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School board candidates talk about issues facing the district

By Charles Sercombe

A few weeks ago, we mailed out surveys to all seven school board candidates running for two seats on the board.

Their election is on Nov. 8, the same ballot in which voters will be asked to choose three City Council candidates from a field of six.

This week, we will start off with candidates Eric Burkman, Nasr Saleh Hussain and Darla Swint.

Name: Eric Burkman

Age: 10 years older than the average ACT score among Hamtramck HS students

Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Occupation: Director, Hamtramck Drug Free Community Coalition

Why are you running for school board?

I am running for Board of Education to make a difference in students’ lives, so that they may become healthy and vibrant participants in our community.

Since moving to Hamtramck in 2009 I have gotten to know the community and its many stakeholders. My position as Director of the Hamtramck Drug Free Community Coalition has allowed me to work extensively with students, staff, and administrators in the schools, and these talented and dedicated individuals have motivated me to run for office so that I may empower them to achieve the change they envision for a brighter future.

What experience do you bring to this position?

Having worked as a community organizer in Hamtramck for two years, I am experienced in bringing diverse organizations and stakeholders to the table to achieve a common goal for community improvement.

The Hamtramck Drug Free Community Coalition, as part of the federal Strategic Planning Framework, is expected to maintain representation from each of twelve community sectors.

Though it can sometimes be difficult to achieve support from busy professionals and large organizations, the coalition has seen great success in engaging those individuals to support our mission. Hamtramck Public Schools is also able to enhance its mission through the support of these groups. Schools and communities work best when everyone comes together to support achievement, and this is evident in the work I have done with expanding the capacity of the Hamtramck Drug Free Community Coalition.

What are some of the primary issues facing the district, and what do you propose to do about them?

Two primary issues that seem to be on everyone’s mind are student achievement and enrollment. Many feel that those issues even feed into each other, with seemingly more and more students leaving the district for charter schools where “achievement is higher.”

In fact, student achievement at most Hamtramck Public Schools, according to state benchmarks, exceeds or is in-line with comparable charters; it is widely community misperception that charters provide a higher-level education than public schools, insofar as state benchmarks can measure.

With this in mind, I would add a third aspect to the argument: facilities development. The district’s outdated facilities pale in comparison to brand new charters opening up with beautiful buildings that are designed for state-of-the-art learning. Many suburban districts fund a “development department” to seek out donations, grant funding, and corporate sponsorship for district events.

Perhaps with a strong facilities development plan, which takes into account the age of the district’s facilities, students and their families would feel more confident attending Hamtramck Public Schools.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the district?

One overarching strength of the district and Hamtramck as a broader community is the dedication of staff, administrators, and general community stakeholders.

I have never experienced such a shared feeling of community responsibility as I have in Hamtramck.

This translates to a strength for the district because there are numerous families, business owners, and prominent community members who are willing to support the district and its students in whichever ways possible. Looking out for students’ best interests is something that we typically do well in this community, and when that energy is properly directed, the district can benefit greatly from its local partners.

Unlike Detroit, our diverse urban district is easily defined. Because Hamtramck is a smaller district, the issues we face can be stratified and broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

This is yet another strength; we don’t have all the time in the world, but we do have the talent and community support necessary to define our challenges thoroughly and work together for a solution that keeps the students’ best interest at heart.

Clearly the district is facing some challenges. I prefer to use the term “challenge” instead of weakness because it invokes a more positive way of thinking. Student achievement needs to increase, even in the face of faster-increasing state standards. Through new district initiatives that are already in place we will likely experience a boost in achievement, but constant evaluation must take place to ensure that time and funding is not wasted on ineffective efforts.

Enrollment, though it has increased for this school year, is also an issue. Though the widespread perception is that Hamtramck Public Schools offers a lower-quality education than area charters, in reality the reverse is typically true. As community perception of education quality becomes better-aligned with the truth, enrollment losses should slow and the trend will turn. There are ways for the district to help change community perception of school quality.

