Fairfax Democratic School Board Candidates Weigh In on Latino Issues

AT-LARGE CANDIDATE for Fairfax County Public Schools’ school board, Rachna Sizemore-Heizer (center), responds to a question while fellow at-large candidates Abrar Omeish (second from right), Karen Keys-Gamarra (right), Providence District school board candidate Karl Frisch (second from left) and current Providence District representative and forum moderator Dalia Palchik look on. (Photo: News-Press)

A forum for Fairfax County Public Schools’ school board candidates earlier this month focused on issues specific to Latino students and families was hosted by immigrant rights organization, CASA in Action.

Thomas Jefferson Regional Library hosted a panel of Democrat hopefuls Oct. 15, covering everything from how to help Latinos in the classroom as well as to give non-English speaking parents more options for community involvement.

The participants are affiliated with FCPS as either parents, school system alumni or administrators and hold different professional backgrounds. Providence District school board candidate Karl Frisch is a former small business owner and worked on the school board’s Citizens for Better Schools committee. Mason District school board candidate Ricardy Anderson is a former teacher and principal with two current Fairfax Schools children. At-large candidates include Rachna Sizemore-Heizer, a college professor and parent of three children from the school system, Abrar Omeish, an FCPS alumnus who’s worked with the schools’ central office and school board in multiple roles and incumbent Karen Keys-Gamarra, an attorney and parent of three FCPS alumni.

The candidates emphasized different methods to address the problems brought up by CASA while mirroring each others’ general urgency to take action. Engaging with Latino parents in more casual forms showed the first signs of how the candidates would tackle doing so in their own way.

Frisch believed there needed to be better access to translators since Providence District has yet to provide a language immersion program. Keys-Gamarra was more in favor of reaching out to parents in-person at school events to get their feedback on issues. Omeish highlighted how increasing the student-to-social worker ratio in schools would give parents a liaison they could comfortably approach. Sizemore-Heizer’s view incorporated elements of Frisch’s and Keys-Gamarra’s, where she wanted interpreters to go out into the community and explain how they can find any information they need through school resources.

“It’s a good approach to helping them understand what their roles and what the [parent-teacher association] is,” Sizemore-Heizer said. “This needs to be a conversation. We need to go out to our communities and talk with them about how to be involved.”

Strategies to include more Latino teachers in Fairfax County schools also drew diverse responses.

Keys-Gamarra questioned the Euro-centric approach to teaching that caused some students to disengage from the curriculum, before suggesting creating a panel focused on diversity to oversee hiring. Omeish wanted to find a way to transfer credentials from one teaching background into another since qualified individuals were looked over since they didn’t hail from a familiar setting. Sizemore-Heizer expressed an interest in reviewing implicit biases of school staff to ensure hiring practices are even-handed.

Frisch cited research that stated when teachers look like students, those students are more likely to gain acceptance in advanced academics and graduate. That dovetails in with FCPS’ Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee report that Omeish mentioned earlier in the forum, which detailed that racial gaps in Standards of Learning tests between black and hispanic students in comparison to white and asian students haven’t changed since 2005.

Anderson, who helped open an elementary school in neighboring Loudoun County, offered some self-criticism by saying that her school didn’t get teachers who reflected its school population. Moving forward, she felt it was a matter of targeted recruitment and intra-school cultivation.

“It’s going to the places where those people are — such as historically black colleges — to have minority teachers,” Anderson said. “In addition to that, it’s growing your own. Not everyone is going into education. I had a school where a lot of the families were of asian descent and I could not procure asian teachers because they were going into the sciences; not teaching. So we need to encourage students to go into education and hire them back into our schools.”

The strongest area of consensus was about being welcoming to students who are either immigrants themselves or come from an immigrant family. That goes hand-in-hand with the candidates’ directive not to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on or around school grounds, which moderator and current Providence District school board member Dalia Palchik assured the group wasn’t allowed by FCPS in the first place.

Elections for each of these races will take place next Tuesday, Nov. 5.