District 3 School Board candidates

Sabrina Gross


1. Do you support the current Richmond Public Schools Strategic Plan? Why or why  not


I support the current Strategic Plan.  I believe it provides a guide for the School Board, administration, teachers, students and parents so that we can reach our desired destination - providing the best possible education and preparation for our students.  It’s ambitious and provides direction so that every decision the Board makes can be in alignment with our goals.  The plan provides measurable outcomes for success as well, which helps us understand where we can shift to do better as needed.  It touches every essential part of our school system from facilities to education to teachers to funding.  An important note about Strategic Plans - we always have the opportunity to amend the plan if we find that an objective no longer aligns with our goals.  It’s important to review the plan periodically to ensure that we are on track to meet our goals and to make revisions as needed, but having a plan sets a destination that we can all work towards together. 


2. What should RPS being doing this upcoming year to support students and families as  schools open virtually? How can RPS assure that the virtual re-opening does not lead  tomassive loss of learning or student dropouts? What does RPS need to do to identify and meet the needs of students most severely impacted by the crisis,  including students in poverty, with English as a second language, lacking access to  reliable Internet service, etc?  


Right now, RPS should continue providing support to our families to address food insecurity, technology availability, and giving our educators as much support as possible to help everyone get through this time.  We also need to develop a plan for addressing the education of those kids whose needs are not being met by the virtual learning structure, whether that is due to home environment, learning or behavioral challenges, or the system’s ability to provide the support (instructional aids, etc.) that we are legally required to provide.  It’s essential that we identify the gaps in our virtual learning platform and address them quickly - we will need to create in person education options for these specific students and move forward without delay.  The RPS administration has worked incredibly hard to develop and implement “ReOpen with Love” and now is the time to look at the implementation, identify the gaps in services and create an action plan to address those gaps.  We hope the pivot to virtual learning is temporary, and so we need to focus a significant amount of our energy toward turning back to in person instruction, and how we do that safely and effectively.  From a broad perspective, by using the goals within the Strategic Plan as a guide, we can focus on attendance, equity, and academics, which incorporates students in poverty, ESL learners, students with special needs, and the technology disparities I mentioned above. We need to be certain that our strategies and policies align with those goals, and pull in all available resources to provide students with the quality education they deserve.


3. How can the school system better collaborate with the City of Richmond and  community organizations to meet the needs of students? How would you improve or  adjust the Education Compact to support that goal? 


Better collaboration and partnership is always possible, though we’ve seen huge improvements 

in the past few years as the administration made it a priority to work with the Mayor’s office to develop funding options (Meals Tax) that helped fund three new schools.  My focus would be on building partnerships with community organizations to build community supported schools - meaning, we would bring in the resources that students need to become well rounded and successful adults.  We can leverage mental health services, local non-profits, and community organizations to provide before and after school programming, counseling, health services, and more.  


The idea behind the Education Compact still resonates: to proactively collaborate with the Mayor, City Council in order to streamline and share services, provide a funding plan to address crumbling school infrastructure, and to make public education a priority for the city.  Momentum appeared to flag after the Meals Tax and full funding of the second year of the five year plan.  A few ways to restructure the Compact include:


● Narrow the range and focus of the group.  Assign the Education Compact the responsibility of meeting the Dreams 4 RPS goals by developing additional funding sources, bringing existing services to the schools, and supporting educators, parents, and students with city services.
● Previous initiatives need to continue. Build on the prior years of combined efforts to influence state funding, and advocate for policy changes such as addressing the local composite index.  
● Focus on wraparound services to make the schools a focal point of the community. Bring our social services into the school buildings after hours to provide family and individual counseling, health services and address food insecurity.  


4. How can RPS be more effective in advocating for more resources at both the local  andstate level? Be as specific as possible in your answer. 


At the state level, RPS can focus on partnerships with other localities, nonprofits and education organizations with similar interests to build a larger support system to lobby the general assembly.  We could pursue partnerships with arts and cultural organizations that also rely on funding and provide additional educational opportunities to our students.  We could advocate for increasing the lottery program funding stream and availability of those funds to schools (changing local match criteria), lobbying to change the local composite index calculation for the City of Richmond due to our disproportionate number of non-taxable properties, and focus on increasing state contributions to at-risk students.  We would also advocate to remove the link between sales tax revenue and funding for education to reduce the negative impacts of recessions (or pandemics) on school funding.  Lobbying for increased tax deductions for school and education supplies on both a state and federal level would be one small way to offset the additional expenses of our educators.


