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Karen Sylvester running for Area 1 School Board


Interviewer: So let’s start off, are you able to introduce yourself and what your current occupation is?

Sylvester: Sure. So my name is Karen Sylvester, I’m running for the CVUSD board of education in area one. I am currently retired from being a management business consultant, but I did that many years ago. I’ve spent the past eighteen years as a parent leader and parent volunteer in the various school sites as well as the district level.

Interviewer: So why did you choose to run for school board and what are some concerns you have to address in your area?

Sylvester: I have been involved in the schools since my oldest started kindergarten, which is in 2001…I realized a couple things: one, my youngest was graduating, and two, there was an opportunity with the new trustee seats or areas there was no one in this area, and three, so much of my life has been shaped by what I’ve done, and my kids benefited so greatly from the education they received, that it was almost a calling, like I felt like I needed to give back to the district. I had the time, since, you know, I was gonna be an empty nester, I have the energy, I have the background, I have a whole set of business skills which we haven’t even talked about…I do believe that at the end of the day every kid- every student- really needs to be able to achieve their best outcomes, and what that means is education needs to be provided equitably- and that’s not equally, that’s equitably…The third thing is, you know, we live in California. There’s just not that much money, there’s just not that many resources, devoted to education, which is a real shame. So I think being able to look at the budget and be able to advocate for funding and do creative things and look at costs is an important aspect of all this.

Interviewer: I see you have had experience in business consulting as well as serving on various district advisory councils, so [what have you done there] to prepare you to be a trustee?

Sylvester: For the past nine years I’ve been a representative to the district advisory council, what is called D.A.C, you guys have SDAC now but this DAC. So I would say for the first nine years I kind of did my thing on each of the various school sites and helped raise money, support teachers, communicated with parents and what not. And what I realized pretty quickly when I started attending DAC meetings, because they were monthly, there’s a representative from every school there. It occurred to me that even though the unified school district the challenges on the various school sites differ quite dramatically and, parent engagement and the ability to fundraise at a school like Westlake Hills is very different than that of some of our Title One schools or some of the other elementary schools. So I started realizing that there were challenges that were very different outside of the schools my own kids went to, so I think just understanding that is helpful as a DAC representative…We need trustees who when they get seated in the beginning of December are up that learning curve, know what they are doing, and understand all of the issues, understand the context and history of the district…I’ve got the context and history of seeing what works and what doesn’t and I think that is just a [valuable] experience…I’ve spent fifteen years in the business world…you learn and approach, what I like to call an approach to decision making and problem-solving, which is you do your homework. I don’t go into things without researching whether it is ed code or the financial statements underline something…It is kind of like listening to everybody and listening to all the viewpoints it helps with your decisions.

Interviewer: Out of curiosity for measure I, there has been talk of more funding for keeping up with sanitation when we do return to school. Is that money going to come from measure I? 

Sylvester: So when Measure I was passed which was, I want to say six years ago and it was voted on this was something that went on the ballot, problems such as those in the state of California there are some strict prohibitions or strict delinations on how that money can be used. Basically, it is things like capital infrastructure so the stem building up at Westlake High School is one example, the library at TO high school, redoing the swimming pool at Newbury Park high school, but that is all Measure I funds. The other thing Measure I can be used for is technology, so the way the district has decided to do that is every year each school within the district is given about one hundred dollars per student to use so they can purchase technology. Things like cleaning supplies that need to come out of the general fund, that is not a part of the way Measure I was written…To answer your question all of the extra costs associated with the pandemic and getting back to school, unfortunately, is going to have to come out of the general funds and that’s an extra expense.

Interviewer: A lot of the candidates this year have expressed their top priorities to be handling school board discussions at meetings respectfully. What are your thoughts on that? 

Sylvester: I personally would not want to be part of any discussion where people were not speaking respectfully to each other, that is not how I operate I don’t think that is the way any organization should operate. I think you can have different viewpoints, I think it’s healthy to have different viewpoints, I don’t think any organization, whether school board or school newspaper. If everyone thinks the same way and has the same opinion that’s not good decisions and does not get made that way.

Interviewer: So regarding what has happened in the past few months with COVID, what are your thoughts on distance learning and do you think there are any areas of improvement for the district? 

