s concern.
At-large Libertarian candidate Regina Garner is a stay-at-home mom, and part-time cosmetologist.
“The Board of Education, nor the schools, teachers, or staff, are responsible for influencing inclusivity,” she said. “They should not be relating to students regarding race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”
Early voting for the election will be held from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5. Election day is Nov. 8.
Here’s how other candidates answered the question about inclusivity, and more:
How should the school board, with specific regard to policy and practice, relate to students who find their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion marginalized? How inclusive should schools, as public institutions, be towards people and narratives that aren’t a part of the mainstream?
Including Coone-Godfrey and Garner, there are seven at-large candidates, and only three at-large seats available on the board.
Three of the at-large candidates are Republican: Michael Hardman, Sarah Absher, and Allen Daniel.
Hardman is an engineer and works for a local construction company. He is also a parent of three current WS/FCS students.
He said that people are “already protected by law from discrimination.”
“Job number one of our school district is to educate students and prepare them for that next thing, whether it's a career, or a two-year or four-year continuing education,” Hardman said, adding that he didn’t think the district was doing this as well as it could.
Not all candidates were given the chance to answer the questions at the forum, but they did provide written responses that were shared with attendees.
Absher is a nurse and mother of two children. In a written response, she wrote that “all students should feel welcome at school regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation or any identity.”
“I've become alarmed by the number of students I've talked to who feel they must keep their political and religious beliefs to themselves. Many have told me they cannot be openly conservative, they fear retaliation from their teacher and some classmates,” Absher wrote. “This is troubling, open dialogue and critical thinking should be promoted. Students should be able to express their views, as long as they do it respectfully.”
Absher has shared multiple transphobic messages on her Twitter page, including retweeting “Trans Kids are the new Gucci Handbag for the Upper Middle Class Wine Mommies who need attention.”
Daniel has two children who attend high school in the district. He has owned and operated a software business, and taught high school math in the district for a year before retiring in 2017.
“As a district, we need to focus instruction on helping every student attain proficiency in the requirements for graduation and for success in life after high school. We should not allow differences among students, or between students and adults, to disrupt that instruction,” Daniel wrote. “There should be zero tolerance for bullying, or threatening behavior or language, by anyone associated with our schools toward anyone at any event associated with our schools.”
There are three at-large Democratic candidates: Coone-Godfrey, Richard Watts, and Deanna Kaplan.
Watts has worked in Forsyth County public education for more than 32 years as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Now he works for Crosby Scholars, a local organization that helps students prepare for college.
“Much like in my role as principal where I worked with my teachers and staff to establish a positive culture, as a Board member I will work to create a culture that communicates 'All are Welcome.' Anyone who feels marginalized or not 'included' is not likely to perform at their highest level academically,” Watts wrote. “Our goal is to create an academic environment where every student thrives.”
Kaplan is currently the chair of the WS/FCS Board of Education and was elected in 2018. She is a mother of five and has worked as a substitute teacher and volunteer reading tutor in the district.
“Our District is expanding access to various mental health agencies that focus on the different needs and concerns of our students,” Kaplan wrote. “We are working with community partners to supplement what we don’t provide as a district. With these important equity measures and mindsets in place, the culture of our schools will be welcoming and foster inclusivity for all.”
There are two candidates running for two available seats in District 1: Alex Bohannon, and Trevonia Brown-Gaither. Both are Democratic candidates. Bohannon currently serves on the board and did not attend the forum.
Brown-Gaither taught middle and high school mathematics in the district for 19 years. She retired last year but has continued teaching math as a private tutor.
“Our school system should mirror the makeup of our society and be inclusive of all people regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, faith beliefs and more,” she wrote. “Public schools should welcome all and provide equitable education to all because who are we to determine what 'mainstream' represents.”
There are five candidates running for four seats in District 2. Four of the candidates are Republican: Leah Crowley, Stanley Elrod, Steve Wood, and Robert Barr. Wood and Barr did not attend the forum. The lone Democratic candidate is Jennifer Castillo.
Castillo grew up attending schools in the district and has worked in Winston-Salem as a social worker for more than 10 years. She’s also a mother of four, with two children attending school in the district, and two in Pre-K.
“The school board sets the tone for equity and inclusivity in our schools, through the policies we set,” she wrote. “It is up to the Administrators in each school to ensure that they are not breeding a culture of hate in their schools by allowing things like racism and gender discrimination to happen without being addressed.”
She also said that schools should be accepting of students’ identities, and supporting of various school clubs like “cultural clubs, bible study clubs, anime clubs, and gender inclusivity clubs.”
Crowley is in her fourth year on the board and chairs the Buildings and Grounds Committee. She also volunteers as a substitute teacher, helper, and proctor at multiple schools, and a reading tutor at Cook Elementary.
“Schools should be inclusive of all types of people and help others to better understand and tolerate differences, even if we don’t identify with them. This country was founded on freedom and it works both ways — you are free to be who you are and others are free to agree or not,” Crowley wrote. “It may be difficult not to feel marginalized if you identify with a group that is small in number. Being proud of who you are and what you stand for can help turn the tide on disrespect or hate from others.”
Elrod retired from education after serving 34 years in the district as a teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal, and principal.
“All students deserve a safe and nurturing learning environment without discrimination. All students are unique and different. All students are equally important,” he wrote. “It is the responsibility of each school to provide each student with an opportunity to be successful.”
