Q & A with Irene Holtzman, District 3 Board of Education Candidate

IreneHolzman2018-73-minThis is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2018 Prince George’s County Board of Education candidates. Irene Holtzman is a candidate from District 3 (see district map here) running in the June 26 primary election. Ms. Holtzman 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?

I was born in raised in Maryland, and have lived in Prince George’s County for over two decades. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, I’ve been working in public education for nearly twenty years – as a teacher, an administrator and an educational advocate. Prince George’s County schools are full of potential but the dynamics of power and politics are interfering with our ability to see that potential realized.

I am running for Board of Education because students, teachers, and parents deserve a board member who puts children at the center of their decision making.

What would be your top three priorities while serving on the board, if elected?

  • Making Prince George’s County a world-class place to teach While there are a number of factors that contribute to student success, not one is more powerful than an excellent educator. How can we make Prince George’s County THE destination for amazing teachers in our region? We must make sure that compensation for teachers is competitive, that they have the resources they need in the classroom, and that their voice is heard, considered, and acted upon in their schools.
  • Centering community voices in decision making Our school system’s direction must be informed by those closest to it – our students, parents, and teachers. The lines of communication must be open and accessible to all. Instituting better structures and processes to ensure that these voices are elevated will lead to a school system that is better equipped to ensure students are successful.
  • Transparency and accountability Data regarding schools, school performance, finance, and anything else under the Board’s authority should be readily available in a format that is understandable by the general public. Only then will the community be able to independently assess the impact of their tax dollars on our County’s youth and hold the Board and leadership accountable.

What qualities do you believe are most important in a Chief Executive Officer?

The CEO must have a bold vision for the future of our County’s schools and a strategy for achieving that vision. This vision must be informed by the on-the-ground experiences of our students, parents, teachers, and administrators and the CEO must commit to transparent decision-making and data-informed course correction when necessary. The CEO must also have the practical skills of managing people, finances, and other resources to achieve the goals set out in the strategic plan. Most importantly, the CEO must have the ability to work across difference, balancing politics, pragmatics, and possibility across a wide range of stakeholders for the good of our students.

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 to chair one of the existing Board of Education committees, I would choose the Academic Achievement Committee. One, as a former teacher and administrator, it is the one where I have the most expertise. More importantly, academic achievement is the ultimate goal of our schools and the place where the board has an incredible responsibility to ensure that its policies are supporting schools in ensuring amazing outcomes for all students.

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? 

While there are many schools that enjoy high levels of parental engagement, we need to be mindful that our goal is for all parents to be engaged, not only in their child’s school, but in the vision setting and policy making for the County as a whole. Some ways to maximize that engagement include providing schools additional resources to engage their parents, holding board meetings at rotating locations throughout the County to facilitate parental participation, holding parent and community town hall meetings to allow an open forum for idea generation and exchange, and proactively surveying the community about what engagement opportunities are most meaningful and accessible to them.

What are your ideas for addressing inadequate facilities and alleviating overcrowding, while communities wait for new school construction and renovation to take place?

First, when addressing inadequate facilities and alleviating overcrowding, it is important to prioritize. Health and safety issues (such as asbestos and lead remediation) must be the first thing to be addressed. In thinking about overcrowding, we must differentiate between schools that are serving students beyond their capacity due to space constraints and those that are serving too many students in a classroom due to staffing constraints. For the schools with overcrowded classrooms due to staffing constraints, adjustments to student-based budgeting (such as adjusting core staffing models) could alleviate the classroom overcrowding. On the facilities side, after prioritizing based on need, exploring public-private partnerships, new financing structures and other novel ideas could accelerate the pace of the capital improvements we know that we desperately need to ensure that every student is learning in a world-class facility.

Name one book you have recently read. What did you learn from it?

Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom Reading this book reaffirmed my belief in the importance of asset-based (rather than deficit-based) thinking about our students. While many children come to the classroom with significant trauma – defining them by their strengths and not by their difficulties can make all the difference in how we are able to reach and teach them.

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?

There is no “quick fix” to improving the quality of a Prince George’s County education. The Stockdale Paradox embodies what must be done – we must confront the brutal facts of our reality (many students are not being adequately prepared for success in life after high school) and retain faith that we will prevail in the end.

Ultimately, hiring, engaging, and retaining a best-in-class workforce, being relentlessly honest about where students are performing, using adequately resourcing schools, and providing robust supports for the students who need them the most will yield results.  In addition, our grading systems must accurately reflect student competency – it should not be possible for a straight A student to graduate high school without being college and career ready. While a move to competency based grading (or a hybrid model) is a heavy lift that would need to engage stakeholders across all levels, it is something that should be considered if we believe it will move the needle on student performance across the county.

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?

Absolutely. If there is clear community demand for a program type, we should build those programs to eliminate waitlists and ensure that students are attending schools as close to home as possible. Centering community voices in our decision-making means responding to data that demonstrate what programs families are asking for.

Do you have any additional comments?

Thank you for the opportunity to share.

Learn more about Irene Holtzman here:


Read responses from other District 3 candidates here:

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