Sylvester: I would say in the spring it was fairly clear and uniform that nobody was particularly happy[with distance learning], and I know in my own household I had a second semester senior so I do understand that engagement levels maybe we’re not going to be the same. The decisions made back then and I don’t think they were bad decisions but decisions made back then to prioritize social-emotional health and not have kids worry about their grades. That had a negative impact on attendance…So I wholeheartedly think imposing and having some synergynet learning is absolutely critical. Having kids go to class, absolutely critical, grading, absolutely critical…Train parents on the technology, train parents on some tools I think that would improve distance learning tremendously. I think teacher training from everything I have seen the teachers are working really, really hard…I hope that the students and the families that want to go back will have the opportunity to go back but not everybody will, so I think getting remote learning right is very, very critical. I think the district is taking steps in the correct direction, there is no playbook here this is all kind of new to everyone…One of the points a few of the students made was they felt that with the pace really being twice as fast as before they were worried that from day to day or class to class they were having trouble with retaining the material. They were incredibly worried about what happens when the quarter changes and they are not going to have a class or for one quarter. So these are all really legitimate concerns.

Interviewer: How do you feel about reopening school at this moment? 

 Sylvester: At this moment I fully support, there are two initiatives going on. One getting vulnerable populations back on campus and which is allowed now and I fully support that, I think for kids IEP’s, kids who are learning English I think kids with learning services need to get back on campus. It needs to be done safely. I don’t want to put any kid at risk. I don’t want to put teachers at risk…once we move into the red [tier] and if we stay in the red[tier] or whatever the latest hurdles are, I would like to see a slow rollout. I don’t think we open the school on day one and everybody comes back….you monitor and you put in the right protocols, that’s clear. You need to keep the small class sizes, you need to take temperatures, you need to clean desks, you need to encourage the little kids to wash their hands and wear their masks…I’ll [reiterate] recognizing that not everyone will come back so we don’t abandon remote learning by any stretch, we need to continue to strengthen and make sure that is a robust alternative.

Interviewer: How would you continue to address the issue with students having access to the necessary technology? 

Sylvester: If you are learning remotely you obviously need a computer and you need the wifi and what not but honestly if tomorrow COVID went away everyone went back to school full time and we weren’t doing remote learning you still need a computer and access to the internet. I do believe that that is an absolute essential tool for every student regardless of whether their learning remotely or learning in school…I fully support money spent by the district and making sure people have these devices. Anything we can do with businesses to help with defray or make it free high-speed internet I support fully.

Interviewer: What do you think are some things the district should be doing to help support students and teachers besides the education [itself]? 

Sylvester: Training for teachers in professional development is key for students…I think the social-emotional health of everybody really needs to be focused on and it is nice to see the elementary schools and middle schools they put that time in their day and the high schools you guys don’t have that time built in teachers need to mindfully provide that…So to the extent that the district can continue providing time for the social-emotional connections to the extent that they can. Publicize referrals and let families and students know where to go when they’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious or stressed.

Interviewer: What do you think are some areas that the district is doing well and some areas you hope to see improved in terms of providing equal access to opportunities regardless of [race, financial status or any other factor]?

Sylvester: There was/is a group called PRIV and they really started advocating for their own kids at the district level and now we have CDAC which is the special education DAC which has become a force within the district. So I think that things are heading in the right direction. [The fact] that the district went on the path of putting together an equity task force and then again these are unanimous votes, that’s a signal…There hasn’t been a significant improvement just from an education standpoint, from a college and career readiness standpoint there’s certain groups that are not doing as well. Graduation rates, suspension rates, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement in those areas. So again, I see improvement, I really do…There’s still a long way to go, long way to go.

Interviewer: What are your thoughts on how [English language learner] programs are being run? Any positive things? Any [room] for improvement in these programs?

Sylvester: So I think when you’re looking at things like language acquisition, one of the concerns is you have kids who are learning language at the same time they’re learning curriculum. So you want to make sure that their language acquisition is not getting in the way of their curriculum [retainment]…Some of the issues are, you don’t have a tremendous number of bilingual teachers…some of the admin are bilingual but not all the teachers…there’s been some hiring changes, but it’s far from really being enough. And I think that that’s the representation aspect and the hiring policies, I think would help tremendously in that area.

Interviewer: What is your thought process when evaluating [a book for core literature titles]?

