All six candidates for Eden Prairie School Board laid out their visions for the district during a League of Women Voters forum this month.

Maryam Abdi, Beth Fletcher, Tony Morimoto, Francesca Pagan-Umar, Kim Ross and C.J. Strehl are running for three seats on the board.

At the Oct. 7 event, Strehl said funding will be the greatest challenge for the district due to the state’s financial situation. Strehl, who has a financial accounting background and is currently a small business owner, said, “It’s not all about just cutting things. It’s about coming up with creative solutions.”

Pagan-Umar named the achievement gap as her top issue.

“It’s not just important for the students who are personally impacted, but it has an impact on learning for entire classrooms,” she said. “I would tackle it by adding support for under-performing students outside of the classroom, by recruiting high-quality teachers who reflect the diversity of our students and by providing access to advanced and challenging coursework for every student.”

The achievement gap is one manifestation of inequities in the district, Ross said. At third grade in the district, the percentage of Black students reading at grade level is 15 points lower than white students, and Black students graduate at a rate that is 15 percentage points lower than white students in the district.

According to Ross, the district should consider kindergarten readiness by increasing participation in its Little Eagles Preschool program, focus on the gap early on in the elementary grades and assess incoming freshmen to create a plan for graduation.

Ross added, “I think we need to look beyond the achievement gap to the opportunity gap to make sure that two kids that achieve at the same level in Eden Prairie Schools have equal opportunities when they leave our system.”

The district should build relationships with parents and review data for every student’s performance on a monthly, quarterly and semester basis to decrease the gap, Abdi said.

The district can consider different ways to teach topics so that people of various cultures feel included, she said. Additionally, Abdi said the district should hire high-quality teachers of different cultures and races so that people of color “have someone to look up to or they can represent what they’re feeling.”

Of his top issue, Morimoto responded, “I’d work on getting kids back in school. Distance learning by all accounts is a complete failure.”

While Eden Prairie students in kindergarten and first grade are in school buildings daily, older students are using the hybrid system, in which they attend classes some days while using distance learning other days.

If teachers are unwilling to teach in-person classes, Morimoto said the district should hire others who will.

Fletcher said, “COVID has been difficult for all families, all teachers, all schools. It affects everyone differently. I want to make sure kids come back and get back into school safely and we can follow guidelines.”

She expressed gratitude for the district’s online option for families who feel comfortable with the system.

“I want to make sure we’re keeping high-quality, engaging learning, even through a pandemic,” Fletcher said. “I want to make sure that student needs are being met.”

On the issue of diversity, Ross said the board needs to go beyond listening sessions and actively seek views and perspectives from communities that historically have been underserved and underrepresented.

Ross noted that Black students at Eden Prairie High School are still suspended at a disproportionate rate.

Of Black students, Ross said, “They represent about 14% of the student population yet they receive 47% of out-of-school suspensions. And so the board needs to be aware of the diversity and ask questions about inequity to ensure that we’re serving all students.”

Morimoto responded to the question by saying, “Diversity of thought is incredibly important, but we need to focus on the most important minority there is – the individual.”

Diverse board members can help students of color who are struggling or feel out of place navigate their environment and “work harder and think that they can make something out of themselves,” Abdi said.

She added, “If we have representation within our school board that can talk to people of color or represent people – all colors but specifically those that are underserved – I think that we would be able to become a much more progressive school district.”

Strehl acknowledged that he is the only white male in the race but said he has made a point of talking to people who may not think the same way as he does.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding because I get to see perspectives that I didn’t see before, and I’m committed to keep doing that,” Strehl said.

Fletcher said the district’s diversity is part of the reason why she chose it for her own daughters.

“While I may not have the same background as some families in our district, I cared deeply about them, Fletcher said. “I want to make sure that every student in Eden Prairie has the best chance of a bright future, closing the achievement gap. Eden Prairie has made progress, but there’s still more work to do.”

Including Black, Indigenous and people of color voices is absolutely essential, Pagan-Umar said.

“You can’t just have white people advocating for people who have experiences that are completely different from theirs,” she said. “People who are BIPOC have to advocate for themselves. There’s like an old saying: If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’ll end up on the menu.”

Other topics at the forum included incorporating exercise into the day for students, nutrition, evolution, online classes, school funding, the use of school resource officers and challenges facing the district.

The full forum is available online at http://eden-prairie.granicus.com/player/clip/1518.

Voters can select up to three choices on their ballot during the general election. The candidates who receive the three highest vote totals will be seated.

Responses to a Sun Sailor candidate questionnaire are available here.

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