Another challenge facing the district is its outdated facilities, which drive families away when new charter school buildings with fancy gymnasiums and colorful playscapes are popping up everywhere. A targeted facilities development plan, based on donations and limited sponsorships from community partners such as corporations and foundations, can help Hamtramck bring its school buildings into the 21st-century. Many suburban districts rely on such plans to help support programs which are too expensive for state-based funding, and Hamtramck could greatly benefit from that model.

Overall the district remains strong because of its broad community support and excellent base of administrators, staff, and families who truly have students’ best interests at heart. Without these talented and dedicated stakeholders, the district would not be able to succeed.

State funding has been cut to all school districts. What do you propose to do to survive the loss of revenue?

Cuts in state funding will only become more severe as fewer schools meet the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress “AYP” benchmarks. Last year 79% of Hamtramck Public Schools met the benchmarks, but this year only 33% met standards.
One major reason for this is the increase of state standards for students. For instance, if all students and all schools were exactly as good as last year, the number meeting “AYP” would still decrease: state standards are increasing.

This is related to funding because schools which continue to fail to meet these standards will experience further decrease in state funding and support. The trend with the state is to deepen the connection between funding and student achievement, so in order to preserve funding, challenging students to do their best is absolutely imperative.

In the shorter-term, however, the district can reach out to community partners in Hamtramck and the surrounding area to fill in programming gaps that are left by funding cuts and budget shortfalls.

Hamtramck is fortunate to have numerous community organizations which are able to provide after-school opportunities and other programs funded through grants or third-party donors at no cost to the district. Through community collaboration our students can experience the same opportunities at a decreased cost to the district.

Student enrollment has declined in recent years. What would you do to attract more students into the district?

In fact, district enrollment has increased for this school year, though it had been decreasing in years prior.

Regardless, community perception is that public schools in Hamtramck provide a lower-quality education than area charter schools. In reality, Hamtramck Public Schools exceed or are comparable in quality to charter schools in Hamtramck. Changing this perception is one step to turning decreasing enrollment around.

Another issue is the district’s outdated facilities. When brand new charter schools with shiny facades and updated facilities targeted to students’ academic and extracurricular needs are springing up seemingly everywhere around town, it’s more exciting for parents and students to affiliate with a school that looks shiny and new.

Hamtramck Public Schools is not in the position to acquire or contract new buildings, but through a targeted development campaign, the district should seek out corporate, foundation, or private donors to help bring facilities into the modern world. Many districts, especially suburban ones, enjoy the benefits of an advancement office or development department.

These offices focus on bringing about necessary funding to maintain and update facilities and other programs that generally are too expensive to fund through the general state-issued per-pupil stipends. Hamtramck, as a smaller, urban district, is in an excellent position to benefit from such a model.

Through updated facilities and a targeted campaign to change community perception around the public schools’ instructional quality, the district’s traditional loss of enrollment can be curbed.

Should the district run its schools year-round? Why or why not?

There is certainly a loss of knowledge over the summer for all students who do not remain engaged through some sort of activity. Presently, however, I feel the district has more pressing issues to problem-solve before considering transitioning to a year-round calendar.

Anything else you would like to add?

Visit my website, www.burkmanforboard.org, for more information.

Name: Nasr Saleh Hussain

Age: 35

Education: Bachelor Degree in Chemistry-City University of New York

Occupation: Self- Employed/ Printing & Graphics

Why are you running for school board?

I am running for the school board in order to do my best to turn our school district around and make it an example district to be proud of and make sure our children receive the education they deserve in order to make them successful in their lives in the future.

What experience do you bring to this position?

As a self-employed person, I know how to retool an organization to keep it competitive. I will bring this experience to the school board. In addition to that, my experience in budgeting and my experience in dealing with a diverse client base will be a plus in dealing with our diverse school district.

What are some of the primary issues facing the district, and what do you propose to do about them?

There are two main issues facing this district. First is the depressing academic achievement of our children. I will try my best, with fellow school board members, our teachers, and administrators to implement strategies to find what works best for raising our children’s academic levels.

