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Education specialist Sasser seeks seat on Columbia school board

Katherine Sasser is leaning on her experience working in Columbia Public Schools and in public education to make the case for voters to elect her to the school board.

Sasser spent nine years teaching in Columbia Public Schools and works on improving rural education through a program at the University of Missouri. She is one of four political newcomers seeking election to the board. Sasser, Luke Neal, Aron Saylor, Jeanne Snodgrass and incumbent Teresa Maledy are also seeking one of the two available seats.

Family: Three children, ages 9, 7 and 4.

Education: Bachelor's in secondary education with an emphasis on social studies, master's in curriculum and instruction, educational specialist degree in educational leadership with a K-12 principal certification

Occupation: Educational program coordinator with eMINTS National Center at the University of Missouri

Previous political experience: None

How do you think the school board has handled the COVID-19 pandemic and in-person teaching?

So the school board has kind of been charged with a really, really impossible task and unprecedented challenge this year, obviously, with a COVID pandemic that none of us could have predicted. And I think they did a really great job setting up structures and options pretty quickly so that students could learn either virtually or face to face, and it was safe.

And I think the district also did a good job being responsive, kind of as the pandemic evolved, making sure that they revisited plans to try to think through, what can we do now? How can we shift? How can we get schools open?

One thing I would have wished that the district would have focused more on ... early on is thinking about creative problem solving around how we could have gotten kids together more safely more quickly. So my family made the decision pretty early on to collaborate with a few other families and do a pod school mode where my students, my children are virtually learning but also kind of have that opportunity to socialize with a really small number of other kids. And I recognize that my privilege and my access to resources has allowed me to set that up and the families that I went in with to do this.

We reached out to the district and we said, is this ... something that we can do for all students? How can we think about utilizing the community resources that we have (like the) Boys and Girls Club, put into practice ... this type of mode for families who need it? And how can we think outside of the box in this situation to give kids kind of a holistic experience of learning that they're physically safe, and that they also have an opportunity to be with their peers when we know socialization is so important for our students?

Conservative politicians have attacked some curricula being used in public schools, particularly as it relates to history, slavery and critical race theory. Do you see any problems with the CPS curriculum in this or other areas?

As a former social studies teacher, I really appreciate this question. I taught American history and world history. And one thing I believe strongly is that our curriculum has to reflect and represent our diverse student experiences and student population. So one way we can do that is through training teachers in what's called culturally responsive teaching. And that's basically when we help teachers understand how to be culturally competent, right.

And so not just in the curricular areas, but also in the way that they create culture in a classroom and community to classroom and brings students along and learning we want, we want to make sure that those modes of teaching are are creating a supportive atmosphere for all students. I just spoke with a Parkade (Elementary School) teacher the other day, who's integrating the Black History 360 curriculum in their kindergarten classroom, and getting a really overwhelming positive response, both from students and from parents of all backgrounds in that classroom about how starting students young and conversations around our diverse community is really important and essential in figuring out how to be good citizens and care for each other.

So I think we need to take those kinds of examples and figure out how do we make that systemic in our system, so that all of our teachers are equipped to support the diverse students in their classrooms.

Should parents be able to record meetings to talk about their children’s individualized education plans?

I've had some conversations with parents of students with disabilities around this. And I've also had conversations with teachers around this. In fact, in my degree program, my specialist degree, we sat around as a group of teachers and talked about it, it was when it was kind of a big, a big moment conversation, pre-pandemic.

And I think, having been a teacher in those IEP meetings, I think we have to remind ourselves that the purpose of IEP meetings is to come together as a team of adults and experts, experts around school or experts around our child, and figure out what's best for that student. And so in those spaces, it can be very overwhelming for a parent to come in and understand all the paperwork and feel like they're on an even playing field. And so I can understand the lean in toward, hey, if I have an opportunity to record this, I can go back through and I can have a better sense of what my student's getting. And I think teachers, also at times wearing many hats, get overwhelmed by the process as well. So if they're not the special educator in the room, they're they might have some experience with this paperwork, but not a lot.

And so I think we need to do two things in this space, we need to equip our teachers and our parents to be able to enter that space in a way where they feel like they have agency. And I think we need to honor the conversation that parents are telling us when they say what we need, in order to fully access the space is an opportunity to record. And what I've heard from these parents of students with disabilities is that conversation's kind of been put off the table. And so I think at very least what we need to do is get those voices around the table together to talk about the challenges to talk about the differences in opinion and move forward in conversation, having let parents teachers and the district administration have a say in what is possible given those district constraints.

What should CPS do to narrow the achievement gap between some groups of students?

I really appreciate this question. And I also think it's really important for us to start reframing that phrase of achievement gap and start talking about opportunity gap, because achievement gap really puts the onus on the student who's not succeeding, whereas opportunity gap puts the onus on the system that we have that's not providing our students what they need.

And so when we think about the opportunity gap, we know that disproportionately our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students are low-income students, our students with disabilities aren't getting the services they need so that they can achieve. And so what we need to do is allocate our resources to those most critically impacted groups, and be looking at the work that we're doing through an equity lens.

I was just reading a research study this week about students who have migrated to the United States and our English language learners. And one student was followed around for three days. And in that three days, she never spoke a word in class. She didn't speak a word to any other students. She didn't speak any words to her teachers. This student is being held accountable at the end of the year on a state test where she has to speak English for her achievement. If we look at that through an equity lens, that's problematic. And the question we have to ask ourselves is what supports do we need to put in place and expectations do we need to put in place ... so she can succeed given her context.

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Matthew Sanders

Matthew Sanders is the digital content director at ABC 17 News.

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