Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part in the Herald’s 2021 school board race coverage.
This year, one seat is being contested on the District 30 Board of Education. District 30 comprises Clear Stream, Forest Road and Shaw Avenue elementary schools. With a student population of nearly 1,500, according to State Education Department records, it is the second largest among Valley Stream’s three elementary school districts.
This year Shehla Islam and Abigail Arjune are challenging incumbent Kenneth Cummings, who has served as trustee on the board for nearly 16 years.
The past year has seen a major increase in conversations focusing on racial equity in the neighborhood, in which students of color are a majority, but its teaching staff remains largely white. Coverage of the race is intended to reflect this, among other issues.
The Herald conducted its interviews by email.
Islam vs. Arjune vs. Cummings
Herald: The state recently announced additional funding for universal pre-K. What are your thoughts about the importance of such a program, as well as working to implement or expand it in the district?
Shehla Islam: I believe universal pre-K is invaluable to a child’s overall development. Preschool teaches lifetime skills such as socializing with peers, solving problems and managing stress. Universal pre-K can ensure that all children, regardless of income, will be provided the same resources that children in private preschools receive. Children with special needs should be able to receive services such as physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy in their home district, instead of having to be sent to another
town for the same services. In terms of implementation, we should follow District 13’s lead in opening a preschool for 4-year-olds next fall. To be fair, the state should provide at least the same allocation amount in the “budget run”; as a result, there should not be any financial hurdles in forming a preschool in our own district. I do not find that space is an issue, being that the building and parking lot of the former Toys R Us has been empty since it closed down in 2018.
Abigail Arjune: Although free preschool classes were offered at Valley Stream South High School as of a few years ago, I believe the need for universal pre-kindergarten is high. We must be able to offer the pre-K curriculum to all our future doctors, lawyers, mechanics, psychologists, teachers and more essential workers. Universal preschool reduces racial and socioeconomic inequities because it offers a curriculum for children ages 3 and 4. Not only this, but it also offers high-quality programs to all, as well as multiple educational benefits. In all, universal pre-kindergarten programs should be offered here in Valley Stream just as in New York City.
Kenneth Cummings: Universal pre-K is such an important time to provide young children a learning opportunity. The issue that many Long Island school districts face is the space needed for such a program. District 30 would welcome the opportunity to have a pre-K, but doesn’t have the space in the schools to offer that program. Our schools have students in all classrooms and special learning events, such as music and art. The money that the state provides isn’t enough to sustain the program without increasing the tax levy, and all schools are subject to the tax cap.
Herald: Over the past year, issues of racial equity have come to the forefront in national and local conversations. In Valley Stream, an increasing disparity has emerged in recent years between the community’s diverse student body and its teaching staff, which has remained largely white. What are your thoughts about this disparity, and what systems do you imagine could be implemented, if any, to address it?
Islam: I believe new hires for teaching positions should reflect our diverse student population. We must create a system of equity that guarantees spots for teachers of color who have the same teaching credentials as a white person to be offered a teaching position. This will ensure that there will always be positions, and therefore opportunities open for people of color to work in the community’s schools. Eighty percent of the teachers across the country are white, compared to 7 percent being Black and 9 percent Hispanic. When students see a teacher that looks like them, they are more inclined to do better in school.
According to Johns Hopkins University, “Black students who have even one Black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college.” Having a teacher of color provides a role model for our children to look up to. Having a teacher of color means he or she can share their experiences of being a person of color, along with the challenges they have faced on their journey to becoming the adult that they are, and at the same time, share how they overcame adversities and thrived. A system of equity gives people of color a chance at the same salary, position, health insurance and pension benefits that have been afforded to their white counterparts for generations.
Arjune: As a student two years fresh out of high school, I am aware firsthand of the primarily white teaching staff. In both elementary and junior/high school, I have always had a great connection with my teachers, but I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I see a teacher of my ethnicity?” I remember having an Indian teacher for one of my classes and chatting with my other classmates, who were also brown, about how great it finally was to have a teacher of our skin color. It should not be this way, however.
It’s not that there aren’t enough BIPOC teachers in our district; it’s more about why Valley Stream is hesitant about hiring more BIPOC teachers. Nearly 80 percent of the teachers in Valley Stream District 30 identify as white, which contrasts with the student population, where about 20 percent identify as white. Of course, it isn’t as easy as going out to recruit new teachers. One must assess if there is an institutional block against people of color seeking teaching jobs. If there is a block, we must analyze and develop a change so as to not hinder the opportunity for people of color to be hired.
Cummings: District 30 has been a leader in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion and has included diversity in all of our five-year strategic plans. The board has worked with our superintendent to increase the pool of diverse candidates and continues to do so. I believe that it is important for students to have teachers and administrators who look like them. District 30 has worked with the Long Island Consortium for Excellence and Equity for several years to view education from an equity lens. This relationship will continue as well as the need to recruit diverse candidates to the teaching staff when positions become available.
Herald: As an individual school board member, what if anything would you like to see changed in regards to school district policy and procedures?
Islam: As a Board of Education member, I would like to see a diversity, equity and inclusion task force for each school. The task force would develop and maintain policies related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Members would include an administrator, teaching staff, parents, high school students and elementary school students. Issues the DEI Task Force would address include:
Additionally I see a need for increased mental health support for the 2021-2022 school year to address any trauma children have gone through due to the pandemic. Parents have also expressed the need for busing for their children to and from school.
Arjune: In terms of a procedure, I would like to see a diversity, equity and inclusion committee implemented by the school district. The policy would be that the people must be able to vote for who they want for the DEI team. Sometimes the school board members may not be fit for that, so it should be representative of the people. Although the residents vote for who should be in office, it is not necessarily the same representation for a diversity committee.
In addition, I would like to see a complete redesign of the current curriculum regarding how the school teaches its students about Black History Month, which should not just benefit the Black population for only one month. In general, the history of all minority groups should be included in our curriculum. Lastly, I would like to see the school district implement a procedure that highlights mental health or mental health awareness. In all, the school board must recognize the changing needs of its students and parents, thus being more inclusive of them, such as religious holidays, student consequences of actions and more.
Cummings: A concern that I think about is the ongoing funding of public education. We will get to a point where communities can no longer fund their school tax. Continued funding education is so important to students’ success. We will need to work with our legislators to come up with new funding strategies so that schools and children continue to be successful.