Meet the school board candidates – Lauren Gill

Rather listen than read? Go to https://youtu.be/mk2YE_E447Y to check out our full recorded Zoom call with Lauren Gill. Timestamps for each topic of discussion are located in the description of the video.

What is your current occupation?

I work for Pearson Education. I work to help students make the transition to college, find their sense of belonging and persist there on a pathway and then transition into a career and meet their life aspirations.

Why are you running for the school board this year?

I am running because I’m the child of educators and I was raised to leave things better than I found them. I’m running out of gratitude for the public education that put me on a path to success and for the terrific education that my two children, one a typical learner and one an IEP student, received here at CVUSD. My kids went through Banyan Elementary, Sequoia Middle and graduated from Newbury Park High School.

And if you are elected to the school board, how do you hope to represent your area’s concerns?

So, my job as a trustee candidate for these past several months has been to listen to the concerns and wishes and hopes of students and families and members of the school community about how they would like our schools to serve their own children and our collective children of the community better. So I am translating all of those sorts of hopes and wishes and concerns and worries into commitments that I will act on if I’m fortunate enough to be elected. I’ve gathered those into kind of three basic priorities that I’ve been talking about on the campaign trail and those are, one being a supportive path to success for every student. So we need to make sure that we honor the individual abilities of every single student and make sure that every student finds the affirmation and the support they need to succeed. Second thing, postgraduate possibilities. My work at Pearson has informed a way that I think about how K-12 supports students in their transition to higher education and in some cases doesn’t do the best job possible, so I would like to have at every grade level and starting early on, intentional exposure to the kinds of experiences that students will use to understand what it is that they care to do with their lives and their livelihoods and expose them to understandings of just what kind of livelihoods are out there and how one goes about pursuing those passions. I think we could do a better job by starting earlier and giving an opportunity for students to have conversations around the dinner table with their families long before they have to make the kind of choices about course pathways that might, without their knowing, lock them into a certain track from which it becomes harder to deviate later on. And then the third thing we need to have in order for us to do our best by every student, we need to have a physically resistant district— one that has close ties to the community. So I’ve been talking, for example, with my fellow candidate Joel Price who’s running to return to the City Council about ways that we can align the School Board with City Council much more closely than they are currently and find other ways to sort of knit the various governing agencies, school board and others together with the nonprofits, that provide support for families, so that we have the the most rich network we can have of supports for students and families in the district.

Have you had experience working with CVUSD schools or the district before?

I have not professionally, but as a parent of two students right, one a typical learner and one an IEP, I understand how special ed services are delivered in the district and where we do really well and where we have opportunities to improve and become more inclusive. My kids are wildly different learners and different in their, excuse me, in their extracurricular pursuits as well. So I have one who is a wrestler and I have one who sings and is very involved in theater, so I got experience working with booster organizations in both sports and the arts. I served on an executive board of one of those boosters with parents who are very different than me but had in common a desire to really support our kids in whatever way we possibly could and I’ve been an advocate, so I’ve spoken before the school board many many times and I have spoken before the city council as an advocate for high-quality curriculum, open inclusive curriculum. I was very vocal about pushing back on attempts to restrict the core lit program and try to push away books by authors who are black and brown and represent communities that we need to see more widely represented so that our authorship looks like our student body.

How do you think this experience that you’ve had as a parent and advocate will help you in running for school board?

I think that it has given me a direct understanding of what we do really really well in the district and where we have some opportunities to improve. I am a huge fan of our district. I think we have a phenomenal group of very skilled, very caring individuals at every level of the district, but I’m also aware that in a system that has historical inequities and that has not always represented the needs of our entire community, we have those same flaws in our school district even though it’s a district filled with skilled caring individuals. We still have those systemic inequities and we need to see them very clearly for what they are, and then we need to dismantle them and create a more equitable, inclusive, affirming education for all of our students.

Do you have any thoughts on preserving respectful school board meetings?

