I recently sat down with Jessica Sutter, candidate for the Ward 6 seat in the DC State Board of Education, and asked her to talk about her campaign. Jessica is challenging Ward 6 SBOE’s incumbent, Joe Weedon.
The transcript of our conversation is below, for those who prefer to read or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
If you would like to skip to listen to a particular segment, you can let the time stamps at the beginning of each paragraph be your guide.
Maria Helena Carey: [00:00:01] We are here at the Yard 700 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the newest shared office space in the heart of the Hill. Today, we’re talking to Jessica. Jessica is running for Ward 6 representative to theD.C. State Board of Education. Thank you for talking to us today. Please introduce yourself a little more in-depth and tell us about your background in education and working with the district schools.
Jessica Sutter: [00:00:24] Thanks for having me today. My name as you said is Jessica Sutter. I started in education 20 years ago as a middle school teacher in a Catholic school on Chicago’s West Side. I then worked for an education nonprofit that focused on civic education. Realized I missed classroom teaching and got back into the classroom. In 2003 as a founding teacher at a charter school in east L.A. I moved back toD.C. in 2006 and I taught at a charter middle school here in the District right in Ward 6– KIPP DC when it was in the blue castle at 8th and L streets and then worked in education policy in a couple of different roles both at OSSE, the deputy mayor for Education’s office and as a consultant to schools and school districts in DC as well as around the country. The last sort of goal I’ve had in education… I got my PhD in May in education policy studies running a dissertation on charter school closures and restarts right here in Washington D.C. I think I’ve got a pretty good broad spectrum of classroom and policy work both in the district and out.
Maria: [00:01:20] Thank you so much. I’m going to go ahead and ask you four questions and then uh, I will turn it over to you for some closing remarks. Number one: If you are elected, what will be your top three priorities as Ward 6 representative?
Jessica: [00:01:36] I think three things that we need to focus on as a district are how we spend our money in schools, how we spend our time in our schools and making sure that all schools have equitable access to resources and all students have equitable access to opportunities. I think we need to think about how to increase funding in schools that have long been under resourced and think about how we can get that money as close to the schools and students as possible. We think about time. I think we need to be thinking about making sure that students have a full range of experiences rigorous academics as well as access to field experiences to age-appropriate play and recreation and the broad spectrum of what it is to be growing in a school community. And I think when we think about equity we’ve got to make sure that all students in all schools, whether they be neighborhood or choice schools, DCPS or charter, that they have access to equitable opportunities for success and for being able to define the adult lives that they want for themselves.
Maria: [00:02:34] Thank you for your answer. Question number two: The issue of trust has become even more critical in the area of education. How do you plan to approach getting parents’ trust and working with parents, school leaders and teachers in Ward 6 so as to inform your work on the State Board of Education?
Jessica: [00:02:53] I think trust is essential in any sort of human endeavor and human relationships and I think the key to trust is vulnerability. Being willing to accept that we don’t know everything having to show the places where we need to learn especially from those who are closer to the work than we are. One of the ways I’ve tried to do that is my part of my campaign is visiting as many Ward 6 schools as possible. I’m up to 23, um, and I’m quite proud of having been able to see so many in action, asking parents teachers and principals I’ve met along the way what matters to them in education? I’d like to continue that as a state board rep making myself available and making myself openly available not just to parents who might seek me out but making sure I go to where parents, teachers, principals are. Just have them see me and know that that I want to learn from them and take their their issues and their concerns to the level of the state board.
Maria: [00:03:45] Number three: Do you think the role of the State Board of Education should evolve from its current limited role in the District’s education? And what would that look like?
Jessica: [00:03:55] This is the topic of the moment. There are two council bills that have ideas on this. There’s lots of discussions around this. I feel deeply strong about the fact that communities are where we get our political power from, right? In a democracy the power has to come from the people. As I’ve canvassed around Ward 6, we counted up last night. We’ve knocked on more than 1,200 doors in Ward 6 I would say that about 1,000 people I spoke with don’t know what the state board does. They don’t know who their representative is. And so, I worry about giving power right now to a body that has been largely obscured from view for lots of voters in the city. When I asked those same thousand people do you know who the mayor is? They do. So while having mayoral control and power in one hand has many tradeoffs associated with it, I worry about evolving the role of the state board until people know who serves them, how to access those people, and what that body can do. So I think the board could have an evolving role over time at this point. I don’t feel like the community knows enough about the board to trust them with more power over their schools.
