This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2018 Prince George’s County Board of Education candidates. Catherine Bennett Nwosu is a candidate from District 3 (see district map here) running in the June 26 primary election. Ms. Nwosu 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?
My journey began as a K-12 student within the PGCPS system. I am a proud graduate of High Point HS and a first generation college graduate. During high school, I was inspired by my teachers to pursue education and graduated with my degree in English as a Second Language. I currently serve as Director of Extended Learning at a charter school network in Washington, DC, where I am responsible for afterschool programming across three elementary campuses. My daily responsibilities include staffing, compliance, budget, human resources, and curriculum.
I love the work I do currently, but I have continually seen the academic divide that exists in schools across our region. I’m tired of complaining about the challenges seen in my community and want to step up and work to bridge this divide in Prince George’s County. I know there is promise and potential here.
I am running for the Board of Education in Prince George’s County because of my concerns that we are not meeting the needs of ALL of our students in this district. Reforming our local schools is an urgent concern for me, especially since I myself am a mom with children in the school system. I want to push our thinking about the academic future of my children and children throughout our neighborhood because they deserve the absolute best everyday, and they are not receiving that now. But we can change that.
As a parent, I see how quickly our children grow both at home and in educational settings. We don’t have time to point fingers or make excuses. I’m ready to work collaboratively with parents, teachers, leaders, community members, students and board members to envision what we want to see in our schools, then work to make that a reality.
What would be your top three priorities while serving on the board, if elected?
The three major areas that I’d like to focus on as a board member are academic equality, collaboration, and capital improvement. Far too many schools in District 3 are overcrowded and academically underperforming, and it must be fixed.
We have recently been approved for a new elementary and middle school to be built in our area. Leveraging Public and Private Partnerships (P3) will go a long way to ensure that our schools are built efficiently, with quality, and within budget. However, it is not enough to focus solely on new school buildings that have been approved. The CIP budget must also be simultaneously used to make needed repairs to our existing schools. It’s not enough to create new seats – we have to improve the quality of the ones we have too.
We also know that there has been a lot of new home construction in our area recently without any planning for creating additional seats for the children living there. I will work collaboratively with the county council to ensure systems across our government that speak to one another and get proactive about school capacity needs.
While school buildings definitely matter, the reason we send our children to a particular school is to ensure they have a high quality education. Local neighborhood children are often over visiting my house after school, and I am continually alarmed by the academic gaps that I’ve seen among elementary children in reading and math. We have to ensure county schools are meeting the academic needs of ALL of our students, especially at the foundational elementary level.
Academic equality for all children would be the driving factor for my work as a school board member. Believing that students must be at the center of all that we do, we must bring the community into our schools. In order to support students’ academic needs we must collaborate with the community, including government and non-profit organizations to support our academic goals we’ve set for our schools and students as well.
Finally, it is vitally important that we work to rebuild public trust in our school system through transparency and collaboration. We would start by creating PTAs in schools that currently do not have them, then creating a local education task force to collaborate and design the types of schools we want in our communities. This education task force would include students, parents, community members, school employees, school leaders, elected officials, business leaders, and civic associations, and would ideally meet monthly to create a strategic plan and vision for our schools’ futures. In this task force we could idea share about initiatives that are already working and brainstorm solutions to the challenges we see. As a board member I would then use this task force to drive my own work in committee meetings, and it would allow me to better advocate for the budget to expand the initiatives needed in Prince George’s County.
What qualities do you believe are most important in a Chief Executive Officer?
There are two essential things I would look for in the next Chief Executive Officer. First would be values and principles, secondly is skills and experience. We want and need someone who is reflective, transparent, and collaborative. We want and need someone who is a strong manager, able to set and work towards a vision for excellence in all of our schools. We want and need someone who is able to lead teams in creating a strategic plan to execute on the plan across our county.
If you had the opportunity to chair one of the existing Board of Education committees, which would you choose and why?
If given the opportunity, I would choose the Academic Achievement committee chair. I believe academics should be at the core of everything that the Board of Education works to achieve, and we have to make it stronger for future students. Furthermore, if the opportunity to serve as chair happens, I would include more voices in the committee like central office leaders, unions, school leaders, parents, and teachers.
I had the pleasure of attending a committee meeting earlier this school year. While attending this committee meeting, it was noticeable that board members needed to get up to speed on the background knowledge of the school system initiative by reaching out to central office staff after the meeting. This could have been avoided if there were more collaboration amongst the various stakeholders. As Academic Achievement Committee Chair, I would push to make that happen.
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?
