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LSD board candidates say better learning outcomes, student preparedness are top priorities

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The Lansing School District will see seven candidates running for the board of education in the November election. There are three six-year-term seats open and one three-year-term seat this year. The partial term seat is unopposed.

The nonpartisan race has two incumbent candidates running for each term period, Dr. Caitlin Cavanagh, and Missy Lilje who is running unopposed.

Candidates were asked to give a pitch on why they should be elected. They were also asked how they would improve the school district if elected.

They expressed the need for better learning outcomes, post-graduation preparedness, teacher retention, racial equity, increased athletics and after school activities, room for more parental input and more.

Here are their answers:

Dr. Caitlin Cavanagh

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Cait Cavanagh Pitch

Cait Cavanagh is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. She is currently serving as a board member and seeking to retain her seat after filling a vacancy in April 2022. She has served as a research advisor for Ingham County.

What is your pitch to voters on why you should be elected?

I was appointed to the board in April 2022 to fill a vacancy and now I’d like to earn your vote to maintain the seat, so we can continue progress in the district. I’m a tenured professor and the director of undergraduate education in the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University. My Phd is in developmental psychology and my research addresses how to make youth serving systems like the juvenile justice system, the child welfare system more effective, and equitable and supportive of youth’s developmental needs. I have over a decade of experience working with government at multiple levels including as a staffer in the European Union Parliament. For the last five years, I served as the research advisor for Ingham County, this allows me an intimate familiarity with the challenges facing the most marginalized youth in our communities. So why vote for me? Lansing Schools are facing challenges that I feel uniquely equipped to address, budgets have contracted, youth violence is rising and issues of systemic inequality are ongoing. I have the skills and training to champion policies that are most likely to effectively address each one of these challenges. So overall I have the right set of skills to meet the moment.

What are the biggest issues facing Lansing Schools?

I advocate for evidence-based policy that is responsive to students’ developmental needs and to the needs of the district. The issues I view to be most concerning (and my proposed solutions) are:

  1. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice: The Lansing School District’s equity audit revealed the many ways Black, Brown, and multiracial students are systematically disenfranchised, through higher rates of exclusionary discipline and low rates of achievement. These disparities feed the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which is reflected in racial disparities in arrest rates of Lansing youth. The Board’s new Equity Advisory Committee is a step toward addressing this issue. However, I particularly care about dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline through policy. Disciplinary policy should be reformed, and, when possible, replaced with restorative practices, which evidence concludes are fairer and more effective.
  2. Pivoting from the pandemic: As we find ways to live with COVID19, the pandemic impacts schools in several actionable ways. I believe that wraparound approach is necessary to take on the challenge from multiple angles, such as:
    • - Re-enrolling students and supporting families toward high attendance
    • - Addressing learning loss through supplemental or one-on-one programming for students who have fallen behind
    • - Using a differentiated educational approach; each student will be in a different place relative to their classmates, so the “dose” of supplemental education will naturally vary between students
    • - Employee burnout is widespread; attending to faculty and staff retention and recruitment through competitive wages and benefits is the only way schools can continue to be staffed safely and students’ learning needs can be addressed
    • - Proactively protect public health within schools through infrastructure improvements like improved air filtration so that students and staff do not fall ill and spend more time out of school
    • - Use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate students’ needs and goals in a rapidly changing work environment, and be responsive to input from families about their new challenges and priorities.
  3. Addressing youth violence: Youth violence is a top concern among Ingham County residents. As Research Advisor to Ingham County’s juvenile court, I understand this concern through the raw numbers.
    However, as a nationally-recognized expert in juvenile justice, I have the training to advance proactive and reactive policies to most effectively address these challenges. Evidence-based ways to addressing youth violence in schools within the purview the Board of Education include:
    • - Supporting prosocial after-school activities like sports and clubs
    • - Facilitating strong adult bonds with teachers, counselors, coaches, and staff
    • - Increasing the role of restorative justice in school conflict resolution
    • - Making it more difficult for weapons to enter schools through changes to school infrastructure and policy, such as building secure vestibules and requiring ID to enter
    • - Partnering with existing grassroots youth anti-violence organizations in Lansing, which are best positioned to understand the specific needs of their communities.