Maria: [00:05:03] Next question: Many of the parents in my acquaintance started educating their children at a District of Columbia public school. However when their children turned of middle school age, they either chose to move out of the District for educational reasons or they switched to a charter school starting at fifth grade which is quite young for some children. Is an education model like this one sustainable where we have strong public elementary schools but not middle schools? What needs to happen to strike a balance between public and charter school attendance?
Jessica: [00:05:36] So I have sort of three thoughts on this and one is that parents know their children best and have to make school choices for their children that are reflective of their child. I think by the time a child reaches adolescence a parent knows them deeply well and they know what that child may need and so they may be making different choices based on the need of their child. So I want to acknowledge that first second. I do not think a system in which people don’t have trust in neighborhood public middle schools is a sustainable one. And I’ve said this in a couple of different forums so far that what got us here in our current system of education reform in the district won’t get us there. We’ve gotten to the point that we’re at we’re about half the school kids in the city are in traditional public schools. About half the kids in the city are in charter schools. And our system now probably needs to look at itself and see how do we evolve to the next stage of making sure that our choices exist in both sectors that families feel like those choices are real and that they do have trust in both their neighborhood middle schools and in charter schools. One way I think we have to do that, and this is sort of the third point, is to ask people what do they mean when they say they don’t feel like their neighborhood Middle School is the right fit for their child? I’ve asked this of a number of parents that I’ve talked with and one answer I get is, “It doesn’t have the courses I’m looking for. It doesn’t have the rigor I’m looking for.” And sometimes I think people are informed on that. They’ve gone into the school they visited classrooms and they feel that that is true from their observational experience. Other times people talk more generally about things like bullying or “My child won’t have a community of their friends there; that’s not where their friends are going. I want them to stay with their friends.” And I think we have to be honest about the fact that some of those conversations are deeply based in race and class differences in our schools, who has typically enrolled in our neighborhood middle schools over time, and what it will take to have real meaningful conversations around school integration –what it will feel like to change the composition of our schools racially as well as socioeconomically– what it means for families newly entering those school communities and the role they may play and can play and should play in integrating a school. And the way that will affect the school community that has existed in those schools to date. So to put a fine point on it, our neighborhood middle schools in Ward 6 have traditionally been predominantly African-American students often with higher concentrations of low-income students. If our elementary schools which have trended towards more higher socioeconomic students, more white and other racial groups of students start integrating those middle schools, that’s a big change. That’s a series of discussions that have to happen both at the adult level, at the parent level, at the student level to really make for meaningful integration of our schools and school communities that work for everybody.
Maria: [00:08:28] Thank you. Um, finally I would like to turn it over to you. Just give us some closing remarks and why should people vote for Jessica Sutter?
Jessica: [00:08:39] So I get asked often asked why me why they should vote for me and instead of my opponent and I offer three answers. One, the state board is at its core a policymaking entity. Lots of voices can be helpful in making policy but our nine-member board currently has only one person who’s ever been a teacher. I think someone who has implemented policy may have a different perspective on making policy and so I think we need more educator voices on the board. That’s one reason. The second reason is we have 36 schools in Ward 6 and I don’t know that every school has felt equally represented by their state board rep to date. I really feel like they should: That any child who goes to school in Ward 6, wherever they live in the city, should feel represented by their state board member for Ward 6 and any child inward 6 where ever they go to school in the city should feel represented by their board member. And I think I can bring that in a way that I haven’t seen the incumbent do. The final thing is, our board doesn’t have many powers but it has a bully pulpit. It can be very proactive on a system level issues. I understand the board’s role in responding to constituents needs but I also think the board members role is to elevate those needs up to, How do we fix the system? Not just how we fix individual buildings or individual problems, but how do we make systemic change? I think, given my professional experience both in the classroom level and at the city level, I have a unique perspective that I can bring to bear to help make that happen. So, I think, in closing I would encourage folks to take a look at my record. Take a look at my experience and think about what you’re looking for in a state board rep. Are you looking for someone who will represent all of the schools in our city who brings to bear a long history of professional education experience? And if so, I think I’m the right candidate for you.