Highland Park ISD Board of Trustees Place 4 Candidate Q&A

Candidates for the Highland Park ISD place 4 seat recently answered some People Newspapers reader-submitted questions. Early voting begins April 25 and lasts until May 3. Election day is May 7.

Candidates: Jae Ellis, Tyler Beeson

Why are you running for school board now?

Jae Ellis: As a 1990 Highland Park High School graduate, I have long followed the school’s motto, “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.”  I served back then as Student Body President, and today, I serve as a Trustee on the Board. I have served our community nonstop, and it is what I love doing. I want to continue to make HPISD better for future generations. One of the key lessons I have learned during my three years of service on the school board is that unexpected, demanding, and urgent issues will arise. I am inspired to run for re-election because our district needs thoughtful and open-minded leaders who have broad experience serving the district in multiple capacities, who know how the district operates, who respect and love our community and our traditions, who will keep divisive politics out of our schools, and who are committed to working with others to make the difficult decisions to achieve our common mission:  delivery of excellent education for every student. We need Trustees who understand that divisive tactics and politics have no place in our schools. I am committed to uniting leaders and community members around our common passion for providing excellent education for all students. We need Trustees who have the courage and integrity to make difficult decisions, not based on what is popular, but based solely on what will best benefit all students. We need Trustees who always consider all perspectives and arguments and who are not inclined to rush to judgment and action. And, we need Trustees who will continually build up and support our school district rather than tear it down. I am that kind of Trustee. Through my three years of service as a School Board Trustee, and through my 20+ year track record of unmatched service to our school district and community, I have demonstrated that I always put students first, I always seek to unify our community, and I always discharge my responsibilities with respect and integrity. 

Tyler Beeson: I am running for the HPISD School Board for my children, and all the other children in the district. They need a voice, and that voice is me. I’m not into the political tug of war that has been going on, and don’t think the school board should be the place for divisive politics. We are at a pivotal point, and it is time for change. Our children are our most prized treasures, and they deserve the very best we can give them as a district. Instead of fighting and arguing as a community, we need to be in the business of providing the very best education humanly possible to every HPISD student, and right now I’ll just say that there’s room for us all to do better. 

What are the biggest challenges facing the district in the next five-10 years and how would you go about solving them?

Ellis: I am a former HPISD classroom teacher. I know that educational excellence depends heavily on the ability to attract, hire, train, support, and retain excellent teachers. When I first ran for the school board in 2019, my primary inspiration was my passion for finding a way to raise compensation to attract and retain the best teachers. I delivered on my commitment by working with other Trustees, the Administration, and most importantly, our community, to provide an average 7% increase in compensation for HPISD teachers while we lowered the school district property tax rate by more than 2 cents per $100 of taxable value. However, Texas school finance law of recapture (“Robin Hood”) continues to send substantial HPISD tax dollars to other school districts while, effectively, placing a low ceiling on the amount of tax revenue returned to HPISD to operate its schools. Therefore, HPISD’s long term success depends on electing school board Trustees who understand school finance law and who are experienced in working with the community, the Education Foundation, its generous donors, and the various parent, volunteer, and philanthropic organizations who so generously give of their time and their finances to support HPISD’s educational mission. Clearly, the most time sensitive challenge currently facing HPISD is the ongoing examination of literacy instruction methods and materials. An Education Services subcommittee is engaged in a months-long, comprehensive evaluation of methods and materials used to deliver literacy instruction, and is considering options for replacing various methods and materials (Lucy Calkins, Balanced Literacy, Workshop Method, etc.). The comprehensive evaluation is also focused on assessing, among other things, the rigor level of assigned literature, whether and when students should be assigned specific books or be given choices of reading selections, and HPISD student performance trends on various standardized tests. I am encouraged by the progress that the subcommittee has reported during public sessions on multiple occasions. Most recently, on March 22, subcommittee members reported that they anticipate one or more recommendations being presented for action by the Board at its April 19 meeting. I understand many parents’ frustration that there has not been an instant solution to address their concerns. I am committed to evaluating all of the information and then making a decision based on what is best for all students. If the subcommittee’s investigation shows that the district can deliver literacy instruction better without these challenged resources, then I will work with district leadership to remove them and to select the best resources to deliver excellent education for all HPISD students.

