Four candidates will campaign for two seats on the Dublin Unified School District (DUSD) Board this November.
Voters will only select one individual for Area 1 and Area 4 in this election. Running for Area 1 are Dawn Nwamuo and Kristin Pelham. In Area 4, Gabi Blackman and Michael Utsumi will vy for the same seat. In a recent interview with The Independent, they each took time to answer questions regarding their experience, views and goals. Below are their answers in last-name alphabetical order by Area.
Can you please provide your background in education and what makes you a good candidate for the school board?
Nwamuo: Everyone's path is different. Mine included 27 years of education to become a medical doctor. This experience gave me exposure to education on many levels, which provided great insight into what works and equally important what doesn’t. Also, my mother was a teacher for 29 years; my sister has been a teacher and administrator for 22 years; and an aunt was an administrator for 30 years. I spent a lot of time with each of them debating and brainstorming about issues with schools and potential solutions. I value and respect teachers; they are the fabric of America. I frequently engage and contribute to teachers and administrators as part of my active engagement in my two sons' education and school affairs. The role of Trustee is governance with four key objectives, including hire and evaluate the superintendent, oversee and approve budget, oversee facilities, and approve curriculum. Doing this role successfully requires problem-solving, strong decision-making, commitment to progress and passion for the education of our youth and their future. In today’s world, it is critical to have a governance team that is diverse and has a variety of skills that combined can achieve the above goals. My experience as a medical doctor, Chief Resident, Chief of Breast Imaging, board member of two distinct budgeting boards, mother of two children and a resident of this community, have prepared me for being a well-qualified candidate for assuming this role and position. I have demonstrated success with diverse recruitment, managing million-dollar budgets, and leading or participating with teams to meet goals that can impact the wellness of tens of thousands of families in our community. I believe my experience and leadership skills in the field of medicine parallels the leadership skills needed in the educational system that will help DUSD manage and thrive.
Pelham: I have been a special education teacher in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District for 20 years. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education and a Master’s in Educational Leadership. I have been involved in school issues and committees for a long time in Dublin and understand the challenges facing the district at this time.
Blackman: A graduate of Cornell University, with a Bachelor’s in Architecture, I have over 20 years of experience in planning and programming, design and development of award-winning educational facilities and campuses across the United States. I am passionate about education, and bring the depth and breadth of my experience in education, as well as my extensive public-process expertise, to help lead the Dublin School Board. A 15-year resident in Dublin, with 3 children in our schools, I personally understand the challenges our students and families face, especially now during SIP. Deeply vested in helping Dublin, I’ve extensively volunteered in our schools and in our community, supporting teachers and helping students. Together with my background and expertise, I offer a unique ability to help address the needs of our district now and in the future, to ensure our campuses are safe, that we meet our growth needs, and that our education system excels in preparing students for success in a global economy.
Utsumi: I am running for school board trustee for many reasons. While I could not know it at the time, the efforts and energy that I have invested into the school district and this community have led me to this moment. I am the only trustee candidate that has invested personal time at all 12 school sites. This was one of the benefits of contributing to OneDublin.org as a Features Writer which highlighted “excellence in education.” In addition, I have worked as an in-classroom tutor for 10 years at Frederiksen Elementary School. And, I have served in leadership on the School Site Council for 10 consecutive years at three different school sites.
What do you feel are issues of significant importance to parents with children in the district? How do you intend to address them?
Nwamuo: Ensuring their children receive a high-quality education in a safe environment. This is true with both the temporary pandemic and ongoing social challenges in today’s world. Secondly, parents are concerned about equality within the school system, as many parents are of diverse backgrounds and origin. This is in regard to fair treatment of the children as well as the curriculum being delivered. Thirdly, parents are concerned about the future post-pandemic and how the school system will adapt and be flexible with what the future holds. The pandemic created a shock to the system, but we must learn from this experience and seize on changes that lead to superior experiences and deal directly with barriers. Before specific solutions
to each of these listed issues, I believe three things must be addressed: there should be a cohesive school board that works effectively as a team for the community. This is not something that comes automatically, but requires deliberate effort. I intend to bring a unifying voice and advocate for developing a collaborative board spirit. I have done this throughout before in my career. In one example I was able to successfully bridge two separate departments caring for one type of patient, but not working as a team. A better approach to managing the diverse population of families, economics and the school curriculum of academics, sports and extracurricular activities. This starts with a fresh perspective and one that understands and champions not only the things that make us different but the things that bind us as a community. There needs to be a foundational plan and culture in place that enables the system to be agile, flexible and conform to whatever circumstances the future may impact the school system, like this pandemic and its effects.