How would you work to improve the Lansing School District?

As a Lansing resident, I believe that our schools need to attend to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. I pledge to support policies that eliminate the racial achievement gap; institute culturally responsive curriculum; dismantle existing racial/ethnic disparities in exclusionary discipline; and cut the flow from the School-to-Prison Pipeline. As a researcher (i.e., tenured MSU professor whose appointment is majority research), I believe that the best solutions are evidence-based. Too often, decisions around health, safety, and learning are made in the absence of sound data and evidence. I pledge to let evidence guide my decision- making, and critically re-evaluate those decisions to make sure they are still working for Lansing. As an administrator (i.e., Director of Undergraduate Education at MSU; sitting Lansing Board of Education Trustee), my student-centered teaching, pro-teacher orientation, and adherence to evidence-based practice all inform my decision-making. I pledge to bring these qualities to the Lansing Board of Education. As a developmental psychologist, I believe that children are most likely to succeed when they are held to high, but achievable, standards. I pledge to hold Lansing students to high standards, recognizing that learning should be applicable, empowering, and joyful. As a sitting board member, I have the experience, procedural understanding, and connections to make sure my plans for improving the District are successful.

During your campaign, what have you been hearing from parents and students about what they want out of their school district?

I love this question, because I believe that the role of a Trustee on the Lansing Board of Education is to be a voice that advocates for the interests of Lansing families. To me, that means constant communication with the community, and receptiveness to community issues. In doing so, I aim to create trusting, positive relationships between students, caregivers, and the Board of Education. As a candidate, I have created a survey to better understand community members’ perspectives (available at www.CaitCav.com/your-voice). I also canvass, attend community meetings, and proactively connect with interest groups. I have learned that parents and students want a safe place to learn. For some, that safety is physical safety- schools that are free of the threat of violence. For some (for example, LGBTQIA+ students, racial/ethnic minority students), that safety is psychological. All students deserve to be valued- not just accepted- for who they are. Additionally, parents and students want opportunities. For some, those opportunities involve high standards of achievement. For others, it involves state-of-the-art facilities and technologies. For others, it involves getting the best possible preparation for careers and postsecondary education. If elected, I will prioritize community engagement to make sure that I continue to understand the needs, challenges, goals, and ideas of Lansing families. Any proposed solutions to issues facing the district need to attend to the voice and perspective of impacted communities first.

Kurt Richardson

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Kurt Richardson Pitch

Kurt Richardson graduated from Lansing Eastern in 1988 and works for several NFL football teams and a company based in Atlanta, GA. He's also worked with student-athlete empowerment programs in Michigan including Sound Mind Sound Body Sports Academy.

What is your pitch to voters on why you should be elected?

I’m running for this spot because I am certain that our school system is at a significant crossroads. Students' apathy towards curriculum and teacher burnout from job dissatisfaction are both at all time highs. One poll recently showed that over half the teachers in our state have considered a career change in just the last 24-months. I believe making school for everyone again can change those scary outcomes. Right now our system has become a hostage of test taking at worst or an indiscriminate conveyor belt to college regardless of an individual's inclination at best. And I see institution’s like Harvard moving away from standardized test taking. I believe that will be the first of many dominos that will fall that will make our current system obsolete if we can’t create vocational, creative trade and entrepreneurial learning pathways in the school system. I know that I have the experience, vision and the relationships to create a model that will boost and re-energize our district, combat enrollment flight and bring joy and control back to educators and students.

What are the biggest issues facing Lansing Schools?

The most pressing issue that the district is facing is that right now school is not for everyone. Our system has become a hostage of test taking at worst or an indiscriminate conveyor belt to college (regardless of an individual’s inclination) at best. This hinders educator creativity and fuels student apathy towards curriculum. School right now is only for students who will attend college, and college is not the optimal path to lifelong success for a large percent of the student population. We must reengage that population with trade, vocational, and entrepreneurial learning pathways. In Lansing, 39% of students attend college following graduation. When you factor that number into the roughly 25% drop out rate, school is missing the mark for nearly 75% of the students it serves by being so focused on college prep.

How would you work to improve the Lansing School District?

