This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2018 Prince George’s County Board of Education candidates. Sonya Williams is the incumbent from District 9 (see district map here) running in the June 26 primary election. Ms. Williams 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 your plans to move our school system forward. Why do you want to be on the Board of Education?
BACKGROUND: Born in DC, raised in Prince George’s County since the age of 5, and educated through Prince George’s County Public Schools, I graduated from Crossland High School at the age of 16. I began my college career at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore studying Engineering. I received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering specializing in Project Management from the University of Maryland College Park. I also have a Masters Degree in International Organizational Leadership from Georgetown University.
As a Civil Engineer, I’ve worked on many projects throughout the county, state and nation. Most notable projects include working as an intern on the construction of the WSSC Headquarters building in Laurel, I was a part of the project management team on the construction of the first expansion of Pier C at BWI Airport, the construction of the International Terminal at BWI Airport, the development of Tanger Outlets and the Clipper Way road construction.
Through my career, I have managed organizations, teams and offices that have built structures, procured services and developed infrastructure. I have work with people of many and varied education levels, backgrounds, cultures and experiences. As a member of the board, it is important to have different perspectives, because as a leader of an organization as large as PGCPS with the diversity in students being serviced, parents, partners, employees and stakeholders, the ability to provide perspective and context.
FUTURE PLANS FORWARD: Since I became a board member, my primary focus has been infrastructure and structural change. The infrastructure of PGCPS is varied and fluctuates, from the types and age of our buildings, to the procedures use to perform the work. Our infrastructure and structures in place that impacts the operation and outcomes show the scars of too many stops and starts as leadership has changed through out the years. My goal is to focus on stabilizing the foundations in our systems so that real decisions can be made with clear information and integrity. What that means is that how information is shared is standardized, what type of information is shared is standardized, the frequency in which the information is shared is standardized, and how we report on the work (data and outcomes) is standardize. Once the standards are clear and concise, we can begin to show and move towards the goal of success.
My accomplishments thus far in this direction since I became a board member has been spearheading changes to how and when the Board budget priorities are incorporated in the budget development process, changes to staff reports to the board, changes to agenda item details, attachments and other information to make us more effective decision makers and inquire with more pinpoint detail. I plan to continue that process to make structural changes so that the work of the Board is more informed, efficient and effective.
To make lasting change in an organization that impacts the lives of over 130,000 students with nearly 20,000 employees, in the second largest community in the State of Maryland on a budget of less than $2 Billion, we must operate with a focus of being efficient and effective and with the ability to be able to communicate our mission, vision and goals and report frequently about outcomes and outputs. This can only be done with the input and when information shared is clear and concise. My background in problem solving as an engineer, leadership as a project manager, and organizational experience through building teams, managing processes and reaching the goal is being brought to the table as a board member at PGCPS. Therefore, my experience to ask the right questions, frequently, in different ways and settings, as needed depending upon the audience, in an experience professional manner with the knowledge and focus on the outcome being sought is how I plan to move and change the infrastructure and structure of PGCPS.
WHY CONTINUE THE WORK: To make change, be it physical, mental, emotional, organizational it takes time. To transform a liquid to a solid, it takes time. To go from a seed to a plant, it takes time. To build a building, cook a meal, to reach success, it takes time. To transform a culture, a mindset, a practice, it takes time.
Change starts with a goal, then a plan, then implementation of that plan, monitoring the actions taken, tweaking the process, and in the end, you should be closer to or at your goal. However, when the goal is changed through leadership, the process is modified because of new leadership, or monitors get replaced, in the end, the original intended outcome will never be reached.
As a civil engineer, I understand that it takes time to build and we build for the long-term. It starts with understanding the foundation that the structure is being built on, I understand that the pieces of the structure must connect, I understand that the components of the structure must fit in order to have a strong organization and lasting change. I understand the culture of PGCPS through the time spent as a board member thus far, I have begun the implementation of the structural changes needed to move this school system forward. I have built relationships that support the building of strong systems within this organization. In order to see it to the finish, I am committed to the time needed to complete the work.
What would be your top three priorities while serving on the board, if elected?
- I will continue to focus on improvements to the infrastructure both physical and operational.
- I will continue to focus on improvements to communication, to the Board from staff, to the community through the school system, and with my community as an individual board member.
- I will continue to focus on improving the effective use of the resources we have now and expanding the resources we will receive for use in the future.
What qualities do you believe are most important in a Chief Executive Officer?
Qualities of the individual who fills the Chief Executive Officer position must be strategic, must be focused and must be a leader.
Strategy is needed to be able to see value in the tools given, determine what additions are needed and have access to obtain them, and have the ability to make them to work together.
Focus is needed to be able to see the goal, articulate the goal, and keep everyone’s eyes on the prize, while in the midst of the work. The work of a school system is complex, it has many moving parts and has a myriad of components that change with time. The CEO should be able to keep their attention and the organization’s attention where it need to be to reach the goal.
