Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet the Board of Education candidates: Laura Wilson Phelan


Elections are coming up November 4th in DC, and one of the races being contested is the Ward 1 representative of the DC State Board of Education. In order to shine some light on a race that doesn't get a lot of press, but is very important to local parents, I'm interviewing the four candidates for the board: David Do, Lilian Perdomo, Laura Wilson Phelan, E. Gail Anderson Holness and Scott Simpson. 

First up is Laura Wilson Phelan. My questions are in bold, her answers after.

Why are you running? 
As a parent, former teacher, and lifelong education advocate, I understand first-hand the challenges facing our parents, teachers, school leaders and students as we work to create the best possible schools for our children.

I have four-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Lily, who attend DC schools. I understand the anxiety of negotiating the city’s lottery system and the difficult choices parents have to make when choosing the best possible education for their children.

I started my education career as a bilingual middle school teacher in one of our nation’s toughest schools. I have experienced directly the impact of district policies on educational outcomes for students. As a teacher, I often wished my elected officials had been classroom teachers themselves so that they could better understand the actual impact of their decisions on students, teachers and school leadership.

As a lifelong education advocate, I witnessed the incredible progress that occurs when families and teachers partner with one another to help students learn. I have led the start up and growth of an education non-profit that focuses on building leadership in education and helping students get the support they need to be successful in life. Today, I am the chief operating officer of a DC non-profit that coaches teachers and principals on how to create strong relationships with families at 30 schools across the city, including four here in Ward 1.

And as a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Mt. Pleasant and member of the Local School Advisory Team at Bancroft Elementary, I know how to bring communities together to solve problems.

I am running for school board to bring all those experiences together to improve Ward 1 schools. Our schools have made many improvements, but we still have a ways to go to provide an excellent education for all. I have a vision and plan for how to tap the tremendous potential of our families, community members, and educators, working with elected officials to make rapid progress on the issues facing Ward 1 schools.

How would you explain the role of the State Board of Education?

The formal role of the State Board is to advise the State Superintendent of Education on educational matters such as state standards and policies. The board is also responsible for approving state-level policies such as graduation requirements and state academic standards. I believe the representative to the Board from Ward 1, as an elected official related to educational matters, should bring together our community in order to strengthen our schools. I have a plan to do this. Over the past few months, I have been building an alliance of families and community members who want to work to strengthen our public schools. As Board Member, I would bring together these individuals and work with OUR principals on ways that they can contribute meaningfully to schools improvement.

Are there any major changes you'd propose for the Board itself?
Not at this time.

Tell us your thoughts on the redistricting process, both the most recent and how it should be done in the future.

As a parent, I empathize with families who feel that the school boundary plan does not improve their educational options in the city. I recognize that not all Ward 1 families benefit from the new boundary plan, and I commit to working with those families unhappy with the plan to identify strong options for their children. At the same time, I believe that the predictive feeder patterns that the plan presents enables families to invest in their child’s school long before he/she attends it.  As a former teacher and current member of the advisory team at Bancroft, my experience has been that deeper community engagement in our schools plays a significant role in strengthening them. I believe this plan in the longer-term will help improve our schools in Ward 1 and across the city for the following reasons.

  • The plan allows for pre-school aged three- and four-year-old students to attend their in-boundary school by right (not lottery), if the school is Title I, which includes all schools except Oyster-Adams in Ward 1. This change will strengthen in-boundary attendance of neighborhood schools.
  • The plan provides a predictive feeder pattern for all families and provides a dual-language option for families enrolled in dual-language schools, which allows students to master two languages. Studies have shown learning more than one language augments brain activity and learning. 
  • The plan calls for the opening of two new middle schools that will serve Ward 1 families – one at the Shaw Middle School site and one at the MacFarland site – and phases out grades 6-8 programming in elementary schools so that the middle schools have programs focused specifically on the learning needs of this age group.
  • The plan allows for continuation of some out-of-boundary placements, which provides families unsatisfied with their in-boundary option an opportunity to lottery in to another school.
  • The plan enables distribution of “at-risk” students across our traditional and charter school system by designating 25% of available lottery seats to this population. Studies show that when students with significant extra needs make up the entire population of a school ill-equipped to handle such needs, it is very difficult for that school to improve quickly.  However, when schools include students with diverse needs and strengths, the outcomes for all students who attend that school improve.
  • The plan recommends the development of specialized and selective programs in every high school to meet the diverse needs of all of our students.
  • The plan recommends various adjustments to our transit programs to meet the needs of students who ride Metro to school.
What's the biggest problem DC schools face?


