Thursday, October 24, 2019

Franklin Candidate Interview: Elise Stokes

I sat with Elise Stokes recently to discuss the following questions regarding her candidacy for the Franklin School Committee.

Some of you will recognize the questions as these were collected from the survey we shared in August. While many submitted questions were similar, I tried to select 6 for each Town Council and School Committee candidate that would help to present them to you all, my fellow voters.

As I have shared in prior years, the candidates do get to review the output before it is published but I retain final editing rights. Interviews with candidates are not an exercise I take lightly; it matters greatly to our community to get accurate information from our candidates to enable voters to make an informed decision to run our government.

For the following FM presents the question. ES represents Elise's response.
FM = There are and have been many opportunities to volunteer with community groups in Franklin. Have you taken advantage of any of these? Which ones, and why did you choose that/those?

ES = Franklin has so many wonderful community groups! As a working parent, I balance my time commitments to ensure I’m able to give enough attention and energy to the things that matter most to me at this point in my life. For me right now, that’s education. My kids went to Franklin Children's School for pre-school, so I volunteered on the Board of Directors there for 3 years. I liked getting involved that way, getting to know the school and the families; we still keep in touch with many staff and families from their preschool days!

For the last two years, I have volunteered for the Davis Thayer School Council and that experience has been helpful in understanding the school improvement plan and how it's being implemented. We also worked together on the homework policy, family engagement, and “Portrait of a Graduate”. I was able to share a parent voice in our discussions. I also volunteer with the PCC; helping out at Field Day, at the dances, etc. Some other volunteer activities that I enjoy are reading books in the classroom, shelving library books, making copies.

Really all my volunteer work in Franklin has been school-based. I appreciate the schools and I choose to spend my (limited) free time helping out however I can. If elected to school committee, I’ll look forward to shifting my volunteer efforts to collaborate with fellow school committee members to support the district’s work of educating the next generation.

FM = Where do you get your news about Franklin?

ES = Obviously, Franklin Matters is a main source of Franklin news. I flagged it to be the first thing in my newsfeed on Facebook which is really helpful. Also, I feel fortunate to have a lot of highly educated and informed folks who can help me get the pulse on things that are happening. Then I can dive deeper to get more information later. I also go to the School Committee web page, and that has all the news related to school committee.
FM = The possibility of a change in school start times was a recent controversial topic taken up by the School Committee. Where do you stand on the issue of school start times in Franklin and what actions do you plan to take around this issue during the next term of the School Committee?

ES = I give credit to everybody who was on the school start times committee, they did so much work and spent so much time (all volunteer hours) and that dedication is so important. However, there were so many things that made the school start times issue really polarizing within the community. The way the proposal was written, I wouldn't have supported it if I was on the School Committee at the time. If implemented as designed, there would have been negative effects on the elementary school students, childcare after school, middle school clubs, high school after school jobs and sports, availability of rink time or gymnastic time, and other factors.

I understand the research on sleep. I know how important it is for a variety of reasons, for everybody in general. I do a lot with sleep hygiene with my own kids, with myself, and with kids that I work with in schools. Bedtime routines are so important. Not just Monday through Thursday but every night, and every morning. It can be an uphill battle but there are a lot of strategies that can help. It would be beneficial to educate the parents and guardians about sleep hygiene, and educate the teens and kids themselves at all levels, to give them an understanding of the importance and strategies that help. I think this is an opportunity for family education outside of school: How can we make that work with help from community resources? I think there could be a lot of creative problem solving around involving different agencies, not just the school having to bear the brunt.

I'm a curious and thorough person and I use data to help guide decisions. I would like to be part of the start time conversations. It takes time to do research and reach out to the community, it takes a lot of time! I would like to help ensure that's happening in an efficient way for everybody.
FM = While the current School Committee has attempted to reach the community through various forms of communication including coffee chats, email newsletters, attending events such as the farmers market, etc., they have been generally unsuccessful at increasing the engagement with important issues related to the schools. What actions will you take to increase citizen engagement with the School Committee?

ES = The school start time issue in a way was a real blessing because it made people pay attention. Because it was so polarizing and it gave people a sense of urgency like: “Oh no! if I don't get involved, this could happen and really affect my finances, my kids, my job,” etc. That's sort of scary. You do need a sense of urgency; you have to have something that's going to drive motivation to change and become more involved.

I've done work with school districts that have high poverty rates and families dealing with trauma. I know this is not Franklin’s majority, but all families should be considered when we talk about engagement. A helpful incentive to engage families is to offer childcare and food. The schools that get higher parent engagement at meetings and events offer childcare and food. It meets the basic needs of families. They're offering childcare at some town meetings in Medfield now. I want to find out details; how is Medfield doing it? Can we not reinvent the wheel; can we have childcare, and food, and get more people to meetings? Franklin High School students need community service hours, could that be an option?