Sylvester: I have met a couple times with Diversify Your Narrative, as well as the Justice in the Classroom [students], and I completely applaud their thoughts about diversifying the literature that is being taught at [high schools]…every grade level should include a BIPOC author, and I do believe that should go back into middle school as well. I also think that when books or even in elementary school level, when you’re talking about books that younger kids read or being read too, I would like to see the books they’re also reflecting on…various students and their backgrounds, even in elementary school…I do believe that literature should be driven by the educators. They’re the ones who- they understand the fuller context of what students are reading, they understand how they’re gonna guide the students through the books. Again, good idea to get some input from parents and students as well, but at the end of the day, I think it should be educator-driven and then obviously approved by the school board.

Interviewer: Do you believe that a diverse set of perspectives is necessary to be represented and is required for literature books for [the CVUSD]?

Sylvester: Absolutely. 

Interviewer: And how will you as a board member ensure that everyone’s voice is heard when deciding?

Sylvester: I think all the various DACs, the regular DAC, the SDAC, the DLAC, all of them [will] drop to the board and have a voice…at the table. I think as a trustee, going to these meetings, I know it as a DAC Rep for the past 5 years, there was always one or two board members at the DAC meeting. [Recently I’ve been] at a CDAC meeting and a SDAC meeting, and there was… one or two trustees at the meetings as well. So I think it’s good to have the students and their parents come to the board meetings, but I think as a board trustee, you need to go out into the community and the world and go to these meetings as well.

Interviewer: With the California Healthy Youth Act, the CVUSD committed to starting the health textbook selection cycle this year. What are your thoughts on including LGBTQ education in the health curriculum?

Sylvester: I believe we need to be compliant with the California Healthy Youth Act period. I know they’re working on ninth grade, but on other compliances in seventh grade as well. And a key component of the California Healthy Youth Act is to teach kids about gender, gender expression, gender identity, different types of relationships, sexual orientation [and] all that needs to be included. And it needs to be included not just because it’s the law of the land, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Interviewer: How would you say that the best way for the district to support LGBTQ students, specifically transgender students?

Sylvester: So much of this comes down to education, a lot of it comes down to training teachers, a lot of it comes down to having that curriculum, I mean having the California Health [Youth] Act and being compliant with it, I think would help support students in the classroom…starting when those kids are young, I mean that’s really when you start having the ability to teach kids acceptance, inclusion, kindness and anti-bullying and all of this stuff…I think it’s also getting back to literature and curriculum. I think it’s having LGBTQ students see themselves reflected in some of the books they read, see their families reflected…I don’t think it’s quite the way it was when I was in school, but I think there’s still a long way to go.

Interviewer: What are your thoughts on social and emotional learning in the classroom? Also known as teaching self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

Sylvester: This is something that teachers need to specifically embed in their teaching and embed in their curriculum, and they need the tools and the training in order to do that…What I love about what they’re doing in the pandemic is that for the middle schools and the elementary schools, they have what they call “Social-Emotional Learning Time.” I’ve heard various things about how that’s working out, to be honest, and it seems like some teachers are doing a better job of it than others, but at least it’s there, at least they’re trying. I would love to see some time like that set aside at the high school, and I don’t think that’s quite happened yet. And I’d love to see once we go back to life as normal or as normal as possible that that type of thing continues…I saw it with my own kids, you know, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. was go, go, go and you know, and you’re taking these number of classes, AP classes, you have to take a sport, and you have to do this, and it’s just a crazy world. I think things need to slow down a little so there is that time for self-reflection.

Interviewer: I was also wondering what your opinion is on Conejo Valley Social Emotional Specialized Programs? Such as the self contained classes for students with certain disabilities.

Sylvester: What parents and students want is to be included in the general population, to the extent possible. And there’s laws about that, there’s laws about offering the least restrictive environment to students…there is quite a spectrum, and there are students and children who really need so many resources that they probably can’t function in some of the general ed classes. But to the extent that they could find sometime in the day to work with general ed students, I think the more the better…even if you’re a general ed student, not every kid learns the same way. There’s [controversy] there. So, in my opinion, the more that we can have inclusion of our special ed population in with the classes, the better…This is the 21st century and learning to work with people with different abilities and backgrounds is absolutely key.

Interviewer: Do you have any ideas of programs you’ve used you could implement or thoughts on the programs they have to help students who are experiencing anxiety in that way?