Pelham: Right now, the biggest issues are managing distance learning and how to get back to campus. Long-term, significant issues are facilities across the district and making sure there is enough capacity for students at all levels across the district and that there are quality facilities at all school sites in the district. The district also needs to work on developing more cohesion in schools across the district. The east/west divide is significant and there needs to be a focus on supporting all students in the district, not a narrow focus on only the students at one particular school. I have a lot of experience working in large, diverse teams and being productive. When a group such as the board is able to keep the focus on students, better decisions can be made than if they are focusing on small projects or very specific programs that impact a limited number of students.
Blackman: As the current Trustee for Area 4, I advocate for the community’s interest working constructively with the board to ensure the district meets the needs of all our students. I bring sharp critical-thinking and real-world management experience, and help our schools address the needs and concerns of our students and community. This is a unique time in the history of our nation. A pandemic has swept over our world, creating an unparalleled ripple-effect on school funding. It has restructured society to help address the health and safety of our people. Years of drought have ushered in a new era of western-wildfires threatening our environment, or health. Yet we are resilient, creative, and have adapted to ensure we are addressing these concerns for our community; ensuring the safety of our schools; addressing the needs of All of Dublin’s students; meeting the growth needs of our district; overseeing the fiscal solvency of our district; and strengthening communication with our community.
Utsumi: Clearly in the era of COVID-19, the physical and emotional well-being of students and staff are paramount. While returning to the classroom is the ultimate goal, all measures must be taken to follow the science and that data that supports a safe return. Further, we will need the support of Alameda County to provide proper testing and contact tracing. I would also think that some parents may be concerned about their child’s subsidence in learning without having the in-classroom experience in a historically regimented day. Therefore, I am an advocate for continuous learning to be provided to staff with the goal of improving the online learning environment.
How do you propose the school district budget should be handled in the wake of a recession and the significant cuts at a state level? Can you provide your vision for balancing it?
Nwamuo: I plan to ensure the district's vision is upheld to the best of my abilities. No one knows what the future holds or how severe of a recession it will be. Whatever happens, I’m fully prepared to work with my fellow school board members in tackling this issue for the best possible outcome for our teachers and students. Ultimately, we need to prioritize effectively and engage with new groups within the community that could become task forces through chosen solutions.
Pelham: I think it is important to look at the big picture in terms of funding and knowing what is coming from the state and federal level that might help offset some expected cuts and how to use those funds effectively to support student learning loss while they were not on campus. Times like this are why school districts carry a reserve in their budget. It should not be all used right away, but what is a reserve fund for, if not an unprecedented global pandemic?
Blackman: Budgets need to be balanced. The current budget has funds set aside for Economic Uncertainties; previously this was 8%, moving into 2021, it became 3%. These reserves remain constant. There are also unallocated funds that can be tapped. We have already worked diligently to tighten budgets and will conduct a thoughtful review of costs, to hone spending. I am a strong advocate for small class sizes and its positive impact on student engagement, and will work diligently to ensure any budget adjustments do not affect the student learning.
Utsumi: This is a case where a conservative stance of financial budgeting has served DUSD well. The recently presented unaudited financial report indicates that the general fund is solvent with more than the minimum in reserves. That said, there is no telling when students will be allowed to return to the school sites and we, the district, will not need additional resources to improve distance learning. I believe that Business Services must continue to plan for potential cuts at the state level and to continuously provide the board with this information and subsequent updates. Should they elect to release some of the reserves, they must understand the potential impact.
What kind of experience do you have with virtual education and e-learning formats? How would you want the district to support teachers in terms of training as we continue with distance learning?
Nwamuo: Virtual education has been a key part of my own education, including my annual continuing medical education. I also participate in weekly work conferences done with a virtual learning format for the past 8 years. I have also been participating in this format of distance learning with 2 children since March 2020. I will advocate for teachers to be supported through: Advanced training programs relating to any form of software or platforms used; frequent check-ins to discuss and provide equipment s as their needs arise per teacher requests; best practice standards and think tank group (T4 - The Teacher Think Tank) that supports idea creation, brainstorming and provision for new solutions and processes.
