This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with PGCPS Board of Education candidates. Abel Olivo is a candidate from District 4 (see district map here). Mr. Olivo answered questions generated by members of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.
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 feel that you would be an effective member of the Board of Education.
I am a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in political science. I worked in government relations for many years on a variety of issues, most recently as the VP of a nonprofit that worked to increase homeownership. Now I’m a stay-at-home dad. I’m an active volunteer in my community.
I could go on. But I won’t, because the key word in your question is “effective.”
The residents of District 4 deserve an effective member of the Board of Education. Here’s how I will be effective:
- I will show up. I will attend the Board of Education meetings. I will attend PTA meetings. I will attend community meetings. I will be present in our schools and in the community.
- I will be engaged. I will know the members of our community and they will know me.
- I will be responsive. If you contact me you will get a response. If you ask for help, I will help you. If you share an idea or concern, I will take that seriously.
The incumbent has been on the BOE for six years. She has, most recently, missed approximately 25% of BOE meetings. I hear over and over again from people who have never received a response from her. The Carraway and Head Start abuse happened in District 4 schools: Judge Sylvania Woods ES and H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center. I have to wonder — if those parents and community members knew and had a relationship with their BOE member, would the abuse have come to light and been swiftly acted upon much earlier?
The most important thing voters need to know about me is that I am the dad of two PGCPS students. Lucas is in 5th grade and Nathaniel is in 1st grade. I have been volunteering in our neighborhood school since Lucas was 2 years old. I will work hard for every single child in PGCPS as if they were my own.
What are two or three special challenges that you see in your school board district, and how would you work with the community to address them?
As a member of the Board of Education, my top priorities are the following:
- Ensuring the safety of every single one of our children.
- Increasing parent and community engagement with our schools.
- Making the academic achievement of all students the focus of the School Board.
I will work with the community to address these priorities in the same manner listed above in question #1: by being present, engaged, and responsive.
The school system has recently been under fire for several alleged incidents of abuse and neglect. How will you work to increase a sense of respect and security, for children and their families, in our school system?
The allegations of sexual abuse are nothing short of appalling. That the teachers, staff, and administration at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary were not trained to spot suspect behavior is beyond ridiculous and borders culpable neglect. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for the students and their families to recover, though I suspect they will never fully recover. We have let down our children and have lost public trust.
On the whole, I support the findings of the Student Safety Task Force. One area that I feel needs to be emphasized are the procedures to immediately remove anyone who is accused. Once removed, Child Protective Services should conduct a thorough investigation in an expeditious manner. The Washington Post reported recently that the Head Start teacher who forced the child to mop was moved by PGCPS to a new school (also in District 4, by the way) rather than put on administrative leave or fired. That is absolutely unacceptable!
If elected, I will work to ensure that PGCPS has across-the-board uniform training on sexual abuse prevention and detection, as well as procedures and practices that avoid putting students in questionable situations and risk of abuse. At the time of these abuses, training was different across the district and was delivered piecemeal from school to school. The task force report recommends that all training be uniform, delivered in the same manner, and exempts no one from receiving it. It also recommends that the technology be capable of reporting real-time updates on those entering the building for service, volunteering, or visiting. I’ve been in schools where the equipment to scan visitors in is broken or unable to connect to do its job. We need to ensure that the tools we are using are working properly.
What should be done about the massive backlog of building maintenance, renovation, and school construction? As a board member, what impact could you have on the school system’s capital programs?
I followed the work of the Master Plan Support Project and believe it was a worthwhile effort because it collected data on every school in the district. It is crucial that the Board of Education, County Council, and General Assembly use this data to prioritize building maintenance, renovation, and school construction. In the past, these entities have done a terrible job of determining the allocation of capital improvement funds as they have let the process become about politics rather than the needs of our children. PGCPS spent a great deal of money and time on the Master Plan Support Project and now they must use that data in their decision-making. I will strongly advocate and work to build consensus amongst the Board so that the CIP discussions don’t break down into North vs. South vs. Central, but that we follow the data-driven recommendations and priorities.
How will you address the transportation issues within the school system? For example, some school buses have been showing up late — or not at all, some bus rides are more than an hour long, and there are reports of students being pulled out of class before the end of the school day in order to catch their bus.