Lansing (and Michigan as a whole) has, perhaps, more industrial/manufacturing IP than almost anywhere on the planet. We have to work with the trades and manufacturing unions to help identify how we can create a public-private pipeline to these high paying careers. When I see road work being done in Lansing, by companies whose trucks are out of the east side of the state or Ohio, it breaks my heart. I want to work with Consumer's energy, GM, Autoowners, Jackson national and many others to find out how our students can prepare themselves to take on jobs in these companies.

During your campaign, what have you been hearing from parents and students about what they want out of their school district?

Parents need more equity to information as well as educational check points. Several parents have told me that the schools have been pretty flexible with improving acccess to the staff but when they meet or receive information, its not digestible and doesn't come with tangible actions the parent can assist with.

Rosalyn Williams

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Rosalyn Williams Pitch

What is your pitch to voters on why you should be elected?

Many people have asked me why I’m running, first and foremost I want to be the voice of the parents and the family. But more importantly, I want to see a global learning but a learning that is diverse for each child individually but also bridging the gap between the child, the family and the educator. And I’m also running because the educators need to be heard as well.

What are the biggest issues facing Lansing Schools?

Global but diverse educational learning. Understanding that each child is different, we should respect their difference and work to capitalize on how each learn but accepting each one.

How would you work to improve the Lansing School District?

Collaborating with the family, educator and the community. Understanding the families needs whether it be English as a Second Language and the family culture and how the educators can assist while making sure their needs are met by providing the necessary resources or simply sitting down with teachers to see what their needs are and how can we support them. Everything while data driven needs to be more humanistic.

During your campaign, what have you been hearing from parents and students about what they want out of their school district?

Someone who understands the day to day life of a parent.

Ryan J. Smith

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Ryan J. Smith Pitch

Ryan J. Smith is the Vice President of the Hawk Nest neighborhood in East Lansing. He's the former president of Printer's Row Condo Association and Cherry Hill neighborhood.

What is your pitch to voters on why you should be elected?

As a lifetime member of the Lansing community I have a deep understanding of the challenges we face and the positives we have to build off of. As a candidate, I am committed to being accessible to students, parents, teachers and administrators to ensure that every concern and idea is heard. I also support exploring and adopting innovative programs to create a safe, healthy substance free learning environment that will attract, increase and retain student enrollment. I also support energizing and rebuilding our athletics, music, drama, clubs and other afterschool activities that attract families so that kids have another reason to come to school.

What are the biggest issues facing Lansing Schools?

  1. Creating a better and more efficient learning environment in our classrooms. Stanford University recently released a study that showed Lansing School District had some of the worst test scores in the country. It is imperative to grow and market universal pre-k for Lansing students. Much of 2nd grade education is foundational and we must ensure that students are starting school with a stronger foundation. We must also do a better job in elementary of identifying struggling students and finding the resources to help them.
  2. We must properly respect and compensate our teachers and staff so we are retaining our current talent and become a more desirable location for future talent. We will have to sort through our budget and work with unions to find the dollars necessary to accomplish this goal.
  3. I am very concerned with the state of the district's athletics & after school activities. It is essential to give students opportunities to participate in a wide variety of activities that could fit their interests. It is important to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to have success and to find the volunteers and dollars to support them. I will ask the BWL for a 10% rebate on power to be sent to the Lansing Parks Department to be used a collaboration with the district to rebuild after school and summer programming. I will then approach local businesses with sponsorship opportunities for these programs .

How would you work to improve the Lansing School District?

My #1 priority would be the development of the pre-k program. One of the biggest inequities students face is in how prepared students are to start school. When students are starting kindergarten with little to no understanding of letters-numbers and/or colors, it is hard to expect them to have success against students who are prepared. The hope is getting students into school at a younger age and building foundational skills will help them find success and thrive

During your campaign, what have you been hearing from parents and students about what they want out of their school district?

Every parent wants their children to be safe and get a quality education, this is no different in the Lansing School District. It is important for board members to be constantly engaging with students and parents to make sure that the district is providing the best quality education and experience we can.

Requests were sent to all seven candidates. Missy Lilje, Anthony J. Strevett and Rick Wendorf did not submit answers.

Melorie Begay is WKAR-FM's weekend host and a general assignment reporter.
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