Pelham: As a teacher myself, I have been using a variety of different platforms over the past 6 months and there are some great ones out there and some that are lacking. It is also true that all teachers are in different places in their comfort level with the various platforms and need differing amounts of support. When undertaking a new LMS such as Canvas, it cannot be a one-time training and then expect everyone to know it. There needs to be targeted follow-up trainings and also finding ways to facilitate teachers helping each other at their sites or across sites in subject matter teams. Many of these platforms and programs will have a place in our schools even once we return, so it is not wasted time and resources to help teachers become more proficient in them. We also need to make sure we aren’t using a one size fits all approach for all subjects and grade levels. What kindergarten students and teachers need is very different than what algebra students and teachers need.
Blackman: Working in the educational design and planning industry, I’ve had the privilege of working on some of the most technologically advanced educational facilities in education. I’ve presented at local and national conferences on many of the technological innovations I’ve brought to learning facilities, in the interest of advancing use of technology in the classroom. It is more than just going online and joining a zoom meeting. Our students are digital natives; technology is a part of everything they do. To successfully deploy virtual learning, we need to look at human behavior as it interacts with tools and information to discern the best outcomes. Colleges and universities have made great strides in embracing e-learning. There is much in k-12 we can glean from them and adapt for the needs of our younger students. I’m encouraged by the opportunity distance learning offers to advance education. The restructuring of our school day has provided greater time for teachers to augment learning via daily teacher’s office hours, and daily intervention. This is a huge shift in thinking regarding dissemination of learning, where help in subjects can be provided right then and there to elevate a student’s grasp of information. These are structural changes to the day, but again, designed around human behavior to help meet the needs of students. This depth of understanding, and experience in deploying advanced technology in schools, is the advantage that my background and experience bring s to our board, to our community in helping to advance education in this information age.
Utsumi: Virtual education is a new world to me – as I am sure that it is for many. One of my pillars on distance learning is that we strive for continuous improvement and training that we can provide to staff. The benefits should then flow to the students. I would hope that Educational Services is maintaining dialogue with other school districts or at least in Alameda County. The point is that we do not always have to find the solution. We should embrace established or created best practices from other sources. But continuous training should be mandated to help improve our outcomes.
Do you believe distance learning will result in a gap in education for some students? If so, how do you propose the district address it? How could it possibly prevent it now?
Nwamuo: Yes, I do believe a gap in education has occurred for many. For some of those that were already struggling academically and socially, the gap is widening in this new environment as r factors weigh heavy on students, such as social isolation, depression, added home responsibilities, including caring for siblings or elderly family members and perhaps even lack of oversight for those with parents at work. For those that are high achievers that had high hopes for top marked universities, the lack of grading during shelter in place negatively impacted them as well. For others, the gap in education is different and some are actually doing better. We must recognize that every student is different and learn from challenges and successes. The district could address some with the following: Regular online survey to parents asking how they feel their child is performing and what is their greatest challenge with their child's education when compared to regular in person classroom teaching; online survey to middle school children and above seeking their feedback; social online meetings with students to help them engage with their agemates in lieu of recess/lunch/PE/school activities. (ie, games, cooking, music, baking, painting) with an adult moderator.
Pelham: There are definitely going to be gaps for some students. There is a huge equity issue for families that have access to a stay-at-home parent who can support and supplement online work and those kids who are pretty much on their own, because their parent is an essential worker and they are unable to be next to them helping the student. Hopefully, most technology limitations have been addressed through district provided Chromebooks and hotspots, but all students do not have the same access to technology and quiet learning spaces in their homes. Also, students with learning disabilities and cognitive delays are really struggling in this format. It is difficult to provide needed therapies to those students in a virtual format and they need significant support to stay engaged online. Those students should be the first to return to campus. There is going to need to be targeted interventions at all levels for students to address learning loss, especially in reading and math. I think there is a lot of good work being done now to prevent learning loss through the flex periods at the secondary level, but it is just a reality that this format is difficult for some students.
Blackman: Gaps in education have always existed whether in a classroom or online. The district has provided Chromebooks and Hot-spots to those who need them, and worked to help families acquire access to digital services. The district has embedded wellness checks to assess how students are doing and work with counselors to help students. In addition, the structure of the school day and week has been designed to provide a plethora of opportunities during the week for students to seek the help of teachers, via teacher office hours and intervention times. This is a huge shift in recognizing the needs of students at this time, using technology and online. ! In addition, teachers with the support of staff are working to tailor engagement with SPED students to help them navigate virtual learning, and support families.
