By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
Incumbent Charlottesville School Board candidate Sherry Kraft said she is running again so she can follow through on the progress she and the board started.
“I feel like I can contribute in a way now that would have been difficult when I first got on the board,” she said.
An October 2018 New York Times article, in partnership with ProPublica, revealed achievement gaps in city schools, and the board’s work to address the matters became accelerated.
“There are projects going on and priorities that I share that I really want to see through,” Kraft said. “We are in the middle and on the cusp of a lot of really big changes. It’s important that we have a good process so these can really happen. We’re not just talking and using this year’s buzzwords but making fundamental changes where we need to.”
In the past year especially, the board has strengthened its efforts at addressing equity in schools through moves like bumping testing for the Quest gifted program from first to third grade and making an effort to hire more teachers for the program, along with more minority teachers. Some of these efforts, Kraft said, came from the board taking feedback and concerns and turning it into something constructive.
“You need to learn and listen. I’m a pretty good listener. That’s part of the process we’ve gone through this past year,” Kraft said. “We’ve listened to people. I think our staff has done a good job reaching out to the community and allowing people to express their feelings, thoughts and priorities.”
Among one of her own priorities, and with her background in psychology, Kraft said she wants to continue her advocacy to address mental health concerns in the schools. She cited the stress that students and families can feel, especially in higher grades when it comes to postgraduate life.
“I want to keep being a voice to say we need to keep talking about these things,” Kraft said. “Not that we have one answer that fits everybody, but we need to have this conversation. Kids and parents need to be honest with their fears and worries. As a community we need to look at that and help them navigate.”
Kraft supports efforts to enhance students’ mental health and a push for social-emotional learning so that students can develop strong coping skills for stress.
“There are mental health issues that impact learning and well-being,” Kraft said. “We’re doing some really good things with our social emotional learning in classrooms and training teachers in trauma-informed care. So, we are beginning to understand the need to incorporate those perspectives.”
She said she also understands how dynamic the developmental period can be for middle school age students and is grateful that research is being conducted from University of Virginia’s Curry School, of which a working group she has participated in. Kraft said she also supports the idea of re-configuring middle schools in the city.
“At these transition times, student achievement falters,” Kraft said as she critiqued the current middle school structure. “It’s not developmentally appropriate. I think we understand that now. It’s hard on the kids and also hard on the school because having students for just two years isn’t enough to create a sense of community.”
Kraft also supports arts education in schools as it “exposes students to a wider world.”
“Charlottesville Schools has been a leader in providing outstanding Arts Education, and I want to make sure we continue to offer these opportunities to all our students,” she said.
Kraft also reflected on her evolution as a member of the Charlottesville community and how it helps shape her service on the School Board.
“I used to think that if you give more resources to help the needier, then you’re taking away from others. When your kids are in the system, you focus so much on that. I think a lot of people harbor that fear,” Kraft said. “For me, I’ve had to really learn and grow in ways and to come to see this differently. It’s part of my political views about justice. It’s sort of been there in my bones, but I think that being on the School Board and having that platform to look at some of these issues, to come to see what lives of some of our kids are like [made me more aware]. For other kids in our community, they are just so privileged. They have lots of options in terms of resources. Their families can afford to pay for tutoring or counseling so we have to provide some of that for kids whose families can’t.”
As she seeks another term, Kraft said she wants to continue the board’s work on equity.
“The school division and public education is the heartbeat of the community in my opinion,” Kraft said. What we do and how we move forward to make equity more of a reality, shapes the whole community and ripples out to the rest of the community beyond the school system. It’s important for us to be leaders in this effort.”
Kraft is running for one of 4 school board seats among the 5 candidates. Election day is Nov. 5.
What inspired you to run for the School Board?
I first ran for the School Board out of a deep commitment to public service. I also felt that my years of experience working with children and families as a mental health professional would be an asset to the Board. With four years on the Board, I now have a richer understanding of the scope and complexity of the work we do as a school division. We are in the midst of making big changes, and I want to see these projects through to completion.
Given the ongoing conversations around equity in Charlottesville Schools, what are some of the most significant strides that you think could be taken to address opportunity and achievement gaps?
I believe that our public schools are the heart and soul of equity issues in Charlottesville. Our schools are where we all come together to form communities of learning and friendship — where our children grow, learn, eat, sing and play together. We also understand more clearly that the playing field has not been equal in our schools, which mirror the inequities of poverty and racial injustice in the larger community. Children who come from poverty, and who are disproportionately children of color, come to our schools a year or more behind in physical, cognitive and social-emotional development. Equity is shaped by access to resources. We know that, from the earliest months of a child’s life, access to resources powerfully predicts success in school. I believe that one of the most important steps we can take toward equity is to reach our families earlier and more comprehensively. We need an Early Childhood/Preschool Education Center to close these developmental gaps more effectively and to offer needed services to families such as aftercare, parenting workshops, social services & mental health services. I am committed to ensuring that this Center becomes a reality.
The current School Board seems ready to restructure the middle schools in town. Where do you stand on this?
I am a strong proponent of reconfiguring our schools. I believe the current configuration requires too many transitions, which impede the progress of our most vulnerable student populations. For the past 2 years, I participated in the “Middle Years Working Group” at UVA, which brought together educators and researchers in adolescent learning and development. We learned about what approaches and environments lead to higher motivation, engagement and academic success for young adolescents. We can use this information to create a learning environment that will support our instructional efforts and help our diverse student population engage and develop the skill sets they will need for academic and life success. Our new middle school must also use space to help students with their emotional needs, which impact their ability to learn effectively. I believe that physical structures can be game-changers for students. That is what I want to see in our state-of-the-art middle school.
What do you see as current strengths and weaknesses of our school systems here, and what would you change or not change about the way the school districts influence the school structures?
A great strength of Charlottesville City Schools is our exceptional leadership beginning with our outstanding Superintendent, Dr. Atkins. Her stable and consistent leadership has guided the division in facing challenges and building on our assets. Dr. Atkins has been very effective in forming strong relationships with city government leadership, with the University of Virginia, and with educational leadership at the state level. These relationships have resulted in financial and programmatic resources for our school division. Our admin team and instructional leaders are highly skilled, effective and committed to meeting the needs of our diverse population of students. Our School Board has also benefited from stable membership and long-term commitments of its members and from our ability to work collaboratively as a Board.
Poverty poses the greatest challenge to our division. Forty-seven per cent of our students are economically disadvantaged. For African-American students the poverty level is 73%. At the same time, other parts of our community benefit from significant economic resources. This leads to property values within the city that continue to rise, making our city unaffordable for many middle class families and a tremendous struggle for others. I believe that we need to address barriers such as affordable housing in Charlottesville; these needed changes go hand-in-hand with our school division’s ability to address achievement gaps and work toward true equity.
Last fall, a New York Times article shed light on some equity issues within City Schools and featured two members of Charlottesville High School’s Black Student Union. As a member of the School Board, what would you propose to change school zone boundaries and tracking programs like Quest?
I strongly support the changes to the gifted education model which was approved by the Board on Oct. 3 and which is already underway. These changes begin to address the long-standing structural inequities that have been a part of our city (and surrounding counties) and that have been reflected in our schools. Residential segregation is a reality in our community and affects the demographic balance of our neighborhood schools. Adjustments to this balance should be on the table as part of our effort to address all aspects of equity in our school division.