As the Board of Education race approaches its November finish line, all three candidates vying for a seat emphasized the need for parental involvement in the school system during a public forum Tuesday.
The forum — hosted by New Haven’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center — featured District 1 competitors Edward Joyner and Jim O’Connell, as well as Darnell Goldson, a former alder who is running unopposed in District 2.
The candidates made great efforts to convince the audience of roughly 20 New Haven residents and Yale students that they most deserved a seat on the Board. But as questioning began, all candidates coalesced behind a commitment to build the New Haven Public Schools system with the help and input of students’ parents.
“Even if we build a great school system, it is useless if kids don’t take it home with them,” Joyner said before the crowd.
Historically, the mayor has appointed each member of the city’s Board of Education. But in a 2013 referendum, the city’s charter was revised to include four elected members — two nonvoting high school students and two community members with full voting powers — in addition to five appointed members for the Board.
Joyner, who is running on the Democratic ticket against Republican O’Connell, told the audience he has done “everything you could possibly do in education,” including teaching students at all levels, from fifth-graders to doctoral candidates. He added that he has served in numerous administrative capacities within education.
O’Connell, who has been a teacher at Waterbury’s Sacred Heart High School for 37 years, acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of New Haven voters are registered as Democrats. But during a Tuesday interview with the News, he said his Republican affiliation would offer the Board a fresh perspective.
Goldson, a lifelong New Haven resident who has been through the city’s public school system, said his intimate knowledge of NHPS will serve as good preparation to sit on the Board. He added that his work with anti-poverty nonprofit organizations in southern Connecticut and beyond will be particularly useful while on the Board, given the high proportion of District 2 residents below the poverty line.
Alpha Phi Alpha, an organization that has advocated for improvements in ethnic-minority students’ education since the 1920s, allowed attendees to submit questions to the candidates online and in writing before the meeting began.
Goldson said parents must feel as though they are being listened to and respected by decision-makers in the school system in order for changes to directly benefit their children. He added that it is concerning that parents, particularly those in low-income areas, feel ill-equipped to help their children with homework. The Board should consult with experts to determine creative solutions to this problem, he said.
“If you don’t have parental involvement, you lose half the battle,” Goldson said.
In the same vein, O’Connell commended Sacred Heart’s family-like atmosphere, adding that it is important to foster a sense of academic ownership among students. He noted that attracting and retaining qualified teachers should be a priority for the Board.
Former Board President Brian Perkins SPH ’92, who moderated the event and served on the committee that implemented the Board’s new hybrid system, expressed cautious optimism about the partially elected board. He said it will be particularly important to select candidates uninterested in “self-aggrandizement,” given that the Board members are public servants.
Tuesday’s event was not the first opportunity New Haven residents had to hear from the three candidates. Citywide Parent Team, an organization that allows parents across the district to mobilize around concerns with the school system, hosted a similar forum at Wilbur Cross High School last Thursday.
Jennifer Ricker, who serves on Citywide Parent Team’s steering committee, said the motivation behind the first event was to start engaging parents and encourage them to make their votes count during the Nov. 3 election.
According to Goldson, issues under discussion during this year’s election are especially urgent.
“We have a very limited amount of time to make a difference for this generation,” he said. “The fact that we have 20 people [present] rather than 200 speaks to the fact that this issue — as much as we say it is important — still is not important enough for people to come out and discuss.”
Ugonna Eze ’16, the Republican candidate for Ward 1 alder, was one of the 20 in attendance at Tuesday’s open forum.
Eze said the forum was a great opportunity to hear different visions for NHPS, adding that he looks forward to working with whomever is elected.
Elections for the first high school student members, Coral Ortiz and Kimberly Sullivan, took place in June.