I do, I think that it’s very, very important that we model the sort of behavior that we expect our students to aspire to and I think that it’s a really honorable thing to serve the public and it’s important to respect the process and respect the other folks who are engaging in that process all to benefit the common good. So, I can promise you that if I have a seat behind that dais, we will have cordial, respectful, productive, collaborative discussions and we will get work done.

What are your thoughts on distance learning?

I have a kind of unique perspective on this because, because I work in higher ed for Pearson I am very engaged with figuring out how distance learning is working at the college level as well as trying to understand how we’re doing it well at the K-12 level. In some ways it’s very different, but in other ways there are some similarities and I understand that we can learn from this experience. I think it’s been painful, the isolation is difficult. There are absolutely populations and communities of students who have not been served well by remote learning and those are our youngest learners, you know, the students that are just learning to read for example. Our most vulnerable learners, so students whose housing is unstable, foster youth students with disabilities, our bilingual learners, have really really struggled and we need to find a way to restore them to the fullest possible environment where they can learn well and repair whatever damage has been done by these past months. But on the other hand there are some things about remote learning that we’ve learned and we can use that learning in the future because there will be other times that we will have to rely on remote learning. So for example, here’s one tiny example, when, when teachers record small chunks of content in videos and closed caption them, that’s a help to any kind of learner but in particular it might benefit students with disabilities, students with perhaps auditory processing difficulties or visual difficulties. How about bilingual learners who are maybe watching a chemistry lecture and they’re trying to understand the vocabulary specific to chemistry at the same time that they’re trying to unpack the, the fast-moving dialog. Having the ability to go back and watch that little chunk of material over and over again and look at the words as they’re hearing the words could be really, really beneficial. So there’s some nuggets that we’re going to take out of this remote learning journey that we’re on that will be helpful to us going forward and I think that we should mind this experience for all the good that we can take out of it.

And I know you just talked about all of the good things that are coming out of remote learning. The areas that need some improvement, what are your thoughts on that?

Well absolutely, I mentioned the youngest learners and the students are most vulnerable. I am, in my statement about how we reopen, I strongly encourage the district to bring those students back first. I think a phased, go slow approach is going to benefit all of us in going back to school and I absolutely think we need to prioritize bringing those students back first and indeed the guidance from the state and from the governor about a month ago, little less than a month ago, confirmed that districts have that ability to bring back their more vulnerable populations first, ahead of others. I think it’s important that we do that and then provide additional support like tutoring. Some of those programs are underway. I know some of you actually may actually be involved because some of the high school students have been tutoring younger students. I think that’s wonderful, I applaud the effort and I think that going forward we’re going to need to have more of that as we sort of, you know, repair and restore students to the fullest learning experience after this, after these difficult few months.

And to the vulnerable learners such as those who don’t have access to necessary technology outside of school, how would you address that issue?

We have to address that issue. So, you know the district handed out somewhere around 6,000 devices, and there were internet hotspots developed, there were areas in parking lots of the school, and while I applaud those efforts, I think it’s terribly sad that a student would have to sit in a parking lot to try to do their homework. We just absolutely have to do better than that. It’s not adequate, it’s an emergency stop gap measure, but we need to be better prepared for another circumstance like this that might fall to us and make sure that we secure the necessary funding to build the infrastructure so there is no longer a digital divide. 

What are some of things you believe the district should be doing to support students and specifically teachers?

Well, one of the things that I talked to a lot of students and – you guys can nod if you agree with this. What a lot of students are telling me is they were stressed and anxious before the pandemic. Now, the needs are acute. They’re asking for extra counseling resources and extra mental health resources to be available to students on and off basis as we return to in person learning. And I think we have to extend first of all an education that removes any stigma from anyone who is seeking mental health resources. And just make it clear that all of us to some extent experienced trauma and some of us to a great extent have experienced trauma, so I think that we need to extend those mental health resources to the entire school community without question and that certainly includes teachers, teachers who are in some cases doubly challenged in meeting the needs of their students, teaching through the screen, and they might have their own families and own children sitting and trying to learn remotely beside them while they do their work. The stresses have been extraordinary. So, I want to see tremendous support for our teachers to take care of our students and absolutely everyone in the school community, students first have spoken to me quite openly about the need for significant ongoing mental health resources. 

