Both candidates for District 1 on the Northshore School Board agreed that COVID-19 shined a spotlight on students districtwide, including special education services.
Incumbent Jacqueline McGourty, who joined the board in 2017, spent half of her term dealing with pandemic. Candidate Elizabeth Crowley said she witnessed the changing COVID-19 regulations through her daughter, who is now in third grade.
“Irrespective of anyone else who's running, I have four years of experience on the Northshore School Board during what has been probably the most difficult term in history,” McGourty said. “I think that my background and experience helped us to really navigate these last few years.”
Crowley, in addition to being a parent, helps lead cybersecurity for Boeing. She hopes to provide the board with a new perspective on ways to improve connections between the various schools and district leaders. She also prioritizes mental health support and drug policy enhancements, she said.
“I see the joys and the tears related to school,” Crowley said about her daughter. “I’m personally invested in this community, and I enjoy giving back.”
Parents expressed concerns about safety upon the return to classrooms in the fall, McGourty said. As a result, the board and district administration put safety measures in place such as batch COVID-19 testing and face mast requirements.
“Dr. Michelle Reid and her staff have been working nonstop, 24/7, and they've got all these details worked out,” McGourty said. “It needs to be different for each school because each school has a different structure and population.”
She added that her experience as a retired biochemist helped her to make decisions by analyzing district data.
“The nature of science is you're always getting more data and things change that you thought were set in stone,” McGourty said. “You look at the data and you determine the path forward that sums up what we were having to deal with over the last 18 months.”
Crowley said the pandemic brought about innovative ways to teach students, like using an app for tracking assignments and learning to participate in Zoom meetings. However, she added that too much screen time often led to her daughter feeling burnt out.
“There have been some bumps in the road with returning to school, but I think [the district] has done a good job with testing and notification of exposures,” Crowley said.
Students in special education also faced significant impacts throughout the pandemic, Crowley said. To improve these services, she said, there needs to be a focus on providing additional training for teachers and staff members. She thinks the district should require more immersion time for students in general education classes.
“I think it's important that special education students feel like they have time with their peers and feel like they belong in their classroom,” she said. “Some students don't get a lot of time in general education, or if they do, they're not really treated the same as all of the other children.”
Crowley expressed a need to include children with special needs—sooner rather than later—into classrooms with other peers in order to build relationships, social and emotional growth.
Additionally, Crowley said, she believes tools and classroom curriculum are not consistently delivered across schools in the district.
“If [schools are] independently figuring out how to learn to deploy inclusion policies within their school, there's probably a different interpretation that leads to inconsistency,” she said. “I think that if we help create more planning and a support system to help deploy policies more consistently across the district, it'll be a better experience for everybody.”
McGourty said the district has been making changes to create more inclusion since she joined the board four years ago.
The Ruby Bridges Elementary and Kokanee Elementary are deemed “inclusive schools,” she said. At those schools, special education students spend more time in general education classes and playgrounds are accessible to students with physical disabilities.
“We don’t want to separate or segregate any of our students,” she said. “We want to keep them together with their peers.”
McGourty said the board plans to implement a pilot test of inclusionary practice training. A few schools in the northern region of the district will “test out” a program intended to train teachers on best practices for including children with special needs in the general classroom, she said.
The current school board has also been paying more attention to technological needs, McGourty said. Voters passed a technology levy in 2018, she noted, which allowed the district to update internet networks, get electronic devices for all students and update learning mechanisms in classrooms.
“We knew where education was going,” McGourty said. “There’s so much online so we were looking how we could harvest online abilities to expand students’ learning range.”
If reelected, McGourty said, she would continue to focus on expanding early childhood education programs and promoting inclusivity throughout the district.
“If your family can afford preschool or private tutors, then that child has a leg up on the students whose families can't afford that,” she said. “Early childhood education is something we absolutely have to invest more in.”
Crowley said one of her priorities, if elected, would be to lobby state legislators about changing the standardized testing requirement.
Crowley’s daughter spent the first several weeks of school on a tablet using iReady—an assessment software used to track a student’s understanding of concepts, she said.
“She came home every day saying, ‘I don’t want to do more testing, I just want to learn something new,’” Crowley said.
To better access students, she suggests the district replace long standardized tests with more frequent, shorter tests.
McGourty agreed that standardized testing often does not accurately reflect a student’s ability.