Putting families, students, and educators at the center of decision making: Emily Gasoi, Ward 1

By Emily Gasoi, Ward 1 SBOE Representative

I started as a classroom teacher in 1995 and I’ve been working in the field of education ever since. While every new chapter in my career has shaped my professional life, perhaps my most formative experience came when I had the opportunity to help start the democratically-governed Mission Hill School (MHS) in Boston.

My colleagues and I worked alongside visionary educator Deborah Meier, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Recipient. We crafted the school’s mission statement and developed integrated, project-based curriculum, formative assessments of student learning, peer-review processes for teacher evaluation, and structures that would build and support a culture of democratic participation among the entire school community. The underlying purpose of all that we did was to help students develop their own talents and interests in preparation for empowered civic engagement.

Running for SBOE

My seven years at MHS greatly influenced my understanding of what the role of public education in a democratic society should be and, by extension, the direction that education reform should take. Despite a whole lot of thinking and doing in this realm, however, nothing could have prepared me for the most recent stretch of my professional journey: running for office.

Campaigning is an experience like no other. The process involves articulating a political platform that resonates with as many potential voters as possible while remaining rooted in one’s own values. Here’s a snapshot of that process:

You come up with an initial platform based on your own experience and ideas about what is and what should be. You present them to individuals at the doors when canvassing. You present them to groups, big and small, in people’s living rooms, in cafes, at laundromats, in schools, and public debates. People talk back. You watch as they shake or nod their heads, look puzzled or light up with recognition, push back or affirm with a story of their own, add a new perspective, a different angle, a piece to the puzzle you hadn’t considered. In this way, my own ideas and experiences were shaped, built up, melded with those of my future constituents.

Through this prolonged, intensive interchange, I was transformed from an individual with my own experience and ideas to a representative, someone who folds other people’s hopes, concerns, and points of pride into my own understanding of what is and what should be.

In the end, I personally knocked on over 2,000 doors* and conversed with hundreds of residents (this was a tiny race — it makes my head spin to think of the stamina involved in running city, state, or, heaven forbid, nationwide).

Emily Gasoi Swearing-In

Goals and Opportunities

After months on the campaign trail, here are the issues that Ward 1 voters overwhelmingly endorsed at the polls:

(1) Adopt or devise better ways to evaluate student learning and school quality.

What are some characteristics of a “high quality” school? Here are some responses I generally get from key stakeholders when I ask this questions:

– Consistent available rich curriculum and ample electives
– Strong academics and access to physical activities: recess, P.E., sports, etc.
– Visible presence of strong relationships and collaboration
– Restorative and trauma-informed practices
– Dual language or other specialized offerings
– Opportunities for hands-on and real-world learning
– Strong special needs support staff
– A student body that is diverse across race and class
– High student, teacher, and principal retention

Two things stand out to me about people’s responses: (1) No one ever says “high test scores” and (2) The new DC School Report Card gives schools a 1–5 star rating based primarily on student test scores and other numeric data without fully taking these or other essential factors into account. Having worked in schools in various capacities over the past 22 years, I know that they are complex organizations that cannot possibly be summed up with a star rating the way a hotel or restaurant might be. A more nuanced tool would reveal that schools are on a continuum in terms of quality—strong in some areas and in need of support in others.

While there’s widespread agreement that testing has become the tail wagging the dog when it comes to assessing everything from student learning to school quality, there is also a general lack of system-wide knowledge about what kinds of evaluations encourage practices and offerings that we want to see in our schools and that allow schools to be responsive to the specific needs of their respective school communities. I look forward to working with my SBOE colleagues to identify and draw upon existing evaluation frameworks that better capture the complexity of school quality as we develop recommendations for improving our School Report Card.

(2) Work toward a system of strong, well-supported public schools.

I come to this work on the State Board with the understanding that it is our responsibility to work with other education agencies and leaders to build a strong school system that serves all students well across DCPS and charter sectors. Currently, however, our system lacks the level of planning, transparency, or stakeholder engagement to support that aim.

Washington, DC is unique in having a system that is nearly 50 percent charter schools. Despite having a comprehensive plan on paper, there is little long-term, whole-system planning toward maintaining a healthy balance between charter and district schools, identifying the kinds of schools our system most needs, or supporting more cross-sector coordination and collaboration. My concern is that if we tip this precarious balance between charter and district schools, it is just a matter of time before we are no longer able to sustain a healthy system of by-right public schools.

Our policies should put us on the path to a healthy system by providing low-performing schools across sectors with the supports they need to attract and serve diverse student populations. To that end, I look forward to working with my colleagues to advocate for a strong citywide network of Community Schools, increased resources for social-emotional and trauma-informed instruction, rich curricular and extra-curricular offerings, as well as greater cross-sector collaboration, coordination, and long-term, system-wide planning.

(3) Increase SBOE capacity to serve constituents.

The SBOE is the only District-wide elected body related to education. It is the agency directly tasked with representing those most impacted by education policy—students, families, and educators. And yet, SBOE is the agency with the least influence over policy decisions. In order to bring our constituents to the table to impact decision-making in a meaningful way, SBOE needs to be able to play a more direct role in decision-making.

I look forward to working with my fellow board members to explore ways to expand this essential agency’s role and responsibilities.

It is a great honor to have the opportunity to work alongside my SBOE colleagues and to organize with constituents to strengthen our school system for children across the District. Together we will work to build trust, bring needed resources and supports to our schools, and to put those closest to the classroom—teachers, families, and students—at the center of decision-making.

*Together, my team knocked on over 15,000 doors and conversed with thousands of Ward 1 residents.

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