Q&A with School Board candidate Cristina Diaz-Torres

Q&A with School Board candidate Cristina Diaz-Torres

Q&A with School Board candidate Cristina Diaz-Torres

The Voice requested that all candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for the School Board submit answers to a series of questions. For more information on all the School Board Candidates, please visit the Candidate Page https://arlingtondemocrats.org/vote/candidates/

Ms. Diaz-Torres's responses follow.

Q: There are many different groups of stakeholders involved in the Arlington Public Schools (APS).   How do you intend to prioritize and engage with these groups and address conflicts between them?

I believe in a collaborative framework for education governance that brings teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members together to engage in the best interests of students. Like a teacher would build a lesson plan, we must begin all decision-making processes with a shared understanding of what we aim to accomplish and clear, transparent data. All stakeholders should be able to understand and have access to the metrics ( by which we measure success and we must recognize that all stakeholders -- and the communities they represent -- represent lived experiences of our fellow Arlingtonians. When everyone has a seat at the table, diverse groups of stakeholders can enact good policies that improve student outcomes. My promise to all of you is to be an engaged listener who enables all of your voices to be heard -- and to come to you when your voices have gone quiet. 

Everyday, I work with education organizations across the country to build equitable systems of education. As your next Board Member I will, as I do in my professional life, adopt a strong equity lens to my interactions with stakeholders. When presented with an opportunity to engage folks who have historically felt marginalized or un heard, I will always strive to elevate those voices. When presented with a choice between a decision that will advance equity, especially for our most vulnerable students, I will err on the side of increasing equity and opportunity.  Together, we will build systems that improve outcomes for all students across APS. 

Q: Decisions made by the state government in Richmond can affect APS. What is your view of Richmond’s impact, and are there specific state-level policy or procedural changes for which you would advocate?

The salient impacts of the VA General Assembly on APS are twofold. First, the GA defines state budget allocations for education -- amounting to approximately 12% of our Arlington County education budget. Second, the GA codifies education policy on topics ranging from staffing allocations to the definition of sexual education (a topic recently discussed during the Arl Dems Debate). Among the reasons I support a collaborative framework for education governance is because when local school boards, teachers, parents, and students unite -- they can successfully lobby the GA to adopt policy that benefits our local community.  

The Virginia Department of Education plays an even more significant role in setting policy -- establishing the Standards of Learning which govern academics and the Standards of Quality which establish minimum standards for staffing and resources. Accordingly, many of my policy and procedural recommendations are considered to be under the purview of the VDOE. The state must establish higher bars for  academic achievement and equity. Right now, our goal is for 75% of all students to be proficient in ELA and for  70% to be proficient in math by 2024-25. It’s unacceptable that the target is significantly lower for emergent bilingual students. The current target is for 58% of ELs to meet progress goals (as defined by ACCESS). If our goal is to help all students to succeed, we must begin by setting higher standards. Then, we design the systems necessary to ensure that all students meet those standards. 

Q: The current health crisis has presented unprecedented challenges. How would you evaluate and learn from APS’s response to the COVID-19 crisis to date, and how would approach the start of the new school year in the Fall?  

Let’s consider this question across three time horizons: 1) What must be done immediately  2) What must be done over the summer 3) What must we do in the fall. 

We should immediately begin evaluating the effectiveness and impact of the decisions we have made so far by looking at the data we have to see what is working and what is not. We need to ask questions about which students are currently engaged in distance learning, what are the demographic or socioeconomic patterns of the students who are not engaged, and  what are the needs our communities are asking for that we have not been able to meet. We need to communicate closely with our community partners to analyze all of our data to determine what to keep doing, what to stop doing, and what we should start doing in the fall. 