Families shouldn’t have to play the lottery for their child to get a quality education in DC. We must increase the supply of schools that meet the needs of all students – both those who struggle and those who are advanced. I will apply my experience as a teacher, community leader and parent to bring our community together to help Ward 1 schools meet the academic and social needs of every child. I will do this by:

  • Working with principals to develop community-based school strategies that set goals for the school and identify the resources to meet them.
  • Applying my experience as a parent and community leader to build an active alliance of community members and parents who give their time and resources to strengthen our schools in alignment with the principal’s plan.
  • Advocating for the hiring of new principals one year before the reopening of Shaw Middle School and MacFarland Middle School. This “planning year” will allow the principals to listen to the ideas of future students and their parents before needing to focus on the daily operations of the schools.
  • Building on promising practices of Deal Middle School, such as offering intensive literacy support for struggling students and diverse extra-curricular activities that help students find their passion, curb truancy, and build their love of learning.
  • Working with principals to organize monthly tours for prospective students and their parents of our elementary, middle and high schools that include visits to classes and the opportunity to talk with school leadership.
  • Working with our education leaders to coordinate DCPS and charter school planning so that charter schools that provide similar offerings as traditional public schools do not open across the street from one another.
  • Creating a Ward 1 Education Council that includes both PTA leadership and the voices of community members.
  • Building on my teaching experience and in collaboration with my colleagues to revisit our high school graduation standards so that they measure what a student has learned instead of the time spent in class.
How did you get interested in running for the board, and do you have children in DC public schools?

I grew up in poverty as one of 13 children. My father instilled in us a sense that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to AND with a strong work ethic. He also ensured that we went to great public schools, which set me up for success in college and later in life.

I am very grateful for the fortune of my upbringing and have devoted my life to ensuring that others whose circumstances are less fortunate have equal opportunities in life.

I started my career as a bilingual middle school teacher in one of our nation’s toughest schools and went on to teach high school in the Peace Corps and adult education to recent immigrants. After earning my master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School, I worked in the executive and legislative branches of our federal government to ensure our tax dollars were well-spent to produce meaningful outcomes for those most in need. I have led the start up and growth of an education non-profit that focuses on building leadership in education and helping students get the support they need to be successful in life. Today, I am the chief operating officer of a DC non-profit that coaches teachers and principals on how to create strong relationships with families at 30 schools across the city, including four here in Ward 1.

Beyond my professional credentials, I have demonstrated my personal investment in our public schools and the Ward 1 community. I served as an ANC commissioner in Mt. Pleasant where I helped secure repairs to a neighborhood alley and improved bike safety. I currently serve on the Local School Advisory Team for Bancroft Elementary and played a leading role in developing a community-driven five-year plan to improve results for students. I also serve on the board of Thrive DC in Ward 1, which serves homeless individuals and families.

I have four-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Lily, who attend DC schools, and I understand the anxiety of negotiating the city’s lottery system and the difficult choices parents have to make when choosing the best possible education for their children.

All of these experiences have provided me with deep knowledge of the needs of children in our schools to make informed policy decisions on the State Board. I understand first-hand the challenges facing our parents, teachers, school leaders and students and will not need to climb a steep learning curve to begin making progress on the issues facing Ward 1 schools. I have seen the need for a unifier of our community around education and have seen the power of what can be accomplished when a community comes together to support a school. I would like to see this type of support across all of our schools as one important way to strengthen them so that all kids receive an excellent education.

Where can people go for more information about your campaign?

I welcome all thoughts and questions. Please see my website:www.lauradcschoolboard.com for further information, and feel free to email me atlauradcschoolboard@gmail.com.

3 comments:

Kelly Kelley said...

Appreciate these interviews and look forward to hearing from the other candidates!

Anonymous said...

Laura is sharp, collaborative, and someone that would do a great job. She's worth serious consideration.

Bullwinkle said...

Ms. Phelan's children attend a charter school (from what I found at the website)