At the local level, RPS can continue to work with the City administration to combine efforts on programs that duplicate services, and partner to bring wraparound services to schools.  We would advocate for property ownership tax incentives for educators who choose to live in the city as well as other financial incentives to encourage RPS employees to live in the neighborhoods they serve.    We would also advocate for continued City support of arts and nonprofit programming that brings essential opportunities to students.  We would also continue to build consensus among the City administration that public schools are foundational to the success of the city and require full funding.  


5. Do you support changes to RPS’s zoning policies to promote more racially diverse  schools, especially at the elementary school level? 


Yes, I support changes to our zoning policies to provide equity, equality and justice in our school system. Our history of creating zoning policies to appease parents of a specific racial and/or economic demographic created an unjust and inequitable school system and educational experience for RPS students.  We need to do the right thing and focus on all of our children with zoning policies that create schools with diverse populations.  We will provide all of our students a better education if we address the inequities of our current districts.  We had an opportunity in 2019 to make significant changes, particularly on the Northside in the 3rd District, which unfortunately did not happen.   And, the changes that did occur included unintended consequences such as at our only Northside High School, John Marshall, where enrollment decreased by 150 students.  The reduced enrollment impacts the amount of funding the school receives and impacts programming including athletics, band, and drama.  As School Board representative, I would pursue zoning policies that encourage our students to stay in the district after elementary school.  While the pairing proposal was not perfect, one key part of the proposal was building relationships among cohorts of students and their parents to create a natural flow from elementary to middle to high school.  To create an equitable system for our children, we need to embrace the discomfort of change.


6. Do you support policies to make resources available to school PTAs more equitable  across the city? In general, how should the School Board balance the goal of  encouraging middle class families to enroll and remain in Richmond Public Schools  with the imperative of supporting children and families with the greatest need? 


We know that PTAs take on a funding role for schools to provide for classroom needs (Ipadsfor classrooms is a great example) and that they also bring and use the social capital of theparents to build stronger programming and make community connections. So there are two issues in the conversation about PTAs.  One is that if we funded schools adequately, we would resolve a resources issue for many of our schools so that teachers wouldn’t need to ask for help providing for the technology needs of their classrooms.  The other issue is social capital and support services that the PTA provides.  For example, an active PTA with strong leadership may recognize a need for before and after school programs at affordable rates and create the partnerships with teachers and parents to implement such a program.  At Linwood Holton Elementary School, the PTA helps fund and organize after school programming that gives kids opportunities to learn skills such as bike riding, basketball and tennis, or to engage in play such as kickball, yoga, and double dutch, or to explore talents through art, comic book drawing, and cooking.  The PTA also pays for extra programming so the kids from schools with a well funded PTA get to participate in Minds in Motion programming with the Richmond Ballet, which is an amazing program that schools pay to participate in.  On the other hand, we have Ginter Park Elementary with a less robust PTA program therefore the kids do not have the same resources or opportunities to grow and expand their minds and talents.  We are not providing all of our children with an equal education when we offer these resources to some of our schools, but not others.  And, if we were to redistribute funds and/or replicate successful programs at multiple schools, it is entirely possible that our resourceful parents would find a way to achieve the same level of funding as before.  So yes, I do support policies that help allocate resources across the district to provide students with a more equitable educational experience.  


We need to keep our eye on the primary goal set forth in our Strategic Plan - providing a world class education to our students. The objectives of maintaining student enrollment from elementary through high school and serving our students and families with the greatest need help us achieve the same goal - successful schools and students.  Creating robust and challenging education experiences and building effective wraparound services both influence the success of every student and encourage our community members to participate in schools from elementary to high school graduation.


7. What should Richmond be doing to improve its system of early childhood education?  What is the role of RPS in doing so, and what is the role of the City of Richmond and  community organizations? 


Universal preschool needs to be a priority for all school systems.  In the City of Richmond, we need to expand the length of the day for all VPI and PreK programming in order to accommodate the schedule of working parents.  That can be done by expanding partnerships with community organizations who can help with affordable and sliding scale before and after school programming. Parents should not have to choose between paying household bills or childcare or for preschool services.  Taking advantage of opportunities such as ExCELL (VCU literacy program) can bring literacy coaches into schools, provide training for teachers, and engage the entire family.  Literacy is key to the success of Richmond children, and we need to pull out all the stops to give families and educators resources to help children be prepared to start Kindergarten. Studies have shown that there is a gap in word exposure of up to a million words between students before entering Kindergarten and we need to eliminate that gap to help our children succeed in school and in life.


8. What should RPS be doing, specifically, to assure that all students graduate with a  clear pathway to training, employment, or enrollment in a two or four year college?  


RPS needs to invest in the administrative help needed to remove the burden of testing and other administrative duties from guidance counselors and increase the number of counselors in middle and high schools.  The students and their parents need help understanding options and opportunities and those conversations begin before high school.  Establishing relationships and trust with guidance counselors is critical and counselors can only do that if time permits.  RPS should ensure that our guidance counselors have the continuing education necessary in order to provide the best options and a comprehensive understanding of the course requirements needed in order to graduate and pursue various options.  In addition, we need to develop and expand partnerships with our local universities and community colleges as well as businesses that can offer students internships and experiences to understand the skills and education needed for various career paths.  We cannot underestimate the influence of exposure to opportunities on our children, and especially Black students who need to see themselves represented in a variety of careers.   


9. Should Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia take the occasion of the  pandemic to re-think its assessment and accreditation procedures? What role should  testing continue to play, if any, in a revised approach to assessment? 


We should absolutely take this opportunity to reimagine and change our approach to assessments and accreditation procedures.  SOLs aren’t working to provide the comprehensive education that our students need and they place unreasonable burdens on our educators.  Educators need the ability to be flexible as student interests come up and to be innovative and creative.  Recently, I interviewed Duron Chavis, a Richmond advocate for food justice and he pointed out that we have an opportunity right now to take education outside and incorporate lessons on math, science, mental and physical health, and build practical skills through gardening.  The pandemic gives us an unusual chance to generate ideas and unique solutions to build a better education system.


10. What should the School Board be doing to improve the attraction, development, and  retention of skilled teachers and skilled principals?


Investing in professional development and working to bring new opportunities to our educators is vital.  We need to advocate and deliver on promised salary increases, develop incentives for RPS employees to live in Richmond, and build the skillsets of our team continuously. We must build in additional employment benefits for educators (such as the most recent 8 weeks of family leave for childbirth), which demonstrate to our teachers and principals that we value their talent, expertise, and commitment to RPS students.   One thing the pandemic has shown us is the existing structure for our educators is too rigid and leaves our team without the resources and energy to pivot and change as needed.  Working to eliminate SOLs and expanding the ability of educators to be creative would help reduce stress and enable educators to build on their own talent.  Building partnerships to bring in wraparound services to our schools will also benefit teachers by giving them tools to refer students for additional counseling, tutoring, and mentoring as needed.   If we improve our support system for our educators, then we can free them to educate.


For our principals, the mentoring program appears to be beneficial and helpful.  Building in resources for our principals to continue growing their leadership and administration skills is key.  After all, leaders of businesses the size of our schools continuously work to improve their skills.  We need to recognize that our leaders are human and will make mistakes, then help them learn and grow as possible.  We need to remember that the success of our leadership means the success of our educators and students.


11. What changes in RPS’s disciplinary procedures would you recommend, and why?  


A key focus of my campaign is advocating for wraparound services in the schools to provide kids, parents, and educators the tools to resolve conflict and proactively bring assistance to students before a disciplinary problem develops.  Bringing in social workers, mental health counselors, trauma assistance services, etc will bring in the help that our families really need and deserve.  We can start setting students up to succeed if we help them learn to deal with the significant challenges they face.  In addition, we need to advocate the removal of SROs from the schools and use those funds to provide these additional services. The negative dynamic developed by having officers in the school exacerbates community tensions and investing those funds in wraparound services will fill any potential gap of mentoring.  The reality is that while having officers in the school creates security for some, it creates further trauma and distrust for others.  Let’s take proactive action to bring our students the services that will help them understand and deal with trauma, solve problems and resolve disputes from our youngest to oldest students.  Another clear challenge for our teachers and administrators is managing the paperwork and necessary documentation of studentsbehavioral challenges that is required to obtain additional resources for behavioral aides and other services.  Bringing the wraparound services into the school provides another option for documenting - sharing the workload among more than just teachers and school administrators.  So many of our challenges are intertwined and building blocks to larger problems - the more we can do together to redefine the student experience, the better.


12. Would you be willing to advocate for tax or revenue increases in order to build new  schools in Richmond at a faster rate? Why or why not? If your answer is yes, what  arguments would you make to City Council for such tax increases?


We need to fund the schools as quickly as possible and through every means available including taxes.  No one wants higher taxes, and we need to take care to ensure that our residents are not forced from their homes by higher property taxes.  However, we have to fund the schools.  Ultimately, I would be willing to consider tax increases provided that they were directly allocated to schools for repairs and new construction and/or educator salaries.  My argument to the City Council would be that our city cannot succeed without excellent schools.  Investing in RPS means building opportunities for students to contribute to our city in many ways, for our teachers and their families to live in the city, and for our ability to compete on a regional and state level - schools will bring people to live here and they will keep people living here.  The schools are the backbone of our community and we need to invest in them.