For example, finding who are the most effective teachers and using their effective strategies to improve the teaching methods of other teachers thus enabling us to reach our goal of a successful district.

In addition, family involvement is, in my opinion, of utmost importance. I will work with the school board to have strict policies ensuring and encouraging family involvement in the school life of their children.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the district?

The weaknesses are the severe financial crisis facing it, the low academic achievement level, and the aging infrastructure.

The strengths are a diverse student body, dedicated teachers and administrators who want these children to succeed, and most importantly students who want to succeed.

State funding has been cut to all school districts. What do you propose to survive the loss of revenue?

Without any doubt these cuts will adversely affect our school district. I will ensure that the school board exercise prudent fiscal management in prioritizing spending policies and will try to keep the negative impact on teaching and learning to a minimum.

As a last resort, I will not mind turning to the generous residents of Hamtramck for a tax levy knowing very well that the success of our children is a goal they will sacrifice for, even in these hard economic times.

Student enrollment has declined in recent years. What would you do to attract more students into the district?
Increasing student enrollment is a short term solution that, in my opinion, should not be pursued. A long term solution is to emphasize the “Quality over Quantity” approach.

By concentrating on the students we already have and increasing their achievement level academically, I am sure increasing enrollment will follow naturally.

Should the district run its school year-round? Why or why not?

Running a school district year-round is a very good idea that has been supported by very interesting research. At this current financial situation, I think it will not be a feasible option for our school district, but it remains a choice that we might have to take a look at in the future when the economic times improve.
Anything else you would like to add?

I would like to thank The Review newspaper for allowing me to present my ideas to the citizens of Hamtramck and hope that they will support me in trying to advance our school district and work together to graduate competent students who will benefit themselves and their communities.

Name: Darla Swint
Age: 61

Education: Masters Level Graduate Degree:
Counseling Education,
Limited Licensed Counselor
Bachelor Level Graduate Degree:
Social Work
Community Services
Accredited Certified Addiction Counselor
Current Student, Master Level: ~ Mid 2013
Ecumenical Theological Seminary-Detroit
Divinity and Theology

Occupation: Clinical Therapist-LLC: Dual Diagnosis
Evangelist

Why are you running for School Board?

Evolved as a community activist, I have attended School Board meetings. I have visited various schools and observed teacher/student interacting. I have also participated in one of the highly spirited Hamtramck Challenge Days. I have talked to my fellow citizens the parents of our school children.

Our youth is the future of our Hamtramck. Therefore, I am strongly motivated by the call, to duty and my desire as a lifelong citizen of Hamtramck. I can and I will help guide the Hamtramck School Board forward to insure the future of our schools and our city’s children.

I have observed and noted a number of needed and required educational and community advancements. I believe supported by studied, professional experience, enhanced by modern skill building tools, critical improvements are ready and available.

Current and former educational values have become disparaging obstacles to many citizens of Hamtramck. By eliminating outdated impediments to education, alone will help embellish a modern diverse community environment, and that will come as a gracious inclusionary invitation to all citizens and children of Hamtramck.

Not a limited approach, but a broader understanding with universal compassion we can help return the Hamtramck School System and School Board and to a position of desired and deserved respect. I promise to not only refurbish but build to improve and be a reliable advocate for 21st century education. That is why I am running for a seat on the Hamtramck School Board.

What experience do you bring to this position?

I hold a Masters Degree in Counseling Education, two under graduate degrees, one in Community Services and the other in Social Work.

Education, training, and experience have afforded me the opportunity to work in a wide range of human services. My professional experience and knowledge package, includes and ranges and includes classroom teaching and education of children and adults other areas include “Licensed Professional Counseling” specifically providing services to meet the needs of a single child, as well as to the family unit and special group therapy services.

In 1990, I served as the Acting Dean of Student Affairs at Jordan College, until the College closed. In this position, I was responsible for the affairs of the entire student body. I managed the budget for the student body, prepared housing year round for our students, met weekly with our facility and interacted with parents as needed daily.