This is a funding issue, plain and simple. We need to prioritize funding to hire additional bus drivers and to optimize routes.
What improvements would you like to see in our special education program? Are you in favor of expanding PGCPS’s early intervention efforts?
At age two, our son Nathaniel was nonverbal. Early intervention through the Prince George’s County Infants and Toddlers Program was invaluable to our family. With the support of his therapists, and hard work by him and us, he is back on track. Early intervention is crucial and absolutely needs to be expanded.
Like many others, the recent reports of abuse have left me shaken. Aimee and I put Nathaniel on a PGCPS bus to special education services when he was a nonverbal two-year-old. I am heartbroken and angry that some of our babies were abused on their bus. Special Education is so important and we have a great deal of work to do to re-build trust in this area and across the entire system.
What are your thoughts on the way the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program is currently operating? Some of our TAG centers have waiting lists. Should every child who is TAG identified be given the opportunity to attend a TAG center?
Every child who is TAG identified should receive high-quality TAG enhancements and supports. I am extremely familiar with the TAG program as my older son is a twice exceptional (2E) TAG student at a TAG center. He has some learning challenges while still being TAG identified.
As with most issues, there isn’t one answer to the issue of waiting lists. I will work to ensure TAG-in-the-classroom expansion at our elementary schools. This will help strengthen our neighborhood schools and likely shorten the waiting lists at our TAG centers. In my opinion, the real challenge for TAG comes at the middle school level. It is nearly impossible for a TAG student who stays at their neighborhood elementary school to get into a TAG middle school as those slots are taken by the students moving from the TAG elementary center to the TAG middle school. I will work to add TAG spaces to our TAG middle school programs to allow students to move from their neighborhood elementary school into a TAG middle school program.
The demand for language immersion schools and other specialty programs is high. What are your thoughts on expanding language immersion programs and other specialty programs?
My younger son is at Cesar Chavez Dual Spanish Immersion, so I understand this area as well. As with TAG, I believe this answer is two-fold. First, we must work to improve our neighborhood schools. Our families should not feel that the specialty program schools are their only chance at a great PGCPS education. Rather, we need to have strong neighborhood schools so that parents feel they have real options between their neighborhood school and a specialty program.
In our case, my wife, Aimee, and I have been involved with our neighborhood school since our oldest son was only two years old. We were very much looking forward to Nathaniel starting kindergarten at our neighborhood school. Yet, I also thought it would be wonderful for Nathaniel to attend a Spanish Immersion program because of his Mexican heritage. So we entered that lottery. We were surprised when he got a spot, and, I’ll be honest, both Aimee and I were a little sad that he wouldn’t be attending our neighborhood school. I want every family who enters the lottery to have excellent options for specialty programs and for their neighborhood school.
A judge in Connecticut recently ruled that the state must overhaul its educational system with particular attention to equitable funding. What aspects of that case are relevant to Prince George’s County and what impact could a board member have on funding inequities?
I’d suggest that this case is relevant to Prince George’s County in two ways. First, certain pieces of the formula funding we receive from the State have to do with equity in the cost of educating students. As a BOE member, I will be in Annapolis during session to advocate for full funding and I will continue to build on the relationships I have with our lawmakers to ensure we get our fair share of that money. (Hogan has held back education funding in the past two years.) Second, we do see disparity across the County between neighborhoods. I strongly believe that we need to work to bring our middle class families back to the school system and that when families opt-in to our public schools we will see improvements.
What do you think are the greatest obstacles currently facing the Board of Education? As a board member, how will you contribute to solving those problems and increasing the Board’s effectiveness?
As an outsider, it is clear to me that the Board of Education is dysfunctional. I am a grassroots advocate and will work closely with the District 4 parents and community members to make sure that the entire Board hears from them. Let’s be honest, right now, not too many people beyond the PGCABS membership are actively engaged in advocating to the Board of Education. We need more engagement to make the changes our children deserve.
Do you have any additional comments?
If you want to see change on the Board of Education, I need your help. We know that thousands of people who vote for President will stop voting before they get to Board of Education on the ballot. Hundreds more will walk into the voting booth not familiar with me or the incumbent. Please contact me at email@example.com or on my cell at 202-492-7586 to talk about how you can help me reach more voters before and on Election Day. Thank you!
Learn more about Abel Olivo here: