[Editor’s note: One in a series of six candidate Q&As for the Santa Barbara School Districts Board of Education. Click here for the main story. Click here for Annette Cordero’s Q&A. Click here for Ed Heron’s Q&A. Click here for Jacqueline Inda’s Q&A. Click here for Kate Smith’s Q&A. Click here for Charlotte Ware’s Q&A.]

NOOZHAWK: What is the single biggest problem facing our schools, and what is the best way to solve it?

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Susan Deacon

SUSAN DEACON: The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and their more affluent peers is our most complex and persistent problem. I’m convinced the best hope lies in classrooms with smart, motivated teachers who have principals who support and challenge them. Teachers need freedom to use their strengths and individual teaching styles, and parents who partner with them. We need more outreach to parents who want their children to succeed, but don’t always have the tools to help. Teachers also need to ensure all students master content. Ultimately, we need to have higher expectations for everyone: students, teachers, parents and administrators.

NOOZHAWK: La Cumbre Junior High, Santa Barbara Junior High and McKinley Elementary schools have all been labeled “Year 5” schools in program improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. Technically, this means the schools could be closed and re-opened as charter schools, and the principal and most of the staff could be replaced. The district is allowing those schools to continue their ongoing improvement plans without a drastic change in direction this year. Is this the right course of action?

SUSAN DEACON: Take a look at the yardstick before you criticize the growth. No Child Left Behind punishes even schools that make progress, like Santa Barbara Junior High, La Cumbre and McKinley have done, because that progress is not “adequate.” If you examine the proficiency requirements NCLB mandates, you’ll find unfair uniform requirements in districts of varied populations. I’m not happy our schools are not performing as well as they can, and concede much work remains. I’m not opposed to charters per se; but a charter is not a magic bullet; just like any other school, it is only as good as its teachers and staff.

NOOZHAWK: Throughout California, the percentage of students in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) hovers around 5 percent. In Santa Barbara’s junior and high schools, the proportion is more like 20 percent. Should steps should be taken to lower the percentage?

SUSAN DEACON: Having a higher percentage of our students in GATE classes is fine with me. Students should have the opportunity to be challenged to the maximum of their potential. I am more concerned that our Latino population is not well represented. I served on the district’s GATE Advisory Committee and believe we can increase diversity in these classes through early identification and nurturing of students who would demonstrably benefit from more challenging coursework. We also need to ensure there are sufficient numbers of underrepresented students in GATE classes because students often do not succeed when they are alone among peers.

NOOZHAWK: Should the elementary and secondary districts’ open-enrollment policy be maintained?

SUSAN DEACON: I favor maintaining open enrollment. Our schools each have unique qualities that may make them attractive to students and parents who have special interests. I would never want to prevent a student interested in media arts from enrolling in Santa Barbara High’s Multimedia Arts & Design (MAD) Academy, or keep a student who wants to enroll in Dos Pueblos High’s Engineering Academy out of that school. Harding Elementary is looking into offering an International Baccalaureate program. Choice is a good thing, and it can promote innovation. And the current open-enrollment policy has not significantly eroded our traditional neighborhood boundaries.

NOOZHAWK: Would you support a districtwide school uniform policy?

SUSAN DEACON: I’m not opposed to uniforms, but would not mandate them districtwide, basically because I don’t think the families in