Beeson: The challenges we face as a school district are not new. Recapture is crippling to us as a district, as approximately $100 million leaves our district every single year. This outflow of revenue affects everything from curriculum to teacher salaries. I plan to analyze the budget to seek out the most efficient ways to reduce expenses and increase revenues through endowments and sound investing so we do not have to raise taxes again. Declining test scores is another challenge in our District, which I believe needs to be addressed through some modifications of our current curriculum. Please see the Lucy Calkins question below for more explanation. 

What makes Highland Park ISD unique compared to other public schools in the area?

Ellis: ​​Highland Park is the number one public school district in Texas because of its 108-year history of constructive and collaborative community involvement with district leadership and staff in pursuit of our common goal of delivering the absolute best education for every student. District leadership constantly reminds students that they enter the schools to learn to prepare them to serve their families, serve their communities, and serve others, and the students take that charge seriously.  Students learn to serve others by following the example of the adults in the community who partner with the school district by giving so generously of their time and their resources.  And that charge is reinforced by the requirement of substantial service hours before any student can graduate from HPHS. Parents in our community are committed to doing everything they can to ensure that their children receive excellent education and achieve the highest levels of success. As a result, parents enthusiastically jump at opportunities to serve in school cafeterias, to volunteer in their children’s classrooms, to serve in leadership roles on various committees and parent-teacher organizations, to organize fundraisers, and to make generous financial donations. Additionally, our community recognizes that the success of the school district supports the value of our property.  As a result, all community members see themselves as stakeholders in the school district regardless of whether they have children, and regardless of whether their children are not yet in the schools, are current students, or are former students.  Everybody within HPISD has a vested interest in keeping HPISD schools excellent and in constantly improving the quality of education the district delivers for all students. All stakeholders within HPISD have high expectations for student success and excellence in all academic, service, social, and extracurricular pursuits and activities.  These collective high expectations and the pride in and support for the school district within our community are unmatched. And finally, HPISD teachers are unique because they take pride in teaching at Highland Park and feel personally invested in the success of the students. In many cases, HPISD teachers have opted to teach in HPISD at lower compensation because they love working with the bright, motivated, and respectful children of HPISD parents, and they love working with students who strive for excellence.

Beeson: We have a truly unique and winning combination of incredibly talented and intelligent students, along with dedicated teachers who want them to succeed. We have involved and caring parents who expect excellence in their child’s education. The community behind our children can’t be beat! 

Some parents have raised concerns about the Lucy Calkins Units of Study. What’s your take on it, and how, if at all, do you think the literacy curriculum in the district could be improved?

Ellis: All HPISD students must learn to be excellent readers, and I take parental concerns about how HPISD students are taught very seriously. I understand and share many of the concerns about literacy teaching methods and materials. Lucy Calkins was around before I joined the school board. Lucy Calkins methods and materials have been used, in some capacity, within HPISD as far back as 2015, and had been introduced in at least one HPISD elementary school by 2014, if not earlier. As a former classroom teacher in HPISD, and as a current School Board Trustee, I have always had an open mind with respect to evaluating current practices and considering different teaching methods and materials. I have met multiple times with various leaders of the Literacy Coalition and with other concerned parents, and I have studied hundreds of pages of correspondence, reports, articles, and other information prepared and shared by experts and concerned parents and educators. I share the concerns expressed by the Literacy Coalition and the concerned parents of HPISD students. I am committed to ensuring that HPISD educational standards and procedures remain second to none. Achieving academic excellence demands continuing critical examination of what is going on in the classroom. That critical examination is being done right now with respect to Lucy Calkins and I fully support the effort. Specifically, an Education Services subcommittee is currently engaged in a months-long, comprehensive evaluation of current methods and materials used to deliver literacy instruction and is considering options for replacing Lucy Calkins. I am encouraged by the progress that the subcommittee has reported during public sessions on multiple occasions. Most recently, on March 22, the subcommittee members reported that they anticipate one or more recommendations being presented for action by the Board at its April 19 meeting. I understand many parents’ frustration that there has not been an instant solution to address their concerns. I am committed to getting all of the information and then making a decision based on what is best for all students. When the issue comes before the Board at the conclusion of the subcommittee’s work, I will take action to ensure that HPISD uses only excellent methods and materials for literacy instruction. If the subcommittee’s investigation shows that the district can deliver literacy instruction better without these challenged resources, then I will work with district leadership to remove them and to select the best resources to deliver excellent education for all HPISD students.

