APN Chats with Farokhi and Westlake, School Superintendent Candidates

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(APN) ATLANTA — In our continuing coverage of Georgia’s statewide and US Congressional Elections, APN sat down with two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for State School Superintendent, Beth Farokhi and Brian Westlake.

Thus far we have interviewed David Poythress, candidate for Governor, and Angela Moore, candidate for Secretary of State. More interviews with candidates for Governor, Secretary of State, and US Congress are in the works.

By virtue of having interviewed both Farokhi and Westlake in a two day time span, Atlanta Progressive News is presenting their answers to the same questions within a single article, to allow our readers to make easier comparisons between the two candidates, and to allow for APN to provide analysis.

Beth Farokhi is a long-time activist with the Democratic Party in Cobb County and Gilmer County, Georgia, and statewide, although she grew up in Augusta. Farokhi taught fourth grade for six years at an elementary school in Cobb County, and since then has worked for 24 years at Georgia State University in the College of Education, where she helped develop curriculum standards for Georgia’s teacher education programs.

Farokhi previously ran for a seat on the Cobb County School Board in 2006 and lost.

Farokhi’s son, Amir Farokhi, as readers will recall, was a candidate for the City Council of Atlanta Post 2-at-large seat vacated by Mary Norwood. APN endorsed Amir Farokhi in that race over Aaron Watson, who won the election.

Brian Westlake is currently a high school teacher at Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County, where he teaches social studies topics including US government, US history, and currently, economics. He has taught for 10 years, and says that his frustrations with the current public schools system as a teacher have led him to seek office.

Prior to that, Westlake served for four years in the US Marine Corps. He also holds professional degrees in Sociology, Public Administration, and Law.

Farokhi believes she will have statewide appeal and she has been traveling the state campaigning; she also currently has the fundraising lead. Westlake believes his strength is that he will be able to connect better with teachers as a current educator.

Farokhi counters that she believes her work at the College of Education dealing with K-12 Curriculum standards and as a liaison to state agencies also provides her with important administrative experience, and that she did also serve as a teacher prior to working at GSU.

In 2006, APN endorsed Carlotta Harrell for this seat, over former US Rep. Denise Majette (D-GA).

Harrell is currently running for the State House seat being vacated by State Rep. Mike Glanton. Glanton is seeking the State Senate seat being vacated by State Sen. Gail Buckner. Buckner is running for Secretary of State. Glanton is also being challenged by former State Sen. Gail Davenport, who previously held Buckner’s seat and had lost to her in a 2008 Primary.

In APN’s analysis of the current race, both Farokhi and Westlake are very good candidates and either one would serve Georgia well. Meanwhile, no candidate emerged as the stronger candidate on every single question asked.

In APN’s analysis, Farokhi answered better on questions related to alternative schools, school bullying, and low-income students; while Westlake answered better on questions related to civics instruction and transgender students. On several questions, their answers were the same or quite similar.

All in all, Democratic Primary voters will face a difficult decision in July in this race.

1. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST IMPORTANT INDICATORS OF SUCCESS IN GEORGIA’S EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS? HIGH TEST SCORES? GRADUATION RATES? ARE THERE MORE QUALITATIVE WAYS OF KNOWING WHETHER STUDENTS ARE LEARNING?

FAROKHI: Yes more qualitative and better ways. The testing is one of the big reasons I got into this race. The testing Georgia does is destroying public schools. It has become a punitive system. It’s not measuring how students have improved over time. We don’t have a growth model. North Carolina is the only state that has a growth model. And the test is not nationally normed. We can’t compare with how students are doing because each state has developed its own test. No Child Left Behind said assess student performance, it didn’t say how.

We have the CRCT tested in third, fifth, and eighth grade. If a student doesn’t pass, they go to summer school. They feel they’re a failure. The parents are concerned. There’s pressure on the child. It could be interpreted, I’m a failure to my school. That’s a lot for an eight year-old. It has created a climate detrimental educationally and economically.

The pressures on teachers is so intense. The principals are putting pressure on the children and family. If the school doesn’t make yearly progress, a company won’t move into the community. Real estate agents cannot sell homes to families in those school districts. People living there decide maybe we need to move.

We need to use a growth model. We need to use nationally normed, standardized tests which already exist.

We’re being measured across the country on graduation rate. In Georgia we have an abysmal record on completion of high school. We have a large drop-out rate. The State Department of Education has a database that’s supposed to track where students are. The AJC [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] found 25,000 missing students.

WESTLAKE: We should be looking at more than math and reading. There used to be a study called the NAEP, which used to include interviews with former students in their early 20’s. It would find out whether they are employed, how engaged they are in the community, whether they’re voting, volunteering.