What type of resources are you thinking about specifically targeting mental health issues that you were just mentioning?

Well, one of the things that students have mentioned to me is, if we’re able to shift resources, for example, taking resources that we might use to have school resources officers on campus, which students tell me don’t necessarily make them feel safer. They would prefer that we place those resources into hiring additional counselors, or giving the counselors that we do have, that students trust and rely upon, extra training and professional development to be able to be those real mental health resources going forward. And that we increase them in number, so that one counselor isn’t responsible for a thousand students which would make it impossible for the students under that counselor to really get the time that they need.

How do you plan on promoting equity and inclusion on the district level and on our school sites?

Well, sometimes we get bogged down when we talk about equity and there’s an effort to talk in terms of kindness and respect. And while kindness and respect are important, we don’t have a deficit of kindness, what we have is an inequitable distribution of resources like opportunities and access and power. And that’s what we need to talk about when we talk about equity. So, the way to get at the problem is through representation, so we need more folks in positions of decision making to be representatives of all the communities that we have in our larger school community. We need to go about that by intentionally hiring outside of the little bubble that we are in. Right now we need to go to the many wonderful schools of education that we have regionally and specifically recruit black and brown teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, the four candidates who are vying for two seats of the Board of Education are all white so we need a farm team of folks who are coming up and are going to be ready in two years when we have another election, so that we won’t be filling an all white field. And then representation also in the curriculum. When my son was in the eleventh grade, he brought home his English syllabus, and it was exclusively white male authors, and that’s terrible. I wrote to his teacher, I emailed his teacher, and I copied the English department chair and I said “let’s work with paired texts. We can’t change your syllabus, we can’t get rid of all the core texts we have, but we can supplement. We can do paired texts in order to bring some richness in what we have.” And that was a solution for that particular course but I’ve been an advocate for opening up our core lit program and having a much richer selection of voices and we’ve started but we have a lot more work to do. 

How do you feel about CVUSD’s current set of core literature? Do you think it’s necessarily representative of the voices, or do you have areas of improvement?

It’s not, so just to go back to the anecdote about my son, I was reflecting on ‘what are the messages that are being sent?’ The students in my son’s class, if they’re female or black or brown or LGBTQ+, what’s the message they receive when they look at a syllabus that has only white male authors? It’s not a good message, this is just not adequate. I don’t want my son, who is a white male, to feel like only people who look like him are capable of creating great art. That’s not a message I want him to take away at all. We have work to do in the curriculum, we have so few titles that sometimes when you hit twelfth grade, the only title available for you to read is one that you read in ninth grade. It might be To Kill a Mockingbird. So, there’s lots of room to improve, and I have been talking with the English department chairs about this over the past few years. What I think is really hopeful in the struggle that we had over the core lit policy is that we adopted an open sort of community celebration rather than a definitive ‘uh oh, new titles- what’s up with these guys?’ We’re saying as we bring forth new titles for consideration, we’re saying ‘this is awesome, look at this, hey everybody come look at these books, let’s read these books together, let’s talk about it.’ I think flipping that script from a defensive posture to a real celebration is an important part of the whole bringing the whole school community together in this idea of making our literature program and our curriculum in general more representative and richer. 

How do you hope that administrators and people are able to create a school climate where students don’t feel scared to report such instances?