Utsumi: Since we have not previously been forced into a distance learning model, it may be difficult to accurately measure the gap in education. My instinct is that the longer the distance learning continues, the overall education experience and loss of learning has a great probability of occurring. I am sure that every school district in the country is asking the same question. If it is not already occurring, I would advocate for more frequent interventions for the students that are struggling – for whatever reason. If this is a strain for our existing staff, the district should contemplate hiring experienced contract teachers that could fulfill this need.
What programs have you created/supported for the benefit of students that you’re especially proud of?
Nwamuo: I have always supported school initiatives for raising money for academic materials to enhance the school’s education and supported every classroom endeavor to uplift our students’ educational experience. On an individual level, I have been collaborating with APAPA Tri Valley Chapter and Junior Coach for our Give a Helping Hand initiative that creates a platform to allow avid students to offer free tutoring to middle school students from the underperforming or underserved community that may not have support at home to excel academically, especially during the pandemic, who may not have the resources to fund extracurricular academic programs to enhance their educational performance. In addition to academic support, we are also providing nonacademic programs, such as chess, voice lessons and technology navigation. The disparity gap for the lower socioeconomic status is widening and the benefit of this program will not only be to academically support those in need, it will also be an opportunity to build intercultural relationships organically. Through these new relationships, cultures and communities can come together and negative stereotypes can be dissolved. Collectively, this will result in stronger community relationships and overall improved school performance for the students. Together, we can move our student community forward.
Pelham: I’m proud of my work as an educator over the past 20 years. I have worked with many students over the years and one of the things I focused on was helping them to understand their disability and how to advocate for themselves in class and in life. Every year, we invite seniors back on campus the last week of school and seeing former students come back and visit always brings me such joy.
Blackman: Over 20 years ago, I worked in a school in NYC that was attended primarily by immigrant students. Because of their individual family circumstances, most were unable to graduate from school in 4 years. Their school was spread out across lower Manhattan Island, which prevented students getting between classes on time. This was an issue of equity. By coalescing funds and acquiring a site in the city, I worked with this client to create a new school that enabled 5000 students to graduate in 4 years. Fast forward to the fall of 2019, walking my youngest to school one day, I enjoyed the company of a neighbor and her child. She shared she had gone to school in NY. She had attended the school I had designed, and that she had graduated in 4 years. The transformational project that I helped bring to fruition was indeed helping thousands of students, and had helped my neighbor. My work in design and planning has helped to transform people’s lives, through education. I am now a trustee for my neighbor’s daughter, helping another generation of students to learn and thrive. As a Dublin Trustee, I have worked tirelessly to advocate for the health and well-being of our students, to ensure they enjoy their experience and love learning. The greatest impact I’ve had for our students is under construction. It isn’t a program, but it may as well be. I worked shoulder to shoulder with the community to rally the district to bring forth the new comprehensive high school, Emerald High School. Students who will be served by this future school had to commute sometimes 40 minutes to/from Dublin High School. That is time lost, taken from sleep or activities, or time with family and friends. It is time they will never get back. Emerald High School, when it is completed, will house 2,500 students, but more importantly give these students back perhaps 5-8 hours each week! The effect this will have for those students is tremendous and everlasting, and helps generations of students. As a parent, I’ve advocated for the health of all students, by tirelessly pushing school sites to bring students indoors when air quality was dangerously high. We have 3 air quality sensors installed across our district now, and a definitive program to guide how the data is used and what action will be taken to stay safe. We have shared this with the community to build awareness, and put the system to use to protect the health of our students, teachers, and staff. The other signature piece is the Board’s Resolution to Eliminate Racism from our schools. This is an important piece that is taking shape in our district now. Leadership and staff are working diligently and intend to present a program to the board.
Utsumi: I can think of two items from my time at the Dublin Partners in Education (DPIE). Of the many programs that DPIE supports, one is the annual middle school career fair at the three school sites. In the past, DPIE simply helped the schools with any expenses (materials, lunch, etc.). I quickly determined that Fallon Middle School had created a fantastic model for this half day event – rotating students through different “pods” of their choosing to gain maximum exposure to a variety of careers. While I did not create this model, I helped to facilitate the knowledge transfer to both Wells Middle School and Cottonwood Creek so all 8th graders would receive the maximum benefit. The second program was the funding of the PSAT exam each October for all 9th – 11th graders within the district. The annual $30,000 grant provided the exam at no cost to the school district or the student. All students would take the exam during the school day in the comfort of their own school. This model allowed the administration and school counselors to have access to all the test scores to better guide students through their high school career.