With the focus on test scores, you’re simply looking at numbers. We had people who were mathematical geniuses who created derivatives which have destroyed our economy. We need to teach responsibility for the common good. We’re also leaving out an appreciation for art and a commitment to civic duty. All those things cannot be tested, so they’re not being taught.

The way to do this is to empower educators. We need to respect… people in the classroom and support them in an array of assessment.

ANALYSIS: Farokhi was stronger on how to modify current quantitative assessments, while Westlake seemed stronger on how to include qualitative assessments.

2. GIVEN THIS DEFINITION OF SUCCESS, HOW WOULD YOU ACHIEVE IT?

FAROKHI: I want a balanced curriculum for the child- academic, creative, physical, and emotional…

Also, making sure we have highly qualified teachers. We have good teachers, but something in the system is not working. No Child Left Behind has been detrimental. We have to make sure our teachers are given respect, acknowledgment that they are professionals. The one thing I hear is, I don’t have to do to engagement of learning with our kids.

The constraints are through testing and teaching to the test. It’s become very prescriptive for teachers on how to teach. One science teacher said that when the earthquakes happened in Haiti and Chile, he couldn’t talk about it because it wasn’t in the lesson plan that day. That could’ve been a teachable moment.

WESTLAKE: A lot of it goes back to empowering educators, so that they are seen and treated as professionals. That they have support, time to plan, the ability to collaborate. We have the most overworked teachers in the world according to OAS data… Teachers teach twice as much here than they do [in Finland].

Teachers need to be more political in terms of what governs the way we operate in our profession. Policy needs to reflect our input. After all, we are practitioners. We have a top-down style of management in government. They’re the ones every day in the classroom and know exactly what they need to be empowered and exactly what students need.

Another thing as social studies teachers, it’s hard to teach democracy when our schools themselves don’t function in a democratic way and student needs a voice also.

ANALYSIS: Both candidates emphasized empowering teachers.

3. WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON THE ROLE OF CIVICS INSTRUCTION AND HOW TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY THEREOF? WOULD YOU SUPPORT THE REINSTATEMENT OF CIVICS AND/OR CURRENT EVENTS CLASSES ON TOP OF THE CURRENT US GOVERNMENT/ECONOMICS CLASS?

FAROKHI: I hear this a lot when traveling around talking to parents, community leaders, and teachers. The terminology “civics” is not used in the curriculum. You’re taught US government and history. But the term civics is different. I don’t think we’re doing a good job.

It’s important because we’re talking about citizens’ involvement in our government, in a community that means to have stronger communities, a stronger democracy. It’s civic responsibility, how can you be involved in the process, the value of voting, an understanding of what government does, utilizing the democratic process- every person’s important.

We have to look at what’s required in the state curriculum and look at where we could integrate additional areas. Certain area of our history are not included- the labor movement and how it affects our identity and who we are as Americans.

Also, everyday math- mortgages, balancing a checkbook.

I don’t have a strong opinion on how it could be done, I’m in favor of bringing teachers together. It’s not something the Superintendent does by himself or herself. Bring to the table teachers, people who’ve done research, students.

WESTLAKE: It’s very important. It’s the major purpose of having a public school system in a democracy, to socialize people to become active and engaged citizens. I don’t know that needs to be more classes but how schools run. Project-based learning. In science class, studying problems related to global warming.

It could be interdisciplinary. Then in government class, talk about how citizens can address global warming. Also, student government should be more about planning prom. That’s a huge opportunity to socialize students to be engaged.

ANALYSIS: Although Farokhi may have more experience in developing and modifying curriculum, Westlake drew on his experience as a social studies teacher to offer specific ideas on how to improve civics instruction. Both understood the importance of doing so.

4. DO YOU SUPPORT VOUCHERS?

FAROKHI: No.

WESTLAKE: No.

ANALYSIS: Identical responses.

5. DO YOU SUPPORT PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOL SERVICES, SUCH AS CUSTODIANS, BUS DRIVERS, SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS, ETC?

FAROKHI: No.

WESTLAKE: No.

ANALYSIS: Identical responses.

6. WHAT IS YOUR VIEW OF THE CONTROVERSIAL COMMUNITY EDUCATION PARTNERS PROGRAM, WHICH WAS A PRIVATIZED SCHOOL FOR SO-CALLED AT-RISK OR TROUBLED YOUTH? IN GENERAL WHAT IS YOUR VIEW OF EDUCATING THESE YOUTH OUTSIDE OF THEIR REGULAR SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT?

FAROKHI: (Unaware of CEP). There are concerns with some of our so-called alternative schools in some locations, that students are moved rapidly into the alternative school. When you look at the zero tolerance policy, that doesn’t allow for gray areas. Something will occur that’s not detrimental or disruptive and the child is sent.

(Editor’s note: Recent legislation just passed the Georgia Assembly that will give schools more flexibility over how to respond to student discipline problems in terms of whether to suspend or expel the students; however, the issue of arbitrary and disproportionate referrals to alternative schools may persist.)

There’s a disproportionate number of African Americans in those programs. As State School Superintendent, I’d want to know what we need to be doing differently to reduce the number of students moved into alternative schools.

There are situations not functioning as they should because students are disruptive. I always go back to who is the principal of that school? If the principal sets the tone–respect for the student and teacher, involvement in the student’s live, high quality teachers, making sure the teachers we do hire want to be there, making sure they know what’s going on so the students are challenged and engaged in the learning process–then that’s gonna reduce the need.

If someone is so disruptive and threatening, there needs to be a look at something that needs to be done for this child. Of course parental involvement is part all of this.

The alternative schools become a catch-all for everything the School District doesn’t want to do.

WESTLAKE: (Unaware of CEP). I think there’s a place for nonprofits, getting corporate citizens involved in providing services afterschool, not in place for a regular school. I think sometimes those kind of environments are necessary. You need to be careful. There could be additional support they wouldn’t get at their home school… It [having them at their home school] can become very disruptive.

ANALYSIS: Farokhi’s answer was stronger is terms of her apparent opposition to alternative schools as a model, and her understanding of the issues involved.

7. DO YOU SUPPORT GEORGIA LEGISLATION BY STATE REP. STEPHANIE BENFIELD AND OTHERS TO STRENGTHEN PARENTAL CONSENT OVER DISTRIBUTION OF STUDENT INFORMATION TO MILITARY RECRUITERS?

FAROKHI: Yes, I think I’m in favor of it, based on what I understand of it.

WESTLAKE: I’m aware of it, I haven’t read it. The concept is making sure parents are aware their children are basically being marketed to, they need to know their rights. All students should be given options, not just the disadvantaged schools. All students should be given options for college, not just the affluent schools. I spent four years in the military. Stephanie Benfield has endorsed me.

ANALYSIS: Identical responses, with more elaboration from Westlake.

8. LAST YEAR, DEKALB COUNTY WAS CONSIDERING A CONTROVERSIAL MARINE ACADEMY, WHICH ADVOCATES WORRIED WAS A PIPELINE TO THE MILITARY. IT WAS CANCELLED LAST YEAR. WHAT IS YOUR VIEW?

FAROKHI: I was not in favor of it… I’d rather not elaborate.

WESTLAKE: I had mixed emotions about that. I was in the Air Force ROTC in high school. A lot of people didn’t go into the military but got something out of it. I think you have to be very careful, it should not be a pipeline into the military. Learning the discipline that comes from that type of setting- it doesn’t mean I haven’t seen young people benefit.

I came from a working class family. There was not a lot of money for college. My concern is that it’s not the only option.

ANALYSIS: Farokhi’s answer was stronger in the sense of opposing the school, but her unwillingness to elaborate raises the question of why. Meanwhile, Westlake was more willing to discuss the issues involved but remained ambiguous about his final position on the school.

9. RECENTLY, A SCHOOL IN GEORGIA ALLOWED A MALE STUDENT TO BRING HIS BOYFRIEND TO THE PROM. DO YOU SUPPORT HOMOSEXUAL COUPLES AS MUCH AS HETEROSEXUAL COUPLES ATTENDING SCHOOL FUNCTIONS LIKE DANCES?

FAROKHI: I was proud of Georgia for not being the state that looked at it negatively. There was also a school in Mississippi which didn’t allow it and then the parents tricked the children into attending something that wasn’t the real prom. Mississippi handled that so poorly. I’m in favor, to me it’s a non-question.

WESTLAKE: Yes.

ANALYSIS: Identical responses.

10. RECENTLY, THERE WERE TRAGIC SUICIDES OF STUDENTS BULLIED IN GEORGIA SCHOOLS, INCLUDING IN CASES WHERE THE BULLYING WAS RELATED TO THE PERCEIVED SEXUAL ORIENTATION OF THE STUDENTS. WHAT CAN BE DONE TO REDUCE BULLYING OF ALL STUDENTS IN TERMS OF SPECIFIC PROGRAMS AND OPTIONS FOR STUDENTS TO REPORT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THEM?

FAROKHI: Right now, there’s legislation in the House and Senate to strengthen anti-bullying policies in the State. I’m very much concerned with any sexual harassment. Our kids have to be safe where they are not threatened…

There’s an impact on education. [Student who have been bullied] began to really suffer. They would drop out, their grades fall, emotional trauma. You have to make sure any adult that works with our children understand what bullying is, be able to recognize and intervene the first time it occurs: every secretary, attendance taker, cafeteria worker, bus drivers, facility workers.