Also, in general, how do we make people feel like that they are welcomed and are not intimidated to speak? How do we make people feel like they're a part of this community? That they have an important voice? We can try different things; look at other towns and see what they're doing. We can learn from other situations and replicate successful components. I'm open to ideas. I like creative problem solving.
FM = The Town Administrator has suggested that the School Committee investigate the possibility of closing Davis Thayer Elementary as a possible cost-saving mechanism for the town in these tight economic times. Where do you stand on this issue and what actions will you take to support your stance?

ES = Both my kids go to Davis Thayer; I love Davis Thayer. I have friends and neighbors that work and volunteer there. I volunteer there. I think one of the things that strikes me the most is the positive school climate at Davis Thayer. For work, I go into districts in MetroWest and across the state, so I have a wide perspective to compare. When entering a school building, you can feel the school climate. Whether it's a really positive, nurturing, welcoming school climate or whether it's rigid, or whether the kids and teachers don't care. You can feel it. When you go into Davis Thayer you feel the school, it’s really powerful, warm, and nurturing. They really know those kids, love those kids, and do a great job teaching those kids. The recent MCAS shout-out was really important and validating to all of the Davis Thayer staff.

Personally, I would love to keep Davis Thayer open. But the decision is not up to me. It takes time, lots of voices, and lots of data, to get all the information for a big decision like that and I think it's worth taking the time to do it right. I don't have a personal agenda coming into the School Committee. Even if I got elected, I'd be one of seven. I’d work together with the other members to share perspectives and data and come to consensus.

There have been whisperings for decades about closing Davis Thayer, and there are lots of emotions surrounding that issue. It comes down to the numbers: budget, enrollment, population projections of who's moving into all the new construction being built everywhere in town. I think it's important to hire an outside consultant that specializes in this and really looks at these numbers. Then of course looking at the actual building structure and how much it would cost to bring it up to code. It's not ADA compliant and the safety features need to be updated. Can we make it work without just putting a Band-aid on it? It's a beautiful building, it has so much history and it has such a culture. It’s important to this district. It would be hard to close. But we have to look at the data.

I want to be part of that data process. I want to make sure that the question is clear, the measures are sensitive, the data collection is valid. I want to be sure everything is really tight. Once we go through that process, the resulting data will tell the story. We want to make sure the community is involved the whole time, that our methods are transparent and communicated to the stakeholders. People don't like change and people certainly don't like surprises. This is an emotional issue that will hopefully motivate people to engage in the process.

Elise’s Closing Statement

“I grew up on the Southcoast of Massachusetts. When I became a mom, I decided to move my family to Franklin because I know the value of a strong school district. I chose to buy a small home here, instead of a bigger house in another town, because education is my priority. My kids are now in 1st and 4th grades in the Franklin schools. We love this community and can’t imagine being anywhere else!

I’ve worked in the field of education for 20+ years. At the start of my career, I was an inclusion classroom teacher at the early childhood level. I’m also a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst, a trainer for The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) Leading Educational Access Project, and I completed the DESE Special Education Administration Licensure. Before I had kids, I worked extra hours at UMASS Medical School, designing and implementing grant-funded parent education courses in Autism education and healthy habits for teens with Down Syndrome. At the graduate level, I taught courses in special education and ABA as an Adjunct Professor at Endicott College, and I was a fieldwork supervisor for BCBA candidates at Simmons College.

My current work as a consultant to school districts is built around collaborating with district administrators to assess and customize support to meet their needs (including consultation, coaching, program evaluation, professional development). I’m grateful to work with districts in MetroWest and beyond. My work emphasizes Social Emotional Learning and prioritizes authentic connections between staff and students: because without connection, no real learning can occur. Through my work, I’ve developed a keen understanding of how school districts operate. From the inside, I’ve seen how other districts manage educational issues and trends, and that perspective is invaluable to me as a parent, professional, and school committee candidate. That background knowledge, paired with the strong connections I’ve made with Franklin families, school staff, and community members, would certainly be an asset to the Franklin School Committee.

I have grown a wide social network here in Franklin, and I’m a good listener. I’m looking forward to working closely with community members and collaborating with the other members of the School Committee to help support the district to achieve its Mission to educate our next generation.

I’m STOKED to run for School Committee!”

* Note: for those counting, yes there are only 5 questions for Elise. The 6th, which I forgot to include in the conversation, is actually covered with her closing statement so we got to the same end.

Franklin Candidate Interview: Elise Stokes
Franklin Candidate Interview: Elise Stokes

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