What are the district's weaknesses? How do you intend to address them?
Nwamuo: Inclusion, diversity and addressing disparity gaps. Based on the California Equity and Performance and Improvement program, three areas I would focus on are: Focus on meeting students’ basic needs. If basic needs aren’t met, students cannot thrive in a learning environment; and equity audits - using the California dept of education's Quality Schooling Framework (QSF) analyzing data and assessing local needs. Act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making and practice. Everyone, parents and students, experience school differently. Diversity in approach to engaging with families can help meet people where they are to enhance effectiveness in message delivery and receipt. Family engagement toolkit from the California dept of education would be a great asset to help us address focusing on continuous improvement through an equity lens. Cultural sensitivity classes/training and implicit bias training for students and staff and incorporation of this into the curriculum would be an effective way to embody an inclusive environment for all.
Pelham: The district is in need of stable leadership at the top. The hire of the next superintendent will be key to long term stability in the district. It is also important to get some stability in terms of catching up with the growth in housing in recent years that has not been matched by adding student seats at all grade levels. Emerald High school will help with the high school capacity, but there continues to be capacity issues at the middle school and elementary levels.
Blackman: The district is on track to become one of the best school districts in CA, of that I am certain. The weakness that grips us is that we have grown so fast. Our city is one of the fastest growing in the nation. Former board members living outside of the growth zones were oblivious to the impact, accepting ineffectual growth data and making poor decisions. It is for this reason that I firmly believe in planning and its ability to clarify data, good data, and put it into an actionable plan that gets the district ahead of the changes affecting our city. I am a futurist and push the board to look beyond the immediate and understand the longer view, to support effective decisions that help our district progress.
Utsumi: I would not say that it is a weakness caused by the district, but there is an equity issue that is present that could be addressed in part by the district. Whether it is through the difference in facilities or the level of fundraising, students do have different experiences dependent upon where they attend. I have no immediate answer as to how to remedy the situation, but it is a factor that should be recognized and perhaps the collective might discover some solutions. In addition, the district maintains its support for a three-tier diploma designation. The California Education Code requires certain minimums of completion in English, Mathematics and Science. However, Dublin’s “standard” diploma exceeds all these requirements. While it is honorable for students to pursue a diploma with distinction, and that option should be available, we must also acknowledge that not all students are on a path to college. We should review the “standard” diploma requirements to ensure it makes sense for students who are going to pursue a different path.
What are the district’s greatest strengths? How do you intend to support and grow that element?
Nwamuo: Frequent communication; clear and concise; strong supply of technology mobilized quickly with Chromebook and wifi hotspot dissemination at start of the shelter in place. In some other districts within the Bay Area, parents drive to the school parking lot daily to access the wifi even up until now. Other districts have Chromebooks on back order and students waiting. Based on the California Education Technology Blueprint Recommendations, I would select the following: Provide all students age and grade appropriate instructions in the use of technology, including computer science and programming; create professional development and teacher certification programs in education technology instruction; remove barriers that restrict teacher flexibility in using technology to educate our children.
Pelham: I think the strong involvement of the parent community and the importance placed on education is a strength of this district. People care about students and helping them get a good education. I think the elementary schools create a strong foundation and that the middle schools have really adapted to address the needs of that age of students. I appreciate the focus on character programs and supporting the social and emotional health of students is a strength of the district that we can continue to build on at all levels. We need to continue to involve parents in the district at all levels and really reach out to make sure all families feel included in school activities and at the school. I want to continue to broaden the representation of all backgrounds and cultures on the school PFCs and district committees.
Blackman: Our diversity is our greatest strength. I grew up in a culturally diverse city and attended a k-12 IB school with students from every corner of the world. It was the most amazing experience as a child and it is why I love how we as a district embrace our diversity, be it student cultural performances, classroom events that celebrate foods from around the world, and supporting the work of our new DHS Diversity Ambassador. This is an important role at DHS. Our Diversity Ambassador recently launched a wonderful initiative providing T- shirts to all DHS and VHS students, expressing our unity in recognizing diversity as our strength.
Utsumi: I believe the greatest strength is the schools themselves. The facilities are great, but I am referring to the energy, enthusiasm and traditions that are unique to each school. This is not something that can be manufactured. This is something that occurs when staff, administration and the families all “buy in.” That is why it is particularly painful this interaction is currently not possible. I support this camaraderie and would encourage all trustees to spend time at each site, when it is safe to do so, to better understand each school’s unique character.