Equity, accountability, curriculum top priorities for new FPS board members

Three new members bring experience in education

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published November 10, 2020








FARMINGTON/HILLS — This past Election Day, Nov. 3, local voters made their voices heard by selecting three new community members to fill three seats on the Farmington Public Schools Board of Education.

Farmington resident Cheryl Blau, 58, and Farmington Hills resident Mable Fox, 67, were the top two vote getters to fill two six-year term seats on the board. Farmington Hills resident Claudia Heinrich, 66, garnered the highest number of votes to secure the one two-year seat open.

Incumbent Richard Mukamal, whose term expired and who ran for reelection, was not chosen. Mukamal will be leaving the board alongside board members Terry Johnson and Jessica Cummings, who both served six-year terms after being elected in 2014. The three new members will be sworn in at the Jan. 5, 2021 board meeting.

While all three newly elected members come from different walks of life, they share a number of things in common, including their background experience in education and a similar set of goals they’d like to reach while in office.

“I think that’s going to be a real asset as they come onto the board, that they’re going to have a strong knowledge of curriculum, instruction and working in an educational field,” Board President Pam Green said. “It was clear to me the community was looking for people that have a background in education to enhance our success as a system. I think that’s a good thing.”


Enabling equity for all students
For Blau, addressing the equity issues within the district should be something that’s done “right away,” she said.

“To me, equity is definitely about the racism piece, but it’s also about providing an appropriate educational experience for all students of every ability level,” she said, “which can include looping, multi-age grouping, significantly expanded vocational options at the high school level, so that more of our students’ academic needs are being met,” she said.

“My hope is that by beginning with the equity piece, I think that would be a really strong place to start where we’d be able to meet the needs of a lot of students in our district,” she added.

Heinrich agrees the district needs to find ways to implement social justice and tolerance lessons into its teachings. She said the district’s recent racial proclamation needs to be remembered, and the many actions it outlines need to be upheld by administrators and school board members.

Heinrich also believes the pandemic has brought to light different inequities specific to remote learning and the support and resources available to each family. She would like to see the district find ways to support students and families who are struggling more than others.

“It’s about listening to all the voices and all the needs, and just trying to make the best decision possible given the situation. There’s no easy answer. It’s just not one size fits all.”

Fox agrees that equity isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem or solution. “We should have a number of ways to educate students, because not all students are the same,” she said.


Diffusing division, enhancing accountability
A side effect of the pandemic has been the immense division it has sown into the country, all the way down to the local level. Whether it’s wearing a mask, remote versus in-person learning, or another subject, stakeholders in the community have grown increasingly divided.

The three newly elected board members said they are hoping to dispel some of the division and get the board, the district and all stakeholders back on the same footing. They said the core focus has to be on building the best education for students.

“Just like in our country in general, we’re going to need to be willing to talk to one another and listen to one another. We’re going to need to be willing to rebuild our relationships with one another around what is in the best interest of our students and find where we have common ground,” Blau said.

“I think it’s paramount that we first and foremost agree to sit at the table and talk about how maybe we can work through those differences and compromise for the sake of our kids,” Fox added. “I don’t want to continue to see what I have seen in some cases whereby there’s bickering and arguing … and the kids get lost in all of that. I’m a champion for children.”

Fox sees her role as a board member as not only providing everything the superintendent needs to ensure the students’ best education, but also to ensure board members, the superintendent and staff are being held accountable.

Heinrich said all the stakeholders need to re-focus on establishing relationships, but also on respecting everyone’s opinion despite differences.

“We’re all on the same team, and people need to be reminded of that. … Everybody has a voice and an opinion… (but) it’s respecting the teachers also. They’re a real important part of the equation,” she said.


Centered around curriculum
While she acknowledges it may take a few years to get there, one of Fox’s top priorities is to approve a districtwide accredited kindergarten-12th grade curriculum. Fox doesn’t believe the district currently has continuity from one grade or building to another, which can oftentimes create gaps in the education students are receiving, especially if those students move around the district.

Fox would also like to focus her time working through the district’s policies and procedures to ensure they’re measurable and effective. If they’re not, she believes they need to be revised or thrown out.

Heinrich would specifically like to help students prepare for their professional life beyond high school. Whether students decide to attend college, jump right into a career, or explore vocational or trade school, she wants to see them leave with a plan.

“All three of us have spent a lot of time in the trenches, so to speak. We’ve been teachers in public school classrooms, and we are keenly aware of a lot of the different kinds of challenges that students and teachers grapple with day in and day out,” Blau said. “We also are parents of children who have been through public schools, so we’re able to understand that perspective as well.

“Now we’re able to bring all of that career and life experience together with what we learn about serving on the board and draw upon all of that … to make what we hope will be the best choices for our entire school community.”

When it comes to the topic of COVID-19 and in-person learning, all three newly elected members agree physical health and safety take the top priority.

Blau acknowledged remote learning isn’t ideal. As a teacher herself, she said, teachers don’t want to be teaching that way. She would like to see the district think more outside the box about other possible resources or support that would allow them to bring more students back more frequently.

“For now, I truly do believe because COVID-19 has increased the pandemic, I would be more likely to look at full remote learning with a gradual (return) back to school, once the data says it’s safe to do so,” Fox said.


A message of hope
Though all three candidates said they will have some learning and listening to do, they said they’re ready to hit the ground running and are optimistic about the collaboration and positive changes they can accomplish.

“I think it’s going to be refreshing to talk about education with someone who actually knows and has lived it and has been part of it for many years. None of us are spring chickens,” Fox said. “I think we can come together and collaborate very nicely.”

“I’m confident our board can come together, the current board with the new members, to make some really positive changes for our students, parents and teachers,” Blau added.

Fox hopes the board can reinstill hope to be fulfilled throughout the entire school community.

“There’s work to be done, but I believe we can do it, and I believe we can be hopeful. Through that hope, I believe hope can be fulfilled in a very positive way.”