Highland Park ISD Board of Trustees Place 5 Candidate Q&A

Candidates for the Highland Park ISD place 5 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: Ellen Lee, Spencer Siino

Why are you running for school board now?

Ellen Lee: I am running for HPISD Trustee Place 5 now because we are facing an important crossroads in public education, and I believe I have the wisdom, experience, and temperament to represent the voice and values of our community as the Board works with the Administration to ensure our students receive an excellent education rooted in the best materials and methods available. 

Spencer Siino: I’m running for school board because the administration hired by HPISD has been subverting parental rights and the school’s mission of traditional academic excellence in favor of a technology-driven, rather than teacher-led model, that prioritizes the inculcation of globalist values over knowledge acquisition. This shift from fundamental education has resulted in the deterioration of Highland Park school rankings, and our children are now struggling with reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. I felt compelled to run because I’m the only Place 5 candidate who understands that the interests of the administrators running our schools (Educrats) are diametrically opposed to the best interests of the children, parents, and taxpayers. I’m also the only candidate who understands how outside lobbying groups, who supply the vision to transform schools away from traditional education, support the Educrats’ consolidation of power. Finally, I’m the only Place 5 candidate with a plan and the resolve to restore traditional academic excellence and local control of our schools. 

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

Lee: As we speak, our community and the District are engaged in a dialogue about the current Literacy Curriculum and Instruction used in our classrooms. This conversation is happening in many communities like ours—school districts and state legislatures across the country are alarmed by gaps in student learning and pivoting to proven strategies rooted in the Science of Reading. Here in Texas, 2019’s House Bill 3 has established Reading Academies to help equip our teachers and accelerate this transition to Science of Reading practices. The cornerstone of any K-12 education must be a robust reading and writing curriculum. I have engaged with many parents who are concerned their students lack the tools to be strong readers and writers. Other parents are disappointed in the lack of high-quality reading selections for middle and high school students. And some in our community are also on alert about agenda-driven content. As a Trustee, I am committed to ensuring our Administration prioritizes a framework for instruction squarely focused on a foundational education that equips all our students with the best methods and resources available. The other challenge we will continue to face as a district is achieving competitive teacher pay even as the current public school funding formula leaves HPISD at a disadvantage. Under the current framework codified in 2019’s House Bill 3, HPISD surrenders 67% of locally-raised property tax revenue for distribution to other districts across the state. And without the HB3 boosts given for various demographic benchmarks, the net result of this funding framework allots HPISD an average of $2000 less in per-student funding than our peer districts. While the 2021 Golden Pennies election, Mad for Plaid campaign, and PTA fundraising initiatives help close the gap, the larger and rapidly growing districts around us in North Texas are winning the funding race. More guaranteed dollars per student translates to more flexibility in teacher pay. We will have to keep firing on all cylinders to stay competitive—this means continual advocacy with policy-makers in Austin, a strong partnership with our PTAs and the HP Education Foundation, continued vigilance with our annual budget process, and constructive dialog with our teachers and staff about the total package that makes HPISD a compelling place to work.

Siino: First, let’s distinguish “the district” from “the administration.” The district is our community, the people who live here and the layout of our town, and the administration are district employees. The biggest challenge facing our schools is the rapid deterioration of academic standards brought about by the experimental methods, “woke” curriculum, and misallocation of resources imported by the “doctors” of Educational Leadership programs (i.e., HPISD’s administration). These problems must be addressed now so that in five to ten years the children have the foundational knowledge and skills to seek a life of opportunity. My plan to immediately replace our Superintendent with a classical educator, who will implement proven curriculum and prioritize resources on teachers rather than administrators and technology, directly addresses the deterioration of academic standards. Further, I will restore local control of our schools by disentangling our district from administrator lobbying groups determined to infect HPISD with the values of Austin, Silicon Valley, and Washington D.C. 

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

Lee: As a small district with just one high school in a tight-knit community that values excellence and tradition, HPISD is uniquely positioned to provide an exemplary public education usually found only in private school settings. Ours is a generational community. We benefit greatly from highly-educated and engaged parents, grandparents, empty-nesters, and alumni who devote their talents and time to HP life. And we are blessed to attract dedicated educators who often make long commutes to teach students who are ready and eager to learn. 

Siino: Highland Park is the best school district in the country. We have wonderful people, a tight-knit community with a beautiful layout where elementary schools are within walking distance for most residents and all feed into one middle school and high school creating an unusual level of cohesion. We are also blessed with so many parents who are willing and able to spend time and energy on their children’s education. Our district is so wonderful that many families save for years to afford a home so they can raise their children here. Unfortunately, the administrators we hired to manage our schools have put all of that in jeopardy. Through their emphasis on educational technology instead of traditional academic rigor; woke, dumbed-down curriculum in place of reading challenging books and studying historical facts; and the degradation of teacher pay and empowerment due to a bloated administration, HPISD’s administration has managed to produce subpar results with an outstanding set of assets. Fortunately, the underlying assets that make HPISD unique remain. We can restore the foundation of academic excellence on which our schools were built if we act quickly to overhaul the management of our schools. Our children are worth it. 

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?