Barr says he worked in the school district as a teacher and curriculum coordinator for 14 years and is married to a retired school teacher. Though Barr did not attend the forum, he provided written answers.
“The Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools have policies that protect student diversity. As a board member I would like to meet with different students to hear their stories and struggles so I will be aware of current issues and prejudices that may be occurring in order to provide students with protections from bullying,” Barr wrote. “A person’s story is always a powerful tool to help people understand their journey.”
There were three other questions that candidates were able to prepare for and provide written answers to. Those questions were related to transportation, school safety, and how candidates intend to change the status quo. Candidates’ answers to these questions can be found here.
After those questions were asked, the audience was given an opportunity to ask their own.
What do you think about substituting restorative justice practices for student suspensions?
This question highlighted intra-party differences among the Republican candidates.
In a written answer about school security, Hardman wrote that students who consistently engage in disruptive behaviors "must be removed from the school and reassigned to another opportunity for learning, thus allowing the majority of students who are ready and willing to learn the opportunity to do so without issue."
When the question about restorative justice practices was asked, Hardman used an example of students physically fighting.
“No amount of restorative discipline is going to resolve that right now. That detracts from the ability of every other student in that school to learn,” he said.
Daniel, on the other hand, said he no longer believes in exclusionary discipline, but that if a student is being disruptive, they may need to be in a more structured environment or in a classroom with a lower teacher-to-student ratio.
Crowley explained that when students are suspended for bad behavior, they miss school, and typically spend time around “bad influences.” When they return to school in a couple weeks, she said the cycle repeats.
“The opportunity here is to try something new, and it's not throwing out consequences or accountability,” she said. “It's about getting to … the root of the problem. There's a lot of kids that are in a lot of pain, who've experienced a lot of trauma, and they need help dealing with their emotions.”
Coone-Godfrey participated in the creation of the district's new Student Code of Character, Conduct and Support, which was adopted earlier this year.
The code lays out specific guidelines to determine the appropriate disciplinary action for a student. It also lists prevention and intervention strategies at each violation level, with restorative practices like problem-solving circles and mentoring.
The district hopes to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions with this code, but that is still an option as a consequence for higher-level offenses.
“Where there's an all-out brawl, if someone is injured, hurt, or something happens, there is accountability and consequences for behaviors,” Coone-Godfrey said. “However, there's also a closing of the loop, where those students can also be brought back … to restoration. Both sides need to be restored.”
Castillo said she was a fan of in-school suspensions.
“I know you don't need to suspend them out of school because there are environments that they don't need to be in. But put them in in-school suspension and make them do something restoratively for the community, like putting together hygiene bags for the homeless, or writing letters to people in nursing homes,” she said. “Force them to do something that they might not necessarily want to do, but now they have to do because of their actions. And that's the way we redirect that behavior.”
Elrod agreed, saying in-school suspensions allow school staff to work with students on their behavior.
In your personal experience, have you or your children benefited from guidance counselors or a caring staff or faculty member? Did you consider that social-emotional learning?
Coone-Godfrey said her daughter has been getting “some extra love at school,” from her guidance counselor.
“Our kids need to know that there's a safe place for them to land or to get some help if they need some help, and we have absolutely, as a family, benefited from that,” she said. “I would just like to see us have more resources, so that we have the ability to help those who aren’t as, frankly, privileged as I am to have access to counseling and other services outside of the school.”
Brown-Gaither recalled a couple of instances from her time as a teacher, where she recognized signs of mental illness or emotional problems in her students and learned to step in to support them.
“And I have seen where staff members have stepped up and stepped out and helped other students, and helped students along the way,” she said. “Whether it was providing a listening ear, or providing food, providing transportation, anything like that. So I want to make sure we know we have to build relationships.”
Watts also spoke about the importance of building relationships in schools.
“For me, social-emotional learning is nothing new. We’re just trying to find time in the day to create relationships and time for teachers to interact with students to help them along their journey in life,” Watts said.
In her answer to a question about school security, Kaplan wrote about the importance of mental health.
“School safety starts with being attentive to the social and emotional needs of our students. Our District is diligently working to expand mental health access, school counseling as well as working with other community providers who focus on different aspects of emotional health,” she wrote.
The school district’s website explains what social-emotional learning looks like in schools, offering a definition from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
“SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” the site states.
Hardman said he believed these teachings don’t need to come from school.
“We used to go about it with church, scouts, 4H, different organizations. But now we try to make that a part of the schools. … I really think this is something that needs to be done at home,” he said.
At the forum, Absher said she wasn’t opposed to social-emotional learning as a concept related to conflict resolution, but was opposed to the companies used to teach SEL.
“What I'm concerned about is, again, the private companies that we use that get a nice chunk of our school budget,” she said. “We have to really make sure that we know who they are, and where all that money is going, who's behind them, funding them. That's just due diligence.”
However, in a blog post from earlier this year, Absher wrote that social-emotional learning “is rotten to the core and has no place in WSFC schools.”
In a WFDD questionnaire, Barr wrote that the school district should prioritize “the correct role and responsibilities of our guidance counselors in the school.”
“This role needs to be prioritized and we need to hire more counselors to ensure support for our students, teachers, and faculty,” he wrote. “The school system needs to get back to the main purpose of guidance counselors, plus provide more training for them to be able to help students with their most pressing mental and emotional needs.”
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.