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Duluth School Board candidates participate in student-run forum

Duluth School Board candidates spent Wednesday evening answering questions from students whose school district they'll oversee if elected.

Among questions about parking, later school start times and more electives, students from Denfeld and East high schools asked about the reasons the candidates are running for school board and, if elected, how the candidates would address a lack of diversity in the district's staff and curriculum.

After integration specialist Cal Harris suggested a candidate forum to several East students, eight students from East and Denfeld worked for several weeks to secure a venue and collect questions from 11th and 12th graders.

District 3 candidates Loren Martell and Nora Sandstad didn't attend the forum.

Candidates cited their connections to the Duluth school district as their motivation to become school board candidates.

David Kirby, a candidate in the eastern District 2, said he's been involved in his children's education in the school district since they were in kindergarten, volunteering in the classroom and with extracurricular activities.

"My interest in education, my interest in my own kids and my interest in Duluth in general is why I'm doing this," he said.

District 2 candidate Charles Obije noted that he sees the negative impact of people dropping out of high school in his work as a St. Louis County social worker and he's found that the school district hasn't helped parents become involved in their children's lives.

"I'm very passionate about working with those individuals and also passionate about working with folks who have capacity and the strength to really work to graduate and be much better citizens," Obije said.

Renee VanNett, an At-Large candidate for the board, said her mother and grandmother were treated poorly at mission and boarding schools set up to assimilate Native Americans and she's running for school board to "help change history and help change the path that I came from." The lack of diversity on the existing school board motivates her to seek public office.

"When I come to the meetings here, nobody here reflects that. No one on this level reflects me or my kids that are in communities of color," VanNett said.

At-Large candidate Alanna Oswald said she's running for a school board seat because she understands the impact the district can have on a student, and she's seen the school support she received as a student fade in the district. Denfeld became her family after her mother died when she was in ninth grade, she explained.

"If it wasn't for the teachers and the afterschool activities and coaches and those kinds of people, I wouldn't be sitting here," she said.

The high school students also questioned how the school board could increase the number of teachers of color and create a curriculum that represents cultural diversity.

Kirby noted that the district employs about two dozen minorities and it's competing for staff with every other district in the state. Many teachers likely teach where they grew up, he said, calling for encouraging and supporting people to who choose to become teachers.

He explained that the achievement gap is lessened when there's high expectations for students, when teachers care about their students and when students participate in learning. The more the district can interest students in learning with cultural-specific programs, the better off the district will be, he said.

Obije said hiring minorities should be mandated and intentional, given that Duluth is becoming more diverse. The lack of minorities in Duluth's classrooms is adding to the achievement gap, he said.

When it comes to culturally diverse curriculum, the school board is responsible for ensuring that students graduate with cultural competency by providing cultural programming so that students are learning about their own history, he said. The school district has "a long way to go" to meet this mark, he added.

Oswald pointed out that the missing diversity in the district contributes to the achievement gap. It causes students to have fewer positive interactions at school and students don't want to return to the classroom as teachers, she said. Duluth needs to provide more support to its communities of color, she said.

She said the school board needs to follow through on its curriculum after the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial organization curriculum wasn't used in the district, even though it was adopted several years ago.

VanNett suggested that teachers of color aren't coming to Duluth to work because there's little diversity among the district's leadership.

She told the story about how she learned math in seventh grade by relating it to Native American beading and called for partnering with the community to provide resources for students if the district can't provide it.