Cover image taken by Don Long
At last Thursday’s PTA meeting, four Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) Board Trustee candidates, Suvarna Bhopale and Amy Koo, and Sathvik Nori and Jo-Ann Byrne Sockolov, running from areas A and D respectively, participated in an open forum discussion on their campaigns’ values.
Area A candidates, running to represent Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City, and Redwood Shores, include Suvarna Bhopale, former Belmont-Redwood Shores School District (BRSSD) trustee and parent of an in-district student, and Amy Koo, current BRSSD trustee and Gilead Science associate director. Sathvik Nori, a current Stanford student and former SUHSD board student trustee, and Jo-Ann Byrne Sockolov, former Redwood City Education Foundation Executive Director and Human Resources professional, are running for the Area D seat, which presides over much of Menlo Park and Atherton.
Throughout the two-hour meeting, PTA President John Donald facilitated the conversation with questions submitted from the community. Each candidate had two minutes to respond. The questions covered the removal of Advanced Standing (AS) classes, the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), theoretical student and teachers union disputes, the board’s use of data in decision-making, and a few questions from the floor.
In response to the widely-discussed removal of AS classes, Nori said, “I feel that some people at the district believe that equity means bringing those at the top down, rather than bringing everyone up to the level of excellence.”
Sockolov responded with her definition of equity as “lifting people up,” and thinks students should practice “what kids get in the real world—being a member of a team” by engaging in homogenous classes.
From Area A, Koo thinks, “Detracking can be done in certain classes, but I think the most important thing is whether or not the right professional development has been given to the teachers to be able to handle a class with a lot of students with different backgrounds.”
Bhopale added, “I definitely do believe in equity, but I don’t believe that removing opportunities from students is the right way to achieve equity.” She noted that if elected, she would “undertake a data analysis” to observe trends of what level courses students in AP classes are coming from (AS or non-AS).
When the candidates were asked about their understanding of how MTSS—a framework that helps educators provide learning strategies for students with accomodations—and how it functions within the district, Sockolov described the system as a pyramid broken down into three levels, shown in the image on the left.
She explained, “The difficulty is that when one is at the top of the pyramid, it requires more adults for fewer students. COVID inverted the triangle, so teachers are spending more time with more students, and there just isn’t the capacity to do that in an effective way.”
Bhopale supports the model and said, “Decision-makers can see each student as an individual with this system.”
Nori noted, “Often these systems work in theory, but not when implemented in practice. We need to understand at a policy level what it’s like to be a student in our district.”
Then, the community asked Nori how he would abide by the four-year terms and handle the workload given his busy schedule. Nori responded, “Being a school board member is not a full-time job. Currently, my ‘full-time job’ is as a student, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the time or willpower to also serve this district.” He continued, “If elected I commit to serving these four years, and do not plan on leaving my hometown of Menlo Park.”
Afterwards, all candidates spoke on how they would handle potential student body and teacher union conflicts. They all began their remarks by hoping that situations like these wouldn’t arise in the first place. But if they did, Bhopale would be “open and accessible and gather information before prejudging the situation.” Koo asserted she would “lead with empathy.” Sockolov said, “We need a board that is very clear on our message in how we lead.” Nori said, “I would take the side of the student, as public education is there for the sole purpose of serving our students.”
The meeting then shifted to focus on best mental health practices, with all candidates stressing the importance of implementing more school-wide programs to support the well-being of students.
Koo approached the topic by dividing it into three categories: “A holistic healthy lifestyle at the school-wide level, small group workshops for specific struggles, and individualized attention and room for those struggling the most severely.”
Sockolov stressed the importance of counselors and “insourcing professionals” for those struggling with mental health.
When asked about the SUHSD board’s current practices and data use, Bhopale suggests data-driven investigations following decision-making. Regarding detracking, she is interested in measuring flow from non-advanced into AP classes, and “research on student pathways into different fields of secondary education and in the workforce.” Koo believes that there is an opportunity to “share student data across middle school and high school districts to better gauge student achievement.”
Sockolov wants to ensure that there is an “enterprise-wide system that helps us integrate and analyze data correctly and present it in ways that will help us in decision-making at the board level.” Nori said, “Sequoia should be held accountable for publishing data about our district, so that anyone can understand what we’re doing and how effective it is.”
In the last 20 minutes, Donald opened the conversation to questions from the floor. The first question came from a parent of three students in the district, who asked about what SUHSD and feeder middle schools are doing to connect, and what they could do better.
Nori notes that the SUHSD board hosts meetings regularly with feeder districts, but given SUHSD’s unique system, where the district is separate from its feeder schools, there is bound to be a disconnect. Sockolov, Nori and Bhopale all agree that these districts should share a constant flow of information. Bhopale gives an example of the “two-by-two meetings” she observed as BRSSD trustee. She said, “We intentionally coordinated and staggered start times with one another to prevent traffic and dropoff conflicts.”
Then, another parent directly asked each candidate, “AS English, August 2023. Are you for or against it?”
Nori recounts his experience during the actual vote, and notes, “I was surprised that I was the only one in opposition who raised the concern that this may not be the best approach to achieve equity.” He continues, “Students are best served with options.” Sockolov responds, “I cannot and will not answer a hypothetical question. None of us have the requisite insight to understand why the decision was made, nor do we have the information on the outcomes.”
Bhopale asserted, “There should be a data analysis done between sites that have AS English and sites that don’t. But, fundamentally I don’t think we should be removing options from students.” Koo responded, “I am not at liberty to say that one way is better than the other. But ultimately every student needs to be challenged and have the right level of support to be successful.”
The last question asks each candidate how they are getting to know the entire district. Koo says, “I visited the smaller schools in the district, like East Palo Alto Charter, that are sometimes overlooked, and talked to feeder districts and alumni.” Bhopale said, “I have observed meetings for over two years and conducted a six-month outreach with all feeder districts.”
Sockolov responded, “With my connections to nonprofit organizations in the community, I can hear what’s working and not working for them, and apply it to this position.” Nori answered, “I’m proud to have the support of teachers and administrators across the district.”
Area A residents will vote for either Koo or Bhopale, and Area D residents will vote Nori or Sockolov in the upcoming midterm election on November 8th, 2022.