Candace Miller is running for a seat on the School Committee. The Watertown Election will be held on Nov. 3.
1) What inspired you to run for School Committee?
Since my daughter’s first day at the Lowell Elementary in 2008, I have been active in Watertown Public Schools. As my daughter learned to read, I fell in love with the classroom and was inspired to become an informed advocate of public education. I was inspired to run for School Committee when I realized that WPS could be among the best school districts in the county. I realized that our School Committee—together with teachers, staff, principals, the central administration, the town, parents, and citizens—has the ability to move WPS towards excellence.
Our incredibly diverse district can be one where all students of all abilities reach their maximum potential. We have a relatively small student body, talented and committed teachers, staff, and administrators, and we are located in one of the most resource-rich areas of the country. I believe that by building on our strengths, acknowledging and tackling our weaknesses, making full use of our resources, we will be on the path towards public school greatness. But leadership is important. Strong leadership on the part of the Superintendent and the School Committee is essential. We need a fully functional, energetic School Committee to actively engage with town officials, parents, and the wider community. Watertown Public Schools is a ~$45 million per year education system, serving 2700+ diverse students with a staff of approximately 550 people.
To move to excellence, our School Committee needs to ‘kick it up a notch’ and use more sophisticated processes and systems commensurate with our students’ needs, our resources, and our expectations for WPS. We need to engage in high quality strategic planning, monitor progress, and make mid-course corrections. We should ask questions of our administration because high quality dialogue and debate leads to better outcomes. As the steward of our public schools, our School Committee must work hard so that every student receives an excellent education and our schools are a great place to work. I am inspired because I believe my professional skills and experiences, strong relationships across town, high energy, love of schools and learning, can help us move forward on this path.
2) What do you see as the biggest issue for the Watertown Public Schools and why?
Every school system has a massive challenge: With only 180 school days per year, and limited resources, educators must teach thousands of students – of different abilities, languages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status – and prepare the next generation for a future we can only attempt to anticipate. In addition, we must train our new teachers, retain our top teachers, and support our talented principals, all to ensure that our students are learning and mastering key concepts and skills so that they are ready for their future.
Given the challenges that we face and the opportunities at our doorstep, public education requires “all hands on deck”. For this to happen, we need better, more frequent, transparent communication. I see improved communication as the biggest issue for WPS because it is essential to move the district forward so that we consistently obtain adequate resources, solve problems, and engage families. The bottom line is that schools need to communicate what they are doing in order to maintain support, good will, and adequate funding. Public schools make up a large percentage of town budgets so the communication between the elected School Committee and Town Council, and Town Manager’s office is essential. Parents and citizens also need information, communicated in multiple formats.
For example, in 2014 when WPS was facing serious fiscal constraints, we started Watertown Strong Schools. We quickly learned that obtain adequate funding, we would have to bridge the communication gap between the School Committee the Town Council, the Town Manager and the public at large. I went directly to our central administration and principals and met with them individually to help me understand their perspective. I also surveyed teachers and our group met with town officials repeatedly. By bridging the gap, and building a data driven argument for why the schools needed more funding, we were able to rally widespread support to increase the WPS budget by $2.6 million in FY15, and paved the way for a 6 percent increase in FY16. These critical investments reduced class sizes, improved administrator and teacher morale, and enabled the schools to purchase much needed curricula and materials. I have not met anyone who believes this would have happened under the direction of our current School Committee.
Furthermore, regular, high quality communication builds trust and relationships and leads to greater parent involvement. We know from the research that greater parent involvement leads to better student academic achievement and success. This relationship holds true across all socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds for students of all ages. Even at older ages, behaviors such as alcohol use, violence, and antisocial behavior decrease as parent involvement increases. Throughout the year, parents and community members need information and opportunities to discuss key issues, such as curricular choices, student learning outcomes, the school calendar, standardized testing, mental health issues, school budget requests and expenditures, and new building requests. Our School Committee — similar to other towns — should hold public hearings, round tables, and discussions around important topics, such as our high rate of student absenteeism. It is essential that our School Committee moves to communicate more openly and transparently and encourages greater parental involvement.
3) While schools are your focus, working with the Town Council and town administration is also part of the job. What would you do to have a good relationship with people on the Town side?
In my professional career, I work with interesting characters in government, the private sector, and academia all over the world. I understand the importance of professionalism, communication, relationship building, and conflict resolution. I work on serious policy issues, such as agriculture and electricity infrastructure, social protection, education policy, economic development, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and poverty reduction. I understand that if you want to tackle these massive global challenges, you do it in partnerships and as an effective member of a team. You must actively listen, communicate frequently, forgive often, not take anything personally, and focus on the goal no matter what, in this case improving Watertown Pubic Schools.
I have a strong and positive relationship with our Town Council members and candidates, which I have developed over time. While we have disagreed and argued passionately, I have always listened and always came back to the table. I admit that I wanted a greater allocation to WPS for FY 2015. Still, I appreciate the constraints of the town’s budget and understand the position of our Councilors and Manager. I licked my wounds, accepted some disappointment, and went right back to the table to talk with the Councilors and Manager. I am eager to continue to work with the Council and the Town. I know that we all strongly support public education. We all want the best for Watertown Public Schools and our children.
4) What is your opinion of the Common Core standards, and how much do you think they should play a role in shaping education in Watertown?
Massachusetts has been ahead of the curve with the most rigorous standards for k-12 education in the country, which are articulated by the Department of Education and Secondary Education (The standards documents are available online.). Our standards reach beyond the Common Core and actually helped inform the Common Core.
I have read through our standards and agree that they are rigorous at each grade level. However, I also understand that implementing the standards through curriculum and instructional practices—so that students achieve the standards—is the devil in the details and where the controversy begins: Across the country, education debates are confusing the standards (i.e. Common Core), with curriculum, and PARCC testing.
So let me address the controversy: The standards articulate what students should achieve by grade. But, they don’t tell schools or teachers how to reach them. Districts choose the curricula and instructional practices that teachers use to help students achieve the standards. Indeed there are thousands of curriculum choices and K-12 curricula is big business. Curriculum developers want schools to choose their products. Some curricula are proven to yield better reading and math scores, for example, and some are not. We want the proven curricula in Watertown, which is why we need an active curriculum subcommittee (the standard across the state.)
Next, tests such as MCAS and PARCC are used to measure whether students achieve the standards. Of course most everyone dislikes tests, but it is important to measure student achievement in a number of ways so that we know whether our students are learning or not. But PARCC testing is particularly controversial because in some states, such as New York, the governor has pushed to tie scores to teacher salaries. That is not happening in Massachusetts and certainly not at WPS, so it is not of concern to us at this time.
In summary, I believe the actual standards are rigorous and appropriate to prepare students for the 21st century workplace, but I strongly believe that our School Committee should hold public hearings to discuss these issues. Many parents have told me they want to learn more. A public discussion would be educational for all of us, help identify our greatest challenges, enable us to better select the right curriculum, and prepare us to better support our students and teachers.
5) Tell us about yourself – your family, background and qualifications to be a School Committee member.
While several generations of my family are from Massachusetts, I was born in Rhode Island, and attended public schools in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Admittedly, I was not the strongest student in high school, but I went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts at Rutgers University. After graduating I served in the U.S. Peace Corps and was placed in Malawi Africa where I met my husband Paul. I went on to earn a Masters in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in Public Health at Harvard University.
Professionally, I am a Senior International Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. I conduct applied evaluation research to help policy makers make data driven decisions and use limited resources effectively. I work in a range of sectors and lead projects in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
My family has lived in Watertown for 15 years and we are enjoying the happiest years of our lives here. My husband has been at Brandeis University for 15 years, where he is now an Associate Professor of Neuroscience. We have two children: a Watertown Middle School seventh grader and a Lowell kindergartner. Our children have grown up playing at Moxley Playground and Victory Field, trick or treating in the neighborhood, attending play groups at the Watertown Family Network, picking up books and DVDs at the Watertown Public Library, swimming at the Watertown Boys and Girls Club, feeding ducks along the Charles, choosing a Christmas tree at Russo’s, sledding at the Lowell, ice skating at Ryan’s rink, and getting ice cream or yogurt at Fruttiberri or Moozy’s. We love Watertown!
For years I have demonstrated my deep commitment to Watertown and WPS in the following roles: Within WPS, I have served as a classroom mom and helped with PTO events. I attend Superintendent Coffees and all WPS Budget and Finance Sub-Committee Meetings. I am an active member of the Lowell and Middle School site councils. I was a driving force in Watertown Strong Schools. I have attended the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and Massachusetts Association of School Business Officers (MASBO) meetings for professional development in order to better support WPS. I have also volunteer with parents and school officials to secure funding from Watertown Community Foundation to launch the parent speaker series. Within Watertown, I volunteer with the Watertown Youth Coalition to analyze and present data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which measures our students’ mental and physical health, and risk behaviors. I also volunteer with Wayside Youth and Family Services to evaluate Watertown’s Social Services Resource Specialist. To learn more, please go to my website at www.candace4wps.com and vote on Nov. 3!