This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with PGCPS Board of Education candidates. Raaheela Ahmed is one of four candidates from District 5 (see district map here) whose names will be on the ballot in the April 26th primary election. Ms. Ahmed answered a series of questions generated by members of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools. Leading up to the election, we will publish responses from other candidates as well.
Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools does not endorse or oppose any candidate for the Board of Education.
Tell us about your background and why you are running for the Board of Education.
My name is Raaheela and I am a lifelong Prince Georgian and resident of Bowie who is a product of Prince George’s County’s public elementary, middle and high schools. I hold degrees from the University of Maryland in Finance and Economics. I am running for the School Board because I feel that my current and fresh perspectives will have a positive impact on the District in improving student success. I believe in the potential of our students and will work hard to ensure that our students are not only college and career ready, but also culturally competent and globally competitive. My professional experience as a federal financial consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, boardroom experience on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and volunteer work focused on enhancing the lives and education of our county’s students (America Reads*America Counts, Health Leads, Moneythink Maryland, and Court Appointed Special Advocate) enhance my effectiveness as your representative on the board. Together we can ensure a bright future for our children and our communities!
What are your top three goals for PGCPS, and how do you plan to accomplish them if elected?
I believe in the statement: It takes a village to raise a child. This proverb highlights the need for collaborative effort in making change….the necessity of not one, but several caring individuals and institutions in human growth and development. K-12 education systems are grounds for this kind of development. Whether we like it or not, our schools are responsible for teaching hard subjects like math and science as well as intangible skills like work ethic and acceptable societal behaviors. It takes effort from all stakeholders in building our schools and our community. That is why efforts to encourage parental involvement in schools and develop partnerships with local universities and businesses are important to the progress of our schools and students. To encourage community engagement, I’d like to spearhead the establishment of active formal parent-teacher organizations in all schools, corporate partnerships to provide internship and other academic opportunities for our students, and personally engaging in community outreach as I have been doing on the campaign trail.
Transparency and Accountability:
Prince George’s County has a history of corrupt elected figureheads, mismanagement of money and general public distrust. In order to overcome these issues and thrive as a community, both transparency and accountability must be prioritized. I believe fiscal transparency is needed with the school budget so that individuals know not only how their taxpayer dollars are being spent, but whether that spending has a good return on investment given demographic metrics (test scores, graduation rates, etc.) I support having a thorough evaluation of our academic programs. Understanding what works and what doesn’t will allow PGCPS to align resources and funding efficiently and increase academic excellence. Additionally, I’d like to see more advanced technology use in sharing detailed information, similar to the UNC Data Dashboard.
School safety is so important to maintain a conducive environment for growth and learning. As a student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, I personally faced a situation where my personal sense of safety was threatened in an act of crime (theft) at the school. In the end, I was able to hold the individual responsible in court. I believe that school safety needs to be tackled in two ways: reactively and proactively. In the reactive sense, schools must hold the appropriate individuals responsible for crimes and injustices that are committed. Letting generally unacceptable behavior slide, under-reporting or discouraging reporting to maintain better metrics should not be tolerated. In the proactive sense, security measures should be in place for each school, depending on the different needs for different schools. Products like Text-A-Tip (an anonymous crime reporting system) could be adapted in our schools to ensure safety as well. I would support programs like this to improve the safety in our schools, in addition to policy changes and new data analysis surrounding school safety.
What experience do you have working with parents or parent organizations, and how will you increase parent engagement with the system?
As a Partners in Print Presenter with America Reads*America Counts, I’ve worked with parents in over a dozen elementary schools in PGCPS in improving the literacy levels of our students. I’ve also mentored and tutored a number of students, working with parents to ensure they have the tools needed to succeed in the classroom. Currently as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I work with parents (foster and biological) to ensure the well-being of foster youth in the county. As a candidate for the Prince George’s County, District 5 in 2012, I went to over 7,000 homes of parents, teachers and stakeholders in the community to gauge concerns and improvement ideas for PGCPS. I continue to do that as a candidate in 2016.
As the daughter of two full-time working parents, I understand the difficulties in full parental involvement within the school setting. I believe in a proactive approach to engaging parents, where one-on-one relationships are built between parents, teachers and faculty and collaborative efforts are made to foster them. I’d like to aid in establishing strong formal PTA’s and PTO’s in every district school and adopt practices where physical parental involvement in the classroom is not only allowable, but encouraged.
Current board policy states that daily recess for elementary school students must be from 15 to 30 minutes long (See Administrative Procedure 6130). Do you support changing the policy so that children get longer recess periods? If so, how would you revise the policy?
Yes, I would support revising the policy to ensure a 30 minute minimum of recess time for elementary school children. There has been plenty of evidence that recess benefits children in cognitive, social, emotional, and physical ways. Play helps children develop physical skills and can boost intellectual capacity. This means improved memory and more focused attention, which in turn leads to greater learning and better classroom behavior. Interacting with others fosters better social skills. Children become more morally conscious when they interact with other children. Ultimately, it comes down to this: recess has purpose and value. If that value is undermined, then its purpose is not fulfilled and students do not reap its benefits. Just as we value all curricular aspects of schooling, we must also value the co-curricular. Learning comes in all forms.
Do you support adding world languages to the elementary school curriculum for all schools? If so, how would you lead this initiative?
We have Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) in some elementary schools in Prince George’s County. Research supports the practices of many nations around the world that children learn a second language more easily when they are young. Learning languages helps increase listening ability, memory, creativity and critical thinking, all of which are thinking processes that increase learning in general. Learning a second language has been correlated with improved reading ability, to improved scores on the ACT and SAT, and academic success in college. Foreign language study also exposes children to other ways of looking at the world, making them culturally competent and globally competitive.
At this time, I would support adding world languages to the curriculum on a school-by-school basis, based upon the desire and ability of the students, faculty and parents to initiate this learning. This is simply due to the fact that all schools are not ready for world language instruction. English literacy rates in some schools in PGCPS are less than 20%. As a person whose first language was not English, I understand the difficulty in balancing two languages at a young age. For me, support from my home AND school environment was crucial to my language competency. We must ensure that resources will be provided and the grassroots interest is present in introducing this curriculum. If that is possible, then this initiative can grow and thrive.
I would lead this initiative by going to the schools that already offer this (like Barack Obama ES), talking to parents and teachers to obtain their testimonials, then going to schools in the district and discussing these programs with faculty, students and parents. After that, I would bring my collected feedback to the board room for brainstorming and discussion.
Test scores show a significant achievement gap between girls and boys in the county. What can be done to boost achievement for boys and to make schools more boy-friendly?
Girls have scored higher than boys in reading and writing tests for decades. Boys’ reading achievement lags that of girls in every country in the world on international assessments. This trend is worldwide: it isn’t just in Prince George’s County. This phenomenon is a mystery. According to the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education, three explanations for the gender gap are: biological/developmental, school practices, and cultural influences. In order to boost achievement for boys, we need to recognize that boys and girls have different learning styles. For example, boys respond favorably to classroom lessons that involve movement, teamwork, competition, and interaction. Girls generally do not require that degree of stimulation to learn effectively. Our classrooms should reflect the needs of development for both boys and girls. This requires the hiring and retention of highly effective teachers that understand gender dynamics and adapting to different learning styles. Parental involvement is also very important to boost achievement. Adoption of best practices in the classroom paired with reinforcement from home is a winning formula to increase student success.
What can the school system do to reduce teacher burnout and keep morale high? How should teachers be evaluated so that we can ensure a high-performing workforce for our schools?
We all know that happy teachers are more effective educators. Teacher stress and morale have a huge impact on student achievement, relationships within school and job satisfaction. Teachers must be appreciated, recognized and valued by administrators and the school community for all the hard work they do. By treating teachers in ways that empower them, such as involving them in decisions about policies and practices and acknowledging their expertise, administrators can help boost teacher morale. As far as teacher evaluation is concerned, I believe it should be done by a team of evaluators who do their research and collaboratively make a decision on performance. This team should include the principal, grade level colleagues, and parents. If the team feels that there is need for improvement in a teacher, then a mentor/experienced teacher should be assigned to rectify the teacher’s weak areas or an action plan for steps to improving the deficit should be provided and monitored which can include additional training.
Do you have any additional comments?
I believe that the School Board position is an elected position that is built for community activists like me. It is non-partisan and independent of outside interests. In this way, board members can be true, honest representatives of their community and look out for the best interests of students. As a fresh and new pursuant office holder, I am truly independent, never having been supported by the political establishment or pushed and pulled by special interest groups. My focus has been and always will be on students and their success.
Learn more about Raaheela Ahmed here:
- Candidate Website: www.raaheela.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/RaaheelaAhmed
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/RaaheelaAhmed
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RaaheelaAhmed
Update: We have published a new set of questions and answers in advance of the general election. You may read Ms. Ahmed’s responses to that questionnaire here.