I know that this happens, and I think we have to make a choice as a community, that we’re going to address it once and for all. Representation is one way to repair the situation that we have. When we bring people to the decision making table, who represent a whole lot of perspectives and backgrounds, it’s less likely that one prevailing narrative will hold sway. So that’s one important thing. We need to redistribute the power and the decision making amongst a wide group of folks. I was very very pleased to see the equity task force formed, and I know several members of the task force, and I’m going to meet all of them, and I’m looking forward to working with all of them as part of diversifying that decision making group. One of the things I hope to be able to contribute to as a trustee is to bring a precision of language to help us see things that we’ve become so used to, we don’t see them any longer. So one example is we sometimes talk about an achievement gap, or groups of students who are underperforming. And there is a lot of judgment in these terms. There’s bias in that terminology. So, if we talk instead about a justice gap, and we talk about groups of students who have been underserved, it becomes much clearer that we’re talking about a systemic problem of inequity, and we, the decision making body, the grown ups, are obligated morally and legally to fix it. And sometimes just using language in a more precise way, can help people in the room see the problem a little more clearly and be ready to provide some solutions. 

What are your thoughts on the current ELL program throughout the district and do you have any ideas to improve upon these programs?

That’s a great question. I have to admit that I don’t know a tremendous amount about exactly how that program…I don’t know a ton about the program. What I do know is that there is a disparity between the way we talk about bilingual learners and the way we talk about white students who learn a second language, and I would like to eliminate that disparity and remove that bias. One thing that we have done recently in the district that I think is a great idea is expand access to the bilingual state seal of biliteracy. It’s there, and it’s relatively easy to qualify and it is such a tremendous asset to be bilingual or multilingual and the state seal recognizes that. So I don’t know a tremendous amount about exactly how the English language learner program works, but I do understand that there is bias attached to the way we talk about English language learners or bilingual learners and I’d like to see us eliminate that disparity. 

Do you have any thoughts on how we should incorporate the Healthy Youth Act curriculum on the primary and secondary level?

Yeah, I think it’s really important that we do this well. You probably know that we’re out of compliance with the law at this point, and there’s been some resistance to moving forward, not just in the area of health but across-the-board in terms of making sure that our curriculum is the most up-to-date, scientifically accurate, and inclusive. And that has to do with the fact that the previous board majority kind of slow walked anything that they felt was controversial and certainly the Healthy Youth Act fits into that category, so we’re out of compliance, that’s too bad, we need to move forward. We need to make sure that the curriculum we adopt is medically accurate, scientifically accurate,  age-appropriate, inclusive and respectful…It’s incredibly important, especially in the area of health. A subject like Calculus really hasn’t changed a great deal in the past 400 years, but health has. Just one example, we now have a vaccine against the human papilloma virus, which causes ovarian cancer, and you can’t read about that, it’s so recent. It’s such great news, a vaccine that cures cancer. That should be big news, but you can’t read about it in a 20 year old textbook because it happened so recently, so it’s very, very important that, when we face this this fall, we approve a curriculum that is in fact medically accurate, inclusive, and age appropriate. 

Speaking of HPV, how do you feel about comprehensive sex education? 

It is absolutely vital for students to know how to protect themselves and to protect each other and the consequences of not doing it well are severe. So back almost a year ago, I participated in our community town hall where we talked about it because there was a great deal of misinformation sort of circulating in the community about this and some fear tactics were used. So I participated in a community town hall that we did at CLU and presented about the California Healthy Youth Act and AB 1266, what exactly the laws require and don’t, and what they’re intended to do. So I offered up some statistics about the dramatic increase in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in California and particularly among young people and how devastating that can be. There are terrible statistics about suicide and in our community, in our school community, we have had conversations about being fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ students who are particularly disproportionately harmed by transphobia and homophobia, and suicide rates are a key indicator of the size of the problem and the urgency with which we must fix it. 

Speaking of LGBTQ+ students, what do you think a safe school campus looks like for those students and what programs do you think could be implemented in training to keep them safe?

Well, this is a case where I’d really rather you answer the question and tell me from your perspective what a safe campus looks like, but I’ll do my best because I know that the protocol is for you to ask me questions in this particular forum. I think we have to make sure that everyone on a school campus, teachers and staff, have the training to be fully inclusive and affirming of the identity that students name and claim for themselves and that means from TK all the way through 12th grade. 

What would that look like on the elementary level in your best case scenario? 

I’m aware that we have parents of LGBTQ+ students and teachers who are asking the district please to provide professional development and training around gender identity because it’s needed. So I think I would make that a priority to have it happen as quickly as possible. 

What is your opinion on Conejo Valley social emotional specialized programs such as the self contained classes for students with certain disabilities?

I think that inclusion is very, very important, and I will tell you what my personal experience has been. I mentioned that I have a typical learner and an IEP student, and my IEP student was segregated as a special education student far more than he should have been. As a result, he did not feel as though he was college material, and we don’t want to graduate any student out of our district who doesn’t feel that they have the full range of higher education possibilities open to them and supported for them. So we need to be more inclusive. To the extent that we possibly can, students need to be learning together with their peers as much as possible. It’s always going to be a continuum because individual students have individual needs, and we have to make sure that students with complex needs get the services and support they require to learn well. But as much as possible, students need to learn together, physically together with their peers. 

How do you feel that the CVUSD is doing with helping students with  learning disabilities or ADHD that are more in the category of 504 plans?

I think that we have very very skilled committed professionals in our district doing the absolute best job that they possibly can do. I also know that the legislation that controls the funding at the federal level and also at the state level is not adequate. So the law that governs special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed back in the ‘70s, is designed to cover 40% or nearly half of the funding for special education services. Congress has never funded it beyond 15% in decades. That’s a big problem. While as a trustee, I can’t make Congress do its job, what I can do is advocate with our local and state and federal elected officials for full and fair funding for our district, to make sure that we have the resources we need to put behind the professionals who are doing the utmost by our students. 

A lot of students experience anxiety surrounding grades and I think there’s a lot of pressure in our district and schools individually to take as many AP classes as you can and struggle as much as you can over that for college. I was just wondering what your opinion is on that?

I have the utmost respect for students who push themselves hard, I’m sure you’re all in that category, but I do think there’s a balance to be struck between the intrinsic value of learning and the joy and learning and from what students have told me, the level of stress and anxiety is in some cases squelching that joy and I hope that there’s something we can do about that. I’m aware that the SAT and the ACT are in the process of possibly going away, and I think that’s a good thing actually. I think those are exclusionary,  discriminatory tests that are not at all predictive of the value of your learning and the way that you’ll perform in college. I hope that signals a movement toward a bit of upgrading, not a lessening of the richness or rigor of the academic experiences, but a fuller expression of what those mean and how they equip you and change you so that we get back some of that joy that is inherent in learning. I’ve looked at engagement surveys that the district has done, and I note that students who enter TK and Kindergarten and 1st grade are full of joy and curiosity, and that engagement slides as you go into the higher grades and high school. I also have had the experience of… I see your facial expressions, and I can see your body language, and I can read the stress and anxiety. It makes my heart hurt. I wish better for you

What are some, if you have any in mind, changes that can happen in the day-to-day life of a student so that it’s not dreading getting out of the car at 7 a.m. ?

Well, here’s another case where I’d like to ask you the question. Students have told me about different ideas they would like to see on our school sites but in particular about this topic we’re speaking about. I’ve talked with a lot of teachers about their efforts to pursue upgrading to a certain extent, to offer meaningful feedback than numerical or letter grades on an assignment that really help you understand how you can go further, when you’re on the right track and how you can go further. I think that that’s a really fruitful area for us to explore, and I hope that we can open up a whole school community, and maybe have some of those teachers who have mastered techniques mentor other teachers who are really interested in pursuing those ideas.

What would be your top priority for district spending, and where do you think the district could better allocate its funds?

Well, I mentioned that the IDEA is not funded at the level that it ought to be. We’re probably facing some difficult budget years, but regardless, we can’t let loose of continuing our efforts to make sure we’re meeting the needs of every student. Earlier in the conversation, we talked about student groups who have been disproportionately harmed during the pandemic, so when it comes to prioritizing funding, those are the areas where we can repair the historical inequities that we have in our district; prioritize the needs of the students who have disabilities or are bilingual learners, our black and brown students, our LGBTQ+ students, our economically disadvantaged students, and of course, there’s a lot of crossover among those groups. I think we have to start there in terms of prioritization, but we also talked earlier in the conversation about the fact that we’re going to need mental health support for all of our students and teachers and staff, as well. Those are some of the areas I believe are going to be immediate priorities. 

