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Closings and Delays

Meet Kalamazoo's School Board Candidates

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WMUK

The race for some seats on the Kalamazoo School Board is competitive this year. Five candidates are on the November fourth ballot.

One has no opponent because she’s running for a partial term. That leaves three full-term seats and four candidates who hope to fill them.

Three of this year’s candidates for KPS Board are incumbents.
Ken Greshak was appointed to his seat earlier this year to fill a vacancy. He describes himself as a longtime, “very, very active” KPS parent.

“I think that’s going to be more or less my focus on the board, is promoting parental involvement in the schools and being a good manager of our resources,” he says.

Tianna Harrison was also appointed to the Board this year. She says she especially wants to reach parents who are struggling to educate their children with limited resources.

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WMUK
Ken Greshak

“What I’m hoping is that people will see me and understand that my struggle is their struggle. That my story is their story, that the things that I’ve endured and the things that I’ve encountered are the same things that they’ve endured and they’ve encountered,” she says.

Patti Sholler-Barber is a retired teacher and the current president of the KPS Board. She’s finishing her second term.

“I feel that my thirty-three years in a public high school classroom really is an asset for me. I could throw in my eight years on the board already, which is – seasons it to an even more expertise level,” she says.

Kris Mbah is running his first campaign for school board. He describes himself as a community organizer, business owner and school volunteer.

“I’ve got a lot of great ideas, I’m very passionate, and young so I’ve got a lot of energy I’ve got time, but I think the biggest thing about me is I’m approachable,” he says.

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WMUK
Tianna Harrison

The candidates agree that poverty – and its impact on students’ success in school - is a key issue for the district, as about 70 percent of KPS students come from “economically disadvantaged” families.

Sholler-Barber says KPS has seen improvements in student achievement from its investment in literacy and math competency programs, and its relationships with “community partners.”

“We have great after-school programs, we have great agencies that are helping with weekend activities and making sure that there’s not food issues in the home and we are making sure that our teachers are well aware of the challenges,” she says.

Greshak says promoting literacy is critical to addressing the effects of poverty in the district. He says that starts before Kindergarten and continues at home.

“What I think a lot of our young people you know might not be getting in a home environment is that type of continued drumbeat around literacy. So we’re really working to build that up. And I think we’re doing a fairly good job at it,” he says.
 
Harrison says the district needs to emphasize to parents how important it is that they work with their kids on basic math and reading. And she says KPS needs to be aware that seemingly minor details can have a big impact on impoverished students’ lives.

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Patti Sholler-Barber

She recalls what she told Sholler-Barber when she was appointed:

“The first thing that needs to be done is that the is that the bus stop at the mission needs to be changed so that those children are picked up first and dropped off last so that their morale is intact.”

Mbah says the district could reach out to more organizations and to parents as it works to fight poverty. And he says the district can help the community by awarding contracts to local companies.

“We just released – voted in favor of the recent millage that afforded tax dollars toward construction that went outside of our community. Now we could have been more intentional in creating fair contracting polices that will include some of the union workers that hire more minority workers, more women…” he says.

KPS graduates famously have the chance to go to college for free. That’s thanks to the private, anonymously funded Kalamazoo Promise, now in its ninth year. But students still have to be prepared to succeed in college. And Greshak says the district’s role isn’t just about academics – it’s also about teaching what he calls “soft skills.”

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WMUK
Kris Mbah

“This is about showing up on time. This is about how to be an effective study person, how to do homework, how to complete a task, how to take critical information,” he says.

Mbah says the district’s work on poverty and parent engagement plays a big role in making kids Promise-ready. He also says the district needs to issue students textbooks like the ones he received in school, and not just worksheets.

“It was my responsibility to take care of that textbook and bring it back home at the end of the year and that’s how I learned to study. That’s how I built the discipline of study,” he says.

Sholler-Barber says preparing children for the college experience starts long before high school. Programs like Bronco Buds show students what they can expect – and what they have to look forward to – after graduation from high school.

“We have every sixth grader in the system come into Western and make sure that they walk through a whole college day at Western. This is incredibly important for them. It breaks down the barrier,” she says.

Harrison says the district would do well as it prepares students for college to remember that their needs and experiences are not uniform.

“It’s just us supporting our students more as individuals as opposed to ‘all these students,’” she says.

All four candidates agree that KPS needs more money from the state if it’s going to do its best by children. Harrison says she’d like to see the state spend more on schools and less on prisons.

Mbah says he wants to review how the district runs its programs.
Sholler-Barber says it’s time for the state to review the education funding structure it’s followed since Proposal A passed in 1994.

And Greshak says the district also needs to consider what it can do with its current resources.
 

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.