The minute something happens then an adult can intervene and make all the difference in the world. I have concern not only with the child being bullied but also the one who’s doing the bullying because something’s going on in his or her life.

Then they have to have resources and support, working with students in a diverse, tolerant environment. We have to have a climate in the school, what’s unacceptable behavior is unacceptable behavior, understand each other, be respectful of differences.

There was a national project dealing with harassment, and they made it almost a club, how to deal with harassment. We need to set an environment where more kids are willing to stand up for other kids. One of the things, if you don’t speak up, then you’re part of it. Somebody’s got to say, this is unacceptable. It becomes a violence issue, young people are committing suicide because they have nowhere to go and they’ve internalized it. That’s tragic.

WESTLAKE: Bullying needs to be taken a lot more seriously. The state needs to make sure there are clear policies involved. Teachers need to know where they need to report. The State School Superintendent can’t do everything themselves. We need to work with the local school district to develop procedures.

ANALYSIS: Farokhi’s answer was more thorough and detailed.

11. DO YOU SUPPORT A STUDENT WHO WANTS TO CROSS-DRESS, OR WEAR TRANSGENDER CLOTHING TO SCHOOL, AS LONG AS THEY COMPLY WITH A GENDER-NEUTRAL DRESS CODE? FOR EXAMPLE, ALLOWING A MALE STUDENT TO WEAR A SKIRT TO SCHOOL AS LONG AS THE SKIRT WAS A CERTAIN LENGTH OR LONGER?

FAROKHI: I don’t have an issue with that. The issue is what is the climate of that school? Is it gonna be in a climate where harassment is going on already? From a legal standpoint, I’d say yes, but we have to be cautious. That’s where the expertise of the principal has to be acknowledged. They are a better judge of that than me. They would know whether it would be dangerous for the student, as protection for him or her.

If it’s a diverse school already that’s one thing, but if it’s a homogeneous school, the local school needs to be able to say this is an opportunity to discussion. To learn from this person. The principal may know it will create anger and bigotry. Until we can address this, we need to protect students from attack.

WESTLAKE: I think we’re not going to be able to change the decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States with regard to freedom of expression. I believe the jurisprudence is, as long as it’s not disruptive. I think that makes sense.

ANALYSIS: Westlake had the stronger response on this question. While Farokhi’s concern that the local school district would need to be sensitive to possible safety issues for the student was reasonable, she did not indicate that she would ultimately support the student in his or her decision.

12. WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP EXTREMELY LOW-INCOME STUDENTS ACHIEVE EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS?

FAROKHI: Funding opportunities for them that are provided to those in affluent communities. There’s a huge socioeconomic divide in Georgia. In some cases, the resources are not there. One thing in affluent communities, there are more resources available to students. In Cobb, in addition to state and local funding, parents have started a foundation to provide additional resources.

Parental involvement is a big issue, to be there physically. There were so many more parents than they needed in Cobb that they said, take some of those volunteers and say we have enough, do you think you can go help this school down the road?

We need better equitable funding for schools that don’t have a strong [local property tax] tax base. There needs to be someone who’s an advocate willing to go to the legislature and develop working relationships, not just at budgetary time.

WESTLAKE: We have to make sure public schools they attend are providing them quality educational opportunities. We need to recognize that each community and school are dealing with different challenges. One school may need three full-time social workers, School B may not need any. It’s making sure at some level close to the ground, that teachers have the resources they need to deal with the student population. A lot of the time, we have a one size fits all model, where all schools have to have the same thing.

ANALYSIS: Farokhi’s response was strong in terms of calling for state funding to help equalize results across schools in terms of per-pupil spending. However, Westlake’s response did more to anticipate social work resources that extremely low-income students might need.

13. WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP HOMELESS STUDENTS ACHIEVE EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS?

FAROKHI: I don’t understand what you’re getting at in the question because there’s a federal law that says you can’t ask the students if they’re homeless, regardless of where they live or don’t live, they have a right to attend public school.

Editor: Okay, but suppose the student does tell you they’re homeless. What kind of supportive services might they need?

FAROKHI: You have to have social workers and good counselors.

WESTLAKE: It’s gonna be hard to concentrate on school when you don’t know where you’re going home that night. We need to work with community-based organizations that can find housing. They might need access to clothing, health care, dental.

ANALYSIS: Westlake’s answer was stronger in anticipating needs of homeless students, although both answers left something to be desired given that there are thousands of homeless Georgia students every year.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

Revised syndication policy:

Our syndication policy was updated June 2007. For more information on how to syndicate Atlanta Progressive News content, please visit: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/extras/syndicate.html

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