Sylvester: There’s a couple things, so one is a lot of high school students feel they need to take seven, eight AP classes…So one of the things at Oak Park Unified School District has done…was to say “We’re going to limit the number of AP classes a student can take. We’re going to look at what your overall schedule looks like, and if you’re a baseball player and you have extra hours of baseball practice a day, we’re going to take that into account and you’re not going to be allowed to take more than x number of AP classes.” And what that does is- colleges, when you’re applying, colleges know that if you’re in Oak Park High School, you can’t take eight AP classes. So there’s no disadvantage of only taking only two or three…I would like to, at least explore that possibility…we’re talking about time for self-reflection, there’s no time for self-reflection if you’re taking the whole load of courses and you’re trying to do some co-curriculars, extracurricular activities or possibly even trying to hold a job.

Interviewer: What would be your top priority for district spending and do you think the district could better allocate its funds?

Sylvester: So every single program and every single dollar spent has to tie back to one of the four goals or more than one goal and so one way to prioritize it is to make sure of that, and I think what’s more important than what’s on a piece of paper is the paper saying you know this program ties back to the school is to make sure that you can measure the results of the program and you can go back and say okay we spent all this money on We The People. Did it do what we thought this would?…it is actually measuring the effectiveness of that program…if you can’t measure the effectiveness of spending a dollar that’s a problem.

Interviewer: How do you address the funds considering when we potentially do reopen schools, there’s gonna be a certain budget necessary for custodial surfaces and cleaning supplies? 

Sylvester: It is clear that there is going to be more costs in the district due to COVID, when we do reopen…I do believe as the school district we really need to advocate at the state levels as well as at the federal level for money…I’m sure we all know that California is ranked very close to the bottom in terms of spending per capita as well as number of counselors per student… I think a school board trustee advocating for as much funding as possible is absolutely critical. I do think that we need to make sure that in our own house that we manage our costs and that it goes by the all-cap costs and that every dollar we are spending is effective…The other way to increase the money we gather on the revenue is to increase your enrollment and that is a better way of doing it often than cutting costs. In the past, I don’t know how long it’s been going on, 5-10 years, our enrollment has been declining and it’s not a function of Conejo Valley, it is a function of the State of California…When you lose a student you lose funding from the state and you don’t lose all the costs associated with that one student. In other words,…it costs as much to run a school bus with 5 kids on it than it does to run a school bus with 20 kids on it. So, if you lose some of the costs maybe you need one less textbook, but you don’t lose all the costs. So to the extent that you can improve revenue and bring kids in, then I think you are in a much better shape than trying to cut costs…we can advertise and promote all of the great things we do to keep kids in the district and to quite frankly attract kids from outside the district…we can convert more of our elementary schools to magnet schools, they are a great way to rebrand schools…If we can do remote learning really really well,…that’s another way you keep kids in the district and attract kids from outside the district…You do your part and you cut the costs far away from students in classrooms as you possibly can and then you try to push that top-line revenue number as best you can.

Interviewer: So since students do make up a huge portion of our district, what is your position on lowering the voting age?

Sylvester: I think as long as you are 18 and can vote in the general election, I think you should be able to vote in the primary…What I do wish is that even 18 years olds tend not to vote. I don’t think that if you are 16 or 17, I do believe that if you are involved,…then you have the vote. What I worry about are all the 18 to 20-year-olds who don’t vote.

Interviewer: People that don’t have kids in the district vote in school board elections obviously but the students don’t really have a say. What are your thoughts on that?

Sylvester: It would be wonderful if you can get 16 or 17-year-olds to vote in for local politics and I would say that you guys are probably way more educated in voting in the school board election than probably the average citizen in Westlake who is going to show up and maybe would like my name or not like my name, you know vote on that basis…I don’t have a great answer on this one in terms of voting age, I will do my research and understand what the arguments are and I mean most of the students I’ve come into contact with, you guys are diverse in their narrative…If I had to pick between an informed 16-year-old to make a decision versus a 65-year-old who really has no idea what is going on then obviously I think you guys would make a better choice.

Interviewer: Do you have any final thoughts or anything to add to the interview?

Sylvester: I truly want the input of students, all students. I’ve had a few meet and greets where students have shown up, and it’s always just been fascinating to me and I mean I don’t have a student right now, so I don’t have the oh can I go look at Canvas type [of] thing. The more input I can get from you guys the better…I appreciate all the students and journalists who are doing and not just covering on what’s going on in the school and I do think that the school board election is critical for everybody and especially critical for students.

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Karen Sylvester running for Area 1 School Board