I believe that we have a distinctly different level of parent engagement, usually depending on one’s zip code. I’ve noticed that incorporated areas such as Hyattsville, University Park, and Mt. Rainier have a great deal of parent engagement — these areas have strong PTAs with committees and healthy PTA fundraising budgets that supplement the schools’ budgets. This foundation goes a long way to supporting schools. However, areas such as Lewisdale or Langley Park have weaker parent involvement. The first thing I’d like to do is work to build PTAs in schools that have non-existent or dysfunctional PTAs. Next, I’d encourage collaboration amongst our various schools’ PTAs through a new PTA mentorship program. If we work together, we can build a stronger system across this county.
What are your ideas for addressing inadequate facilities and alleviating overcrowding, while communities wait for new school construction and renovation to take place?
In District 3, we have the challenge of an urban environment in a suburban setting mixed with budgetary concerns. This challenge means that we have small amounts of adequate land to accommodate the current county acreage requirements for new schools, constrained resources, and large populations of children to be served. All of these conditions create overcrowding in schools with limited options for new school construction.
To address the budgetary concerns of this equation, Public Private Partnerships will support new construction. Previously, schools were built with a mixture of land-use bonds, county, state, and federal dollars. With this new initiative, we are able to pay for new construction over a 20 or 30 year period, similar to a home mortgage. In addition, if there are any repairs that need to be made the builder would be required to make the repairs or forgive a portion of the construction loan. Additionally, working with this program would free up state and county money from the CIP budget and allow for those dollars to support the renovations of existing facilities. I would work within this new initiative to advocate for new construction from this program. I would also advocate for building improvements across our district schools including lead remediation in our water, mold remediation, roof repair, and HVAC repair.
Name one book you have recently read. What did you learn from it?
I recently finished reading Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong. She is a researcher storyteller who writes about living wholeheartedly by connecting with others.
One key concept that has continued to resonate with me since I read it is about the need to ask for and accept help from others. She accurately points out that we are quick to accept help as a child and then again in our oldest days. However, we don’t seek out help in our “messy middle adulthood” when we need it the most. We seek value in helping versus being helped. As someone who is fiercely independent, I am learning how to lean on others throughout each part of my life. I am also working on seeing the value in asking for and receiving help in addition to giving help. There is strength in numbers whether we are personally adept at recognizing that or not.
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?
As an educator, I know that students don’t suddenly have low scores in high school. The recent scandals are concerning. However, it is important to note that many districts have last minute grade changes as students turn assignments in late. The narrative that this “scandal” has created is that our students can’t possibly achieve greatness on their own and there has to be corruption under the success.
We have to be mindful of the narrative that we create when graduation rates go up in a predominately minority county. Our children are intelligent, hardworking, and determined; they deserve to receive credit for their accolades. That said, if there is corruption, it must be addressed. For too long we have fed into this narrative of negative news in our school system. It is time to build our schools and rally behind our children to meet them where they are and build supports to ensure the expectations are high from elementary to high school.
As a student at High Point HS I saw an academic divide in Prince George’s County. There was an unspoken dual system of high and low expectations depending on who you were. Low expectations have created a system that diminishes the overall quality. We have to raise the expectations for all of our students beginning with the elementary foundational years. We can do this by expecting more from our young people, training principals on instructional coaching and school culture, and having high quality whole group instruction mixed with small groups instruction. We can do this by forming partnerships with organizations to bring the community into schools to address some of the social issues that come into play. We can do this when we openly ask for help and work together toward a shared goal of excellence. Our children deserve that and more.
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?
I believe that specialty programs are important for many students and families. I am in favor of them because I see the value that they add to our school system. However, until further examining the trade-offs that would exist, I would not advocate their expansion if it has major budgetary implications. My first priority as a board member would be to ensure that the most possible students have high quality academic programming. I believe the best way to do this is to focus on each neighborhood school before expanding specialty programs.
That said, there could be ways to collaborate with non-profit entities who receive grant or private funding to operate. If we could partner with these organizations to expand language, Career/Technical Education, and the arts in schools in ways that would have minimal impact on our budget, I would definitely be in favor.
Do you have any additional comments?
It’s important to understand what motivates people to run for office. I cannot speak for my opponents but for me it’s simple: I’m tired of complaining about the challenges I see in our schools. Instead, I want to put actions behind ideas and improve our schools. My end goal is improving schools — period. I have no desire to go into other political roles. I’ve always served my community through AmeriCorps, volunteer work, PTA, and advocacy, and I have a deep personal desire for public service. For me, running for Board of Education is a continuation of that commitment to public service, and I hope you will trust me with this responsibility.
Please feel free to call me at 240-272-2976 to share your vision of what you’d like our schools to be. Follow me on Facebook.com/CatherineNwosuPGCPS, and visit my website at www.votenwosu.com . I’d love to get to know you more!
Learn more about Catherine Bennett Nwosu here:
Read responses from other District 3 candidates here: