by Nora Pehrson
On the evening of October 7, the Foxhall Citizens Association hosted a public forum for Ward 3’s DC State Board of Education candidates Tricia Braun, Phil Thomas, Ruth Wattenberg, and Stephanie Blessey Lilley. Community members filled the auditorium at the Palisades Recreation Center for the event, which was moderated by Washington Post education reporter Michael Allison Chandler.
Each candidate opened with a statement about his or her qualifications and educational priorities.
DCPS parent and PTA leader Tricia Braun, who works as an attorney, said she would focus on increasing the number of middle and high schools in Ward 3. Phil Thomas, a physical education teacher at Community Charter School, said that his position gives him first-hand knowledge of how high-stakes testing and teacher quality affect students. Ruth Wattenberg said she would bring a unique combination of expertise to the board, including 30 years of work with national education organizations and 13 years as a DCPS parent. She wants to focus on closing the gap between low-income and middle-class students and revising DC’s standardized tests to make them more effective and less excessive. Attorney Stephanie Blessey Lilley, who was on the board of Septima Clark Charter School for Boys, also pledged to to improve test scores and close the achievement gap. Ward 3 is currently the only ward in the city that does not have a single charter school.
All four expressed a desire to improve assessments and raise achievement across the ward.
Following their opening statements, candidates answered a series of questions on specific issues, beginning with their stance on current graduation requirements. Thomas and Lilley both stated that a broader curriculum would be beneficial, particularly with regard to physical education, health, and science. Braun agreed, and added that foreign language requirements should be increased from the current requirement of two years. She also proposed “diploma differentiation,” creating a vocational option that would prepare students for career paths instead of college.
All of the candidates said that so-called competency-based education (where students progress according to their mastery of a particular subject rather than along a set timeframe based on age and grade), would be potentially beneficial. Lilley, in particular, praised competency-based education for “meeting kids at their level.” Wattenberg, however, cautioned that within the current public school environment, it would be difficult to know if and when kids are ready to move to the next level, since assessment instruments are lacking.
When the topic of high-quality middle schools came up, all of the candidates talked about the need to strengthen Hardy. Half of Ward 3 is zoned for Alice Deal, the other half for Hardy. Ruth Wattenberg, in particular, emphasized the need for “improvement” at Hardy. Along with Tricia Braun, Wattenberg proposed that adding an International Baccalaureate program at Hardy might be one way to do this. Lilley, on the other hand, suggested that building an entirely new middle school in Ward 3 would improve the educational landscape.
The DC State Board of Education has limited power. It was created as part of the 2007 School Reform Act that gave oversight of the city’s schools to the Office of the Mayor, and its ability to effect significant change is limited. But, the candidates insisted that the election of a new member is still important. Each promised that, if elected, he or she would be a strong advocate for students and pressure the chancellor’s office to improve curriculum, assessments, and opportunities for all students attending Ward 3 schools. Thomas, moreover, pledged that he would also seek input from citizens throughout the city.
No further public meetings or forums are planned for the Ward 3 State Board of Education candidates ahead of the November 4th general election.