As we close in on Election Day, we took some time to interview the Jersey City School Board candidates. Stay tuned in the upcoming days for additional candidates answering the same questions, or scroll down for links to previously published interviews with other candidates.
What’s your full name and what relationship have you had with the Jersey City Public School system?
My name is Natalia Ioffe, or just “Natasha” to friends and colleagues. I have a son (9) and a daughter (7) who at different times attended PS#3, PS#37 and are now both enrolled at PS#16 or “Cornelia F. Bradford School”. I have been serving in the leadership team of PS#16 Parent Council since September 2013, and this experience has helped me become closely acquainted with the inner workings of our Jersey City Public school system.
My team’s work on the parent council can be viewed by visiting our blog. To save the costs of maintaining a website I created this blog three years ago, and it has proven to be an effective parent resource. I am also chief writer and editor of our newsletter. It helps our parents stay updated on the work we do as a parent council and what their contributions help us accomplish for the students and teachers.
My relationship with JCPS has been like any work relationship, with its ups and downs. However I am very fortunate to have a great team of parents that I work with and a Principal at our school who has been a true partner in creating innovations and improvements to the educational experience of our children.
In order to effectively help our school I have had to build bridges with various staff at the JCPS central office and together we try to find solutions to best serve the students. I discovered that any parent activist needs to be in equal parts proactive and diplomatic when pushing for positive change. It is not always an easy endeavor, but a worthy one.
I also was able to to connect with many other parent volunteers from other JC public schools and, through effective networking and sharing of experience we provide support to one another and create improvements for our respective schools.
In what ways has the JCPS been successful? How can we enhance and expand upon those successes?
The decreased drop-out rates and increased graduation rates in our public schools are great indicators of improvement, and that means that everyone is working hard to accomplish the goal of helping our kids stay in school. Even the hotly contested standardized test scores are on the rise. However, my personal goal is to look a little deeper than just the quantifiable student achievement, but also to work in inspiring students to remain in school with the understanding of future practical application of what they are learning.
I really like the effort that our district has invested in increasing parent involvement. I believe that a strong parent/school staff partnership is essential to the success of any school. Whether it is raising funds to supplement school needs in this time of ever decreasing financial aid, or advocating about certain issues to the district’s central office, parents are the true ambassadors of the schools. In the past two years our district has begun recognizing and rewarding outstanding parent effort and leadership. I would like to build on that, and continue building bridges between our parent teams. I have already begun doing this, by networking with different parent teams, helping establish an after school program or advise on certain financial aspects of running a successful PTA, etc. By strengthening the parent teams throughout the district, we can ensure that every school’s unique voice is heard and their unique needs are met in an efficient way.
What challenges does the JCPS face? What steps need to be taken to overcome them?
Our school district has been able to complete a lot of renovations in the areas of facilities and equip students with new technologies in the recent years. However, it still seems like a drop in the ocean, compared with the outstanding needs that remain. The increasing cost of life, combined with the constant shortages and looming cuts in state funding, should force us to become innovative and seek alternative sources of revenue for the district.
It has been noted that the current school board is very divided and dysfunctional, and that is something that needs to change. We daily hold our students to high behavioral standards, advise them not to bully one another and emphasize the value of teamwork. Board members need to remember that children are directly affected by their decisions and behavior. Each member of the board must set aside his or her personal sentiments and focus on seeking optimal solutions for the benefit of students. A strong work ethic and diplomacy are essential components in working on this diverse team of volunteers.
Tell me about your ideas regarding allocation of funds and the 600 million dollar budget.
There are practical cost-saving solutions which can help the school district use its finances more efficiently. Current BOE purchasing system is tied up in practices that force schools to purchase supplies at higher prices than the free market offers.
As a parent council leader I have been able to help our school circumvent some of these spendings, by raising funds and purchasing certain household needs from free market vendors, at lower prices, with expedited deliveries. That way our school principal can use the school’s funds towards much needed academic programs or field trips for the students.
A principal should not be forced to chose between purchasing an A/C unit for a classroom or being able to afford an extra school bus for a class trip. That is why parent ambassadors are an essential support system for any school. To save our schools money, the board must work to streamline this purchasing system for the district as a whole and try to avoid paying the unjustifiably marked up prices for school supplies and facilities.
Many parents are concerned about testing as a primary (and in some cases singular) tool for evaluation of students, teachers, and schools. Can you speak to that?
As someone who volunteers at a public school for the past 3 years, it is my understanding that standardized testing is not a primary tool for student evaluation. Students get evaluated based on various components of their performance, including weekly projects, homework, attendance, so the PARCC test is by no means the only factor.
It’s different with teachers evaluations, of course. To my knowledge the PARCC test currently comprises up to 30% of teacher’s performance and that is an excessive weight. I believe that percentage should be lowered and the teachers evaluation should be fairly balanced. I understand there is a legislation currently being submitted to the state for approval, which will alleviate the weight of standardized testing in teacher’s performance evaluations. I support that decision.
This year, the school board regains control over the JCPS. What does that look like? What changes can we expect?
My personal hope would be to gain more flexibility in the purchasing strategies for reasons I mentioned above. Also I hope we can work on bringing alternative sources of revenue into our district and to build more corporate and community partnerships in order to enrich the educational experience of our children and to help our schools flourish. There is a great deal of interest in the corporate sector and in the community to help strengthen our public schools and especially to bring more creative and innovative resources to the children from low-income communities. Local control can help us work more fluidly and efficiently in all these areas, provided that we all share the commitment and responsibility that is involved in serving children’s best interests.
And finally, safety. Parents talk to me about this all the time. Do our kids feel safe in school?
Safety can never be underestimated. We live in a very fast paced and dangerous world, and it is our responsibility, as parents, to teach our children how to remain safe and vigilant every day. At PS#16 we work in partnership with the guidance counselor to facilitate regular safety workshops for the students.
A group from New Jersey Child Assault Prevention (NJCAP) comes in every year to hold interactive workshops with parents and with students and provides training on understanding and preventing bullying in every form, importance of empathy, child assault, cyber safety, stranger danger and online predators. My team facilitates this process by allocating our parent meetings to these workshops, as needed.
On top of this we make sure that the security cameras in our school are operational, that there is a culture of respect throughout the building and that children feel protected. Everyone from the security staff to teachers, the Principal and parent volunteers make student safety a priority.
I would like to thank you for this consideration in allowing me to express my opinions on all these issues. I believe in the voter’s choices, and I believe that our city has boundless potential and a great human resource among our parents, teachers and administrators. There is no reason why this amazing diverse community of people cannot work together to create the best educational environment for our public school students.
After the elections on November I hope to continue my work in empowering, equipping and connecting other parents to help their respective schools in every part of Jersey City, and building bridges with community and corporate partners to attract more innovative resources to our public schools. I will continue doing this as a parent leader and a non-profit executive or as a school board member, but either way, I will continue, because our children are worth the effort.