The duties that I feel would be an asset as a Board Member are the ones that allotted me the opportunity to engage in student affairs. Meeting the needs of the students and their families while working to ensure that each student reached their highest potential. Assisting parents when they needed support in helping the student strive and achieve.

I have excellent innate and tangible people skills, “Listening, Feeling, Getting Involved and Staying Involved” is what I have always strived to do and will continue as a seated member of the Hamtramck School Board.

A great intensity and respect for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of every person’s needs and procedure is what I offer to the Hamtramck School Board.

What are some of the primary issues facing the district, and what do you propose to do about them?

There appears to be an obvious stunning lack of communications between the Board, Facility and Community.

The City is so very diverse yet, when you are at the Library or on Jos. Campau or in one of the local churches, the cry of the parents is that they don’t receive enough respect from the Facility when they are at the various schools.

This flows over to the children and causes negative behavior in the classroom. A teacher should be able to relate to all of her/his pupils, not just a few as well as every School Board Member, starting with the Board first.

I would provide ongoing support for hiring and establishing an ethnically integrated and culturally diverse teacher core.

A school district that reflects the diversity of the community gains the potential to expand and attract a population seeking a rich and broad education. Modern technology is ever expanding and enriching lives the world over. Hamtramck is unique and has the potential to light the path for its citizens through the continuous use and application of modern education.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the district?

The greatest strength is that we are a small Community. One that has been able to overcome many obstacles in the past and we are still here.

Strength, through diversity should be thought of as a community asset one to be used to help direct present and future planning goals is a tool if nurtured properly can offer profound benefits and advantages.

Our greatest weakness is that we do not want to let go of our past and try new things and ideas.
The curriculum of the 1960s will not get our current students to Higher Educational Grounds in the coming Century.

The mindset of a few is causing the needs of the many to suffer. This is a new day and we must have the courage to take hold of it and by faith make a Charge to Change and Begin the Challenge of Change. If we don’t do this, we will not survive the upward movement to Higher Educational Ground!

State funding has been cut to all school districts. What do you propose to do to survive the loss of revenue?

Work with what we already have. Using the Internet the Board needs to learn ways to revamp the parts of the curriculum that they know is not working from the hours the students are in class to the manner in which they are in class. Draw on what works and change what is not working to the point the State begins to take a look at our School District.

At that point monies maybe poured into our District by other resources and maybe even the State.

Student enrollment has declined in recent years. What would you do to attract more students into the district?

Change the attitude present in the current District now by engaging more ethnic faculty. Begin to engage the student/parent community with an honest respect that should be extended without question or forethought.
Work on curriculum changes where all students feel they are learning (and they can) with a sense of pride. Work harder to achieve graduates of greater diversity in our School District. These accomplishments will ring throughout and draw attention and interest in the qualities on display in our community.

This type of change will empower our Hamtramck students; their parents as well as the whole of the Hamtramck Community will be there to carry the message out into the surrounding Communities about the positive attributes of the Hamtramck Public Schools.

Should the district run its schools year-round? Why or why not?

I am not for year round education. I am a strong component of allowing a child and the family to have down time together or a rest period. I feel everyone needs time to regroup and relax.
The children should be allowed to be children and have their summers free to explore and learn about themselves. The things they can’t do during the school year because they must focus on their education.

On the other hand, I feel there should be summer school for those that are in need of summer school, but only for a short period of time.

Anything else you would like to add?

I bring a wealth of knowledge on education, counseling and family to the table of the Hamtramck School Board. I am able to work alongside of other Board Members as well as alone if need. I am dependable, honest and I have the students’, faculty and the families’ best interest at heart.

I will not make you any unnecessary promises about anything I will do alone on the School Board, because both you and I know that I along cannot do anything. However, if you elect me as a School Board Member and support me, by coming to the monthly meetings, we together, can make the Changes that our Children deserve and we will reach Higher Educational Ground in the 21st Century!

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