Beeson: Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study is failing our students. Lucy Calkins/Heinemann Units of Study is an English/Language Arts curriculum in K-8 that has been widely scrutinized as a curriculum that teaches children to read based on contextual clues and not through traditional phonics methods. Highland Park ISD officially adopted the Lucy Calkins curriculum in April 2019, and some campuses unofficially started utilizing Lucy Calkins before 2019. Currently, several states (Arkansas and Colorado) have banned instructional methods that teach the Lucy Calkins “balanced literacy” method and are requiring public schools to teach traditional phonics, which is sometimes referred to as the “science of reading.” Additionally, 28 states have laws or financial incentives to try and steer districts away from this detrimental Lucy Calkins curriculum. The District should remove Lucy Calkins immediately and replace it with a traditional phonics-based curriculum. 

What role do you believe the school board should play in selecting, reviewing or removing books in the HPISD classrooms and libraries? Do you plan to involve yourself in deciding which books teachers can teach or librarians can stock?

Ellis: ​​With approximately 6,800 students and 800 staff in HPISD, it is not the board’s role (and is simply not feasible) to review catalogs of books in our district’s seven libraries or to review every reading assignment chosen by our classroom teachers. If the board was charged with selecting, reviewing, and removing books from classrooms and libraries, it would do nothing else. Even though I am a former HPISD classroom teacher, the board is not comprised of trained educators. HPISD relies on district professional staff, with input from community representatives, to select and acquire instructional resources that meet high standards, that support and are consistent with the general educational goals of the district and its schools, and that are appropriate for the subject and for the age of the students for whom they are selected. Literature selections must be scrutinized to ensure that they do not contain inappropriate material, and they must provide balanced information on opposing sides of controversial issues. Federal law empowers a school district to “remove materials because they are pervasively vulgar or based solely upon the educational suitability of the books in question.”  See Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982). Consistent with federal law, if a dispute arises about a particular book, then HPISD Policy EF (LOCAL) provides a process by which parents may challenge an instructional resource on the basis that it fails to meet standards, including who should be involved in resolving it and the information resources that should be consulted along the way. I believe that HPISD should follow the law and district policies in this area, and that the school board’s job is to provide guidance and oversight to ensure that the district has and uses the proper processes in this area.

Beeson: I am an unwavering advocate of free speech. Therefore, I am not about book banning, but rather achieving academic rigor and ensuring grade-appropriate literature to stimulate growth within each student. The board should actively monitor the curriculum to ensure academic excellence is accomplished through the selected books. I say this because I have seen books currently in our curriculum lacking in academic rigor. 

With the declining ratings and test scores of our district, especially in reading/writing what will you do to improve our current trajectory? Will you vote to remove Lucy Calkins/balanced learning from our curriculum? 