Going more into this year, how would you address low funds given to custodial services and cleaning supplies that are going to start becoming a lot more important if schools start reopening?

That first round of funding that Congress approved did help us, and we also were able to use some Measure I funding. The science keeps helping us to understand the challenge that this virus represents. Early on we talked a lot about surface cleaning because we were concerned about students and everyone being vulnerable to contact, catching the virus through contact. We now know that that’s negligible. The emphasis on custodians is changing a bit, and we’re much more concerned with things like ventilation. I know the district has spent a lot of attention on this. They’ve upgraded all the filters in our HVAC systems and tuned everything up. I’m confident having reviewed all of the district’s and school sites’ plans that we’re going to get back to in-person learning and keep everyone safe. But you’re right, we never got that second round of funding. That’s still pending. We’re going to have to fight for it. We will need extra resources if we’re going to continue in-person learning on a safe basis, so it will be a priority to advocate for those funds.

You mentioned Measure I money in the beginning. What was that for? Do you know?

Measure I is the funding that was created when the taxpayers voted on a bond measure. It’s used for physical plant and infrastructure. It’s what’s responsible for when we build something new or repair our physical plants or buildings or properties. Some of that funding went towards upgrading our new ventilation system and purchasing the high-quality filters and that kind of thing. It also was used to upgrade our server capacity and digital infrastructure, which meant that while we struggled a bit, we were much better positioned having done some of that work in the past year or two. When the pandemic hit we would have been really vulnerable had we not invested the funds there.

Why do you think CVUSD has seen declining enrollment for the past several years, and how do you hope to combat that?

We haven’t. Enrollment year-to-year has been relatively stable. Over time, it’s dropped a bit. We’ve held our own better than area districts. It’s a larger problem than what’s happening at any of our schools. We’re holding our own better than area districts, so that means we’re doing some things really well. The problem becomes one of housing affordability, and can new, young families move into the district. This is something that I’ve spoken about before the city council, and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve had conversations about aligning the school board and City Council closer together because these are the things that are interconnected. Anything they consider at the level of city council is going to impact our public school system. While we’ve held our own pretty darn well, as far as enrollments, we are vulnerable to decreases if we don’t fix our affordable housing issue. 

Do you have any plans to further boost student voices in our district?

Yes, I absolutely do. Student voices have been very important in my campaign. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my conversations. We are in the process of organizing in another Listen-and-Learn session, and I’ll invite all of you as soon as I have details on that. I’m very very pleased that we have a student member of the board, and I’m very very pleased that we have a Student District Advisory Council. Those are important building blocks we can add to and expand upon. Since I’ve been listening very very closely and learned such a great deal during the campaign, I absolutely will be relying on you and your peers should I be fortunate enough to be elected.

What is your position on lowering the voting age?

Yes. How low can we go! I am all in favor of lowering the voting age. Absolutely. You should have agency over the way you learn and the way decisions are made about your lives, so yes.

How have you been taking the community’s concerns into account with your campaign?

So I have missed canvassing and having the doorstep conversations that I had in the 2018 cycle, but we’ve made the best of it. I’ve used social media, we’ve organized many many meet and greets and Listen-and-Learn sessions with as many folks as we can include in the conversation. I am sitting in my campaign office which is my garage which is open to the air, and you might notice that people are wandering in because it’s open and people come by (and you’re all welcome to do this). When you show up, I put on my mask, and we have a conversation about whatever it is that is on your mind. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and I am completely humbled and honored by the trust that people have placed in me to share their hopes and wishes and concerns for what happens in our schools. It’s been my favorite part of the campaign, and I absolutely will continue doing it. 

If elected, would you want to continue with your Listen-and-Learn sessions? 

Gill: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, I will be accessible and accountable to all of you. I’m looking forward to it. 

 

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