Lee: As noted above, this is the most important conversation we are currently having as a District. Like many, I am following the developments closely and with great interest to see how our current Board and Administration choose to proceed. While it appears a decision regarding Lucy Calkins and Whole Language (or Balanced Literacy) instructional practices will be made before the May election, that will only be the first step. Then will begin the real work of identifying new anchor resources in line with HB3’s Reading Academies and equipping our teachers for successful classroom implementation. I look forward to joining the Board and Administration in charting that course. 

Siino: Like other derivations of “balanced literacy”, Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study is a horrible pedagogy, and when we replace our Superintendent with a classical educator, he or she will rip it out immediately. In fact, Lucy Calkins is the polar opposite of a classical approach. However, Lucy Calkins is merely a symptom of a much broader problem. Lucy Calkins; below grade-level reading; lack of correction of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax; BrainPOP; New Math; the collapse of literary standards; CRT in online curriculum like CharacterStrong and PurposeFull People; recently proposed online PE curriculum QuaverEd, which is also laced with CRT and SEL; and so much more, is all the result of an educational philosophy imported into HPISD from the “doctors” of Educational Leadership programs. We must remember that Lucy Calkins is not a pilot program. Lucy Calkins was deliberately adopted by HPISD’s administration and strenuously defended by the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Education Services. Lucy Calkins is a key step in implementing the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA)’s Vision, adopted by HPISD’s administration, which seeks to transform education in Texas and aligns with the National Education Technology Plan. If we’re getting this much pushback from the administration on changing a piece of curriculum that is clearly unacceptable to parents, how can we possibly partner with them to replace all the other bad curricula they’ve implemented? Classical educators have taught children how to read very effectively for thousands of years. The founders of our country, all of whom were classically educated, were voracious readers. With a classical educator leading our district, we will teach children phonics, reinforce their reading skills by developing strong writing skills and challenge them to read the Great Works that informed the development of our civilization. 

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?

Lee: The Board is responsible for setting policy and standards related to library selections and reading lists, leaving the procurement of age-appropriate instructional resources and library materials to trained professional staff. If campuses, departments or libraries are not faithfully adhering to that policy, then ultimate authority to restore fidelity or amend the policy in accordance with state guidelines lies with the Board. It is my intention to faithfully discharge the responsibilities as a Trustee in this process. 

Siino: While approving curriculum is under the purview of the board, I’m proposing a much more productive process than setting up committees that ineffectually attempt to battle administrators on inappropriate books. A classical educator as our Superintendent will ensure our children spend their precious hours reading time-tested and challenging books. Classical education requires the children to read so many of the great works of civilization – the most vetted books, essays and pieces of poetry in the history of the world – that they won’t have time to read anything a parent might find objectionable. If, for example, one of our high achieving juniors has grappled with the innumerable life lessons found in these classics, along with classical curriculum courses on identifying argumentative and logical fallacies, and wants to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, I think we will have prepared her to judge the quality of the material for herself.

​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? 

Lee: When talking about our ratings and test scores, this is a multi-lateral discussion. Every year should include an honest look at how our students are performing relative to their capabilities, not necessarily benchmarked to other school districts. As for recent reports about our declining STAAR results 2017-2021, particularly in elementary years, we owe it to our students and their future to drill down and understand what’s happening. 2021 results are certainly impacted by gaps in learning due to COVID disruptions. But STAAR results represent a base-level of assessment and do not capture the full picture of skills and knowledge our students should be receiving in HPISD. While we need to take an honest look at whether our balanced literacy approach and workshop model practices are contributing to declines, we must also consider whether these curriculum choices are providing the distinctive education families expect in HPISD. 

Siino: I believe that in order to improve our current trajectory we must replace our Superintendent with a classical educator, who will implement proven teaching methods and curriculum and prioritize resources on attracting, developing, and empowering the best teachers rather than spending on more administrators, quasi-administrators, and technology. My promise to the community is to propose a resolution to replace the Superintendent with a classical educator at my first board meeting as a trustee. “Balanced literacy” approaches like Lucy Calkins have no place in a classical education so voting to remove such curriculum will be a formality, and of course, I would vote to remove it. 

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

Lee: Certified Teacher in the State of Texas for Secondary Education, English, 2019 Boundary Redistricting Committee, 2019-21 Parent Education Committee, 2021 Golden Pennies 4 Teachers Campaign, 2016-2020 HPHS Literature Review Committees, 3 stand-alone parent groups convened to evaluate specific texts submitted for review, 15 years of volunteering in classrooms, libraries, cafeterias, outdoor gardens, and field trips, HP Men’s Basketball Photographer, Member, HP Education Foundation, and Committee Member for UP’s 100 Year Master Plan HPISD/SMU/UP Focus Group. 

Siino: I have not followed the traditional HPISD school board track of volunteering on committees because the administration has corrupted the process. Sadly, the administrators have turned parental involvement, which is so important to the district, into little more than political theater, a cover for implementation of proposals and curriculum designed by outside administrator lobbying groups such as the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA). Groups like TASA actually teach administrators how to use the committee process to ensure a predetermined outcome, similar to the Delphi Technique employed in corporate America. The administration has not only rigged the process to create predetermined outcomes, but they have cynically done so as part of a strategy of creating rubber stamp boards. The committee process grooms potential Board Trustees to accept the futility of their position and recognize the will of the administration as superior. My opponent experienced this first hand on the Literary Review Committee, where she sat for five years and voted against one book, which the administration overruled. As a Board Trustee, I will ensure that we restore parental rights and once again value parental involvement.

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