Leadership is needed to build relationships with everyone who is impacted by the work, in PGCPS that includes not only the students, but the employees, parents, partners, community, and other stakeholders. But also, leaders must be able to work with those whose intent is not in alignment with the goals set forth.
If you had the opportunity to chair one of the existing Board of Education committees, which would you choose and why?
I currently sit as co-chair for two board committees, Academic Achievement Committee and Finance Audit and Budget Committee. I will continue to either chair or co-chair these committees. I believe these committees is where the most tangible work is done to move the system towards improvement.
What are your impressions of the current level of parent engagement in our schools, and what ideas do you have for improving/encouraging parent and community engagement?
My impression of the current level of parent engagement is that there has been an increase since I left my position as PTSA President to become a board member, however there is room for improvement. That improvement comes in several forms (1) Joining the PTA and attending PTA meetings regularly, (2) Checking School Max on a weekly bases and following up with the teacher when there is a challenge, (3) Building a relationship with the teacher and school administrators at the beginning of the year to partner with the school in regards to the success of their child, (4) Investigating next steps and opportunities for their child to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by PGCPS, (5) Attending one board meeting, community meeting, board member meeting to be engaged in the process and (6) Spending at least one day per school year in the school to get to know the community their child spends most of their waking hours. Engagement by parents is so important because children learn how to be good citizens best by watching their parents being engaged.
What are your ideas for addressing inadequate facilities and alleviating overcrowding, while communities wait for new school construction and renovation to take place?
With my experience in development and construction, I have been working closely with the Capital Improvement Programs (CIP) office to understand the issue of overcrowding and aging schools. In 2016, I began to work with CIP to determine what size facilities staff is needed to manage the schools, maintain the schools, and build new schools. The results indicated that we do not currently have adequate staff in place to properly handle the workload. Additionally, several publications such as the Parsons Report, Educational Facilities Master Plan, and CIP & Capital Maintenance Plans indicate that the cost needed to bring schools to current standards and adequately maintain our inventory of buildings is astronomical.
As a result of this information, I have participated in discussion, led inquiries, provided direction that has led us to pursuing a Public-Private Partnership (P3) delivery method for new school construction. With the support of state legislators, we are now able to begin the 1st step in implementing this P3 program. I will continue to work with CIP to monitor the progress and provide input in tweaking the program as we move along. The goal of P3 program is to build schools quicker, revised school specifications to reduce the cost that will result in more school buildings built to reduce overcrowding and eliminate some of our aging school structures.
Name one book you have recently read. What did you learn from it?
Two books I am concurrently reading are The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator, and Scenario Planning in Organizations. These two books are written for leaders who recognize that in organizations, unless you build them from the ground up, you are given a set of resources to use. Those resources are people, infrastructure, processes and set of expected outcomes. To move an organization from its current state of being, change must occur. The scenario planning book takes a look at the ‘what if’ and how to prepare for them and take advantage of them. The negotiator book centers your focus on how to approach negotiations to achieve the desired outcome.
There have been questions surrounding graduation rates and grade fixing in Prince George’s County. According to the WABE report, Prince George’s County students continually scored among the lowest on the SAT. What can the school system do to improve the quality of a Prince George’s County education?
To improve the quality of education in Prince George’s County Public School, we must create a plan and allow the plan to be implemented over time. There are two challenging facing Prince George’s County Public School (1) Instability in Leadership and (2) Telling our own stories of success.
Instability in leaderships, in order to see change in anything, it takes time (refer to my response to question 1). Leaders lead the mission, vision and goals for an organization to carry out. When the leadership is changed frequently, the mission, vision and goals change as well. Changes in operational processes also occur, in some cases personnel changes are made. Prince George’s County Public Schools has changed both the make up of the board and operational school leadership far to often to see any real sustainable change in student success. Stabilizing the leadership of Prince George’s County Schools is the first step towards changing the outcomes in student achievement and success.
Telling our own stories of success is the second thing that must be done to improve our school system. There are many success stories in PGCPS. (Follow my hashtag to see successful outcome from District 9 #PGCPSD9Rock). Telling our own stories of success not only highlights our success and achievement, it celebrates the achievement of those students, teachers and staff members who work hard and to attain success. Telling our own story also gives others that are struggling, a goal to reach. When students, teachers, staff member see others that look like them, achieving success in the system that they are within, they too believe they can achieve success and will work towards it. I truly believe that success breeds success.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we have challenges that we must address. However, a lot of those challenges can be managed and handled, when leadership is constant and contiguous.
Many specialty programs (e.g. language immersion, performing arts programs) have waitlists because demand exceeds the current capacity, and some students travel long distances to attend a specialty school. Do you support the expansion of specialty schools? Why or why not?
Yes, expanding specialty schools is a must and I agree it should be done.
Learn more about Sonya Williams here:
- Twitter: @SonyaD9PGCPS
- LinkedIn: www.LinkedIn/in/SonyaWilliamsCivilEngr
- Facebook: @SonyaWilliamsPGCPS.D9
Read responses from other District 9 candidates: