On November 8th, residents of Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) Area A will vote for one of two candidates to represent them on the District’s school board, the Board of Trustees. Area A, which includes Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City, and Redwood Shores (check which area you’re in here), will pick between two former trustees of the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District (BRSSD) Board for the SUHSD Board of Trustees: Amy Koo and Suvarna Bhopale.
The School Board is the body of elected public officials that oversees the school district. The California School Boards Association says that they have five major responsibilities: setting direction, establishing structure, providing support, ensuring accountability, and providing leadership. Some more concrete jobs they do include approving the district’s budget, hiring the superintendent, deciding COVID-19 policy, and setting the curriculum.
Koo works full-time at Gilead Sciences as an Associate Director of Hepatitis B Marketing. She has an analytical background, with experience managing logistics on a global scale. She’s also a mother of two, and an active community member. In addition to nine years on the BRSSD board, she’s served on school board associations on the county and state level, with a special emphasis on spotlighting the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community.
Bhopale, on the other hand, has a background as an attorney, but put a pause to her career to focus on public policy and education. She joined the BRSSD in 2013, the same year as Koo. Additionally, she’s the mother of two Carlmont students. She said, “I’m an involved parent, number one. Number two, I have a track record of getting things done.”
When referring to Koo, Bhopale said, “Everyone with whom she and I have served for the past nine years has endorsed me.”
When asked about this, Koo responded, “Suvarna launched her campaign for SUHSD board several months before I launched mine, so the endorsements of my colleagues were influenced by timing.”
On campaign issues, the biggest problem Koo wants to solve is closing the District-wide achievement gap. She said, “Sequoia is a very complex district because it has eight different feeder districts, all from varying socioeconomic conditions and demographics.”
She continued, “I think we need to go back and look deeply at the data, not just at the high-school level but partnering with our feeder districts to look holistically at what’s happening with students as they go from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. Are there different support structures that need to be put in place? Or better communication between the feeder districts and high schools so that what we know about students doesn’t get lost in transition?”
Koo says she has the education and experience to properly analyze data. She says, “I ask questions to make sure we’re diving deep enough, understanding the root cause, and assessing if something is an anomaly or a longer-term trend.” Her expertise comes from having a BS in Chemical Engineering from MIT, an MS in Manufacturing Systems Engineering and MBA from Stanford, and jobs in IT and data strategy. Furthermore, Koo believes that her STEM background is an important perspective to have on the school board, particularly in Silicon Valley, saying, “When we’re talking about equitable opportunities to access STEM careers, I have that lived experience.”
As two-time president of the BRSSD board, Bhopale said that she has experience dealing with the challenges that she might face as a trustee for SUHSD, from resolving disputes with the teachers’ union to expanding the overstretched Ralston Middle School. Still, Bhopale claimed that her greatest achievement was leading the district through the COVID-19 pandemic, where she encouraged a “conservative approach in terms of safety, ensuring that we brought all the stakeholders along when we reopened our schools.”
Bhopale identified the District-wide equity gap as a critical issue, saying, “Equity is not equality, it is providing each student with the support they need to thrive, whether that be academic or social and emotional. We have to try to really see students as unique individuals, as opposed to seeing them in groups and silos.”
She thinks that students should be encouraged to take hard classes. She says, “I’ve been conducting six months of outreach to try and understand the interests of all the different stakeholders. What I’ve heard is that some students have been discouraged from taking a more rigorous course load. I want to ensure that students who want to take more advanced classes are given those opportunities and that we’re not closing doors for those students.”
Furthermore, Bhopale believes she has the skills to make a difference. “The challenge of the board is to move that equity work forward. Everybody has to be moving in the same direction, so, given my collaborative nature, I believe that I can really contribute to getting everyone on the same page.”
Koo in turn emphasized her diplomacy. “What people say is that I’m very approachable. I always seek to listen and understand different perspectives, and I try to maintain a very open mind. As an individual, I’m not all-knowing and I probably have blind spots, so I really need to meet different stakeholders. If you’re trying to solve a tough problem, you actually need to understand its effect on different groups to come up with the most win-win solution. That’s where I’m strong.”
That said, Koo clarifies that she doesn’t forget to integrate empathy into her politics. “My favorite class at Stanford was Interpersonal Dynamics, also known as ‘touchy-feely.’ A lot of that is active listening, trying to empathize with other people, but also being comfortable, being vulnerable, and sharing my honest feelings. I want to have that open, honest, transparent discussion. Only then can people trust you and know that you have their best interests in mind. Even if we don’t agree on the final solution, at least people feel heard.”
Like Bhopale, Koo also wants to give students the opportunity to take harder classes. She thinks that even if students’ middle schools didn’t give them the choice to take honors classes, the high school should open up a pathway for capable, driven students.
Koo cares deeply about Ethnic Studies and making sure it has an inclusive, fair curriculum. On her website, she says, “One of my pivotal memories at Lowell High School was being told by my World Civilization teacher that we would skip over all the chapters about Asia because we didn’t have time for them. I was livid – the student population was 60% Asian, and, with one statement, Asians were relegated to non-existence. I read those chapters on my own. I ventured East to MIT, where I obtained a BS in Chemical Engineering and a minor in East Asian Studies.”
As part of the Asian Pacific Islander School Board Members Association, Koo has worked at the state level to make sure that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum has a unit focusing on the AAPI experience.
When asked about the District’s new Ethnic Studies curriculum, which replaced World Studies for freshmen last year, Koo said, “I’m very excited that the Sequoia Union High School District has an Ethnic Studies class for freshmen. I really want to make sure that it’s sustained because it’s a good foundation for students to have those skills of looking at history from different points of view, being able to ask tough questions and have difficult conversations. It’s my hope that as more students are exposed to Ethnic Studies, we won’t have as much of the social justice strife that we currently have where people are just black and white with nothing in between.”
Bhopale wants to widen the array of available extracurriculars. On her website, she says, “Our students deserve a well-rounded curriculum to become responsible leaders, which is why I led the creation of enrichment programs in Model United Nations, National History Day, Musical Theater, and Yoga/Mindfulness. I have also served as a volunteer coach for Mock Trial for the past seven years at BRSSD and now at Carlmont High School.”
Area A residents will get the chance to cast their votes for either Koo or Bhopale in the upcoming midterm election on November 8th, 2022.
Additionally, many M-A students will see their district’s seat up for election as well. Area D, which includes much of Menlo Park and Atherton, will pick between Jo-Ann Byrne Sockolov and M-A alum Sathvik Nori. Coverage on the Area D election will come soon, so stay tuned, Bears!