Over the summer, we must surmise a plan (and contingencies) for learning continuity in case of new waves of COVID-19. APS must partner with Arlington County to address disparities in food and internet access. We must work together to create systems that rapidly (and accurately) assess student progress and tools for learning that ensure all students succeed no matter their race, gender, background, learning or physical ability, family situation, legal status, or zip code.  Then, in the fall, we must prioritize the SEL needs of students - particularly those for whom home was not a safe space during the quarantine. Then, we will re-engage the students who were disconnected from learning over the summer. Later, comes dynamic analysis and action. We must understand and correct all recent learning deficits - and swiftly rehabilitate the students who have fallen most behind. As such, we must use data to correlate student demographics and learning loss - creating student-specific plans to remedy deficits

Q: Budgets are practical expressions of an organization’s priorities.  In broad terms, what is your assessment of the priorities expressed by the recent APS budgets and, if you would recommend changes, what are they and how would you fund them?  

Over the past ten years, our budgets have left too many students behind -- especially our english learners and our special education students. The last five budgets have funded many “helpfuls” over the essentials that could help students succeed. At the same time, APS has faced persistent budget shortages resulting budget cuts that frequently pulled resources from the students who need the most support (e.g., counselors, equity and excellence coordinators, etc.) or left our staff feeling underappreciated and underpaid -- especially relative to neighboring counties. 

Moving forward, we should reorient ourselves with a fresh of budget priorities that clearly aligns with our values of excellence and equity. First, let's reassess our planning factors to align w/ our principles of equity and with Universal Design for Learning principles. We already use this framework frequently in our instruction, so let's ensure that every classroom has the staff, time, and resources necessary to incorporate UDL. Then, we should be much more transparent in articulating how funds are used across the system. As it stands, we consolidate millions of dollars into categories like Purchased Services. School systems need resources to work -- but we can certainly drill down and identify what those proposed purchases are -- if they determine if they exceed a certain threshold (say $50,000).
   

Arlington can be a community that wants to invest in education and see a return on that investment for all students. 

Q: Much is spoken about the need for close collaboration between the School and County Boards. How would you evaluate the current state of that collaboration in actual practice and, if you see room for improvements, what would you do to achieve them?  

As a member of several local commissions, I have enjoyed a first-hand view of how collaboration between the School and County Boards has improved during recent years. Three specific examples of effective collaboration come to mind: 

  1. The county and APS are at the beginning of developing a long-range (e.g. more than 10 year) comprehensive Public Facilities Plan (PFAC). Last fall, the County Manager submitted a list of 25 county sites that might be appropriate for mixed and/or school system use. This type of long range planning will set both the county and APS up for success. 
  2. Over the past three years, we have systematically refined the formula for student projections to include county provided data. This has resulted in more accurate projections, but there is an ongoing plan to continue refining the algorithm to become even more precise over time. 
  3. Finally, I am excited to see the county and schools working together to address the needs exacerbated by COVID-19 -- by founding the Cooperative for a Hunger Free Arlington. This organization will serve as a backbone and coordinating entity with the ultimate goal of eliminating child hunger. 

There is still significant room for improvement -- particularly in areas like communications and alignment. Anyone, like me, who reads both the county and school board budgets each year, knows these budgets take on different sets of priorities. Both budgets must be grounded in the same core values. We must ensure that staff are coordinating and communicating instead of talking past one another. As a believer in a collaborative framework for education governance, I believe it is the duty of members of both boards to model this behavior - and I’m so proud to have former and current county board members endorsing my campaign and vision for improving relationships between the two groups. 

Q: What is one quality or experience that sets you apart from your fellow candidates? How will that quality or experience influence your perspective as a member of the School Board.

I’ve already discussed my experience as a teacher and education policy specialist. While that’s an important voice I would bring to APS, I also bring the unique perspective of what it is like to be a young person in today’s workforce. I went to college during the great recession, and encountered a lackluster job market upon graduation. I know what it's like to have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, what it's like to apply to a firm that has received thousands of applications for the same position, and what it's like to have to move out of an organization in order to grow. 

This is the reality that our students will face when they graduate from APS. We are long past an age when your first job grows into a 20 or 40-year career. In fact, for many Arlingtonians, one job is no longer enough. No matter what field they want to pursue, our graduates must be empathetic listeners, strategic thinkers, good collaborators, excellent communicators, and engaged citizens. As someone who has navigated this job market and who now sits on hiring committees, I deeply understand what it takes to be successful today.  

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