Ellis: HPISD must always be focused on improving student performance on standardized tests, and successful student achievement will result in optimal ratings. There are some areas where HPISD student test scores have decreased, and I have confidence that our administration, teachers, and students will work tirelessly to accomplish focused improvement for those specific tests. As indicated in my response to the questions above, many HPISD parents have expressed valid and pressing concerns about the inclusion of Lucy Calkins/Balanced Literacy within ELA literacy instruction methods and materials, and our district’s ELA subcommittee has been engaged in a months-long comprehensive evaluation that is on schedule to conclude in April. The ELA subcommittee is also keenly focused on analyzing the movement trends in HPISD student standardized test scores, and I will continue to support the administration and teaching staff in their efforts to help all HPISD students, at all grade levels, increase their test scores. If the subcommittee’s investigation shows that the district can deliver literacy instruction better without these challenged resources, then I will work with district leadership to remove them and to select the best resources to deliver excellent education for all HPISD students. HPISD’s long-term goal for each student’s academic experience is to prepare each student to best accomplish maximum success at rigorous, high-performing colleges after graduation from Highland Park High School. While district leadership will continue to monitor test scores and other metrics and take targeted efforts to make improvements in any areas of decline, we must not forget that Highland Park High School has continued to be the highest rated open-enrollment public high school in the state of Texas, as evidenced by graduation rates, college admissions, SAT and ACT scores, National Merit recognition, and rates of successful Advanced Placement tests. These are the best indicators of how well our school district is delivering comprehensive education over a student’s full academic career from elementary school through high school. But we will not rest on our laurels. HPISD will continue to examine at all levels, prekindergarten through 12th grade and for the 18+ program, ways that we can improve the education that we are delivering to all of our students.For context about the ratings referenced in the question, please visit these two pages on the school district’s website: https://www.hpisd.org/apps/news/article/1542766 and https://4.files.edl.io/df71/10/26/21/172852-e763420b-a69a-4b44-960f-d1718664df19.pdf

Beeson: Yes, if given the opportunity, I will vote to remove Lucy Calkins Units of Study. However, Lucy Calkins is just the tip of the iceberg in our District. Our declining test scores in english/language arts and in math are a direct result of the workshop method of teaching where a teacher gives a 5-15 minute “mini lesson” and then students break into small groups and teach themselves with their peer group. The District has stated that they are moving away from teacher-guided instruction to student-centered learning, where teachers are more facilitators rather than instructors. I do not believe this is an effective method of teaching students, and I am not in favor of the workshop method in most instances. 

Please list your involvement in any volunteer position with HPISD, whether in schools or on a district or education foundation level?

Ellis: My service to HPISD began approximately 25 years before I was first elected to serve on the school board in 2019. Before enrolling in law school at the University of Texas in 1996, I was a classroom teacher and a football and basketball coach at Highland Park High School. While in my early 20’s and even before I became a father, I began serving on the Board of Directors of the Highland Park Alumni Association, where I played a substantial role, working with community leaders Louis Beecherl, Syd Carter, and Jim Hitzelberger, among others, to negotiate the deal that led to the Alumni Association merging with the Highland Park Education Foundation. For 10 years, I served in various leadership and service roles, including as Vice President and as Treasurer of the Alumni Association. Later, I was selected to serve on the Board of Directors of the Highland Park Education Foundation, where I served for 7 years, including leadership roles on the Finance Committee, the Strategic Planning Committee, and as Board Secretary. Along the way, I served in various volunteer roles in the schools where my children attended, including cafeteria duty, dads club member and volunteer, youth sports coach, and as a member of multiple committees organized by campus Principals and district leadership to address specific and timely topics. And finally, for the last nine years, I have served as the sideline reporter and post-game interviewer for the Highland Park Scots varsity football radio broadcast team.

Beeson: I have been active in HPISD for the last 12 years. I have been a part of Dad’s Club, volunteering at UP Elementary (UP all Night) and the middle school. I have served lunches in the cafeteria, volunteered for school carnivals and many bike rodeos. I have coached kids’ sports every year through the YMCA and other organizations. I truly love working with the kids and seeing their confidence grow through sports. Both of my older boys play on various sports teams for the Scots and we are actively involved with their teams. Additionally, I have volunteered the last ten years at Interfaith Family Services as a dedicated board member, and recently retired from the Board. I am excited to continue my tenure of service to the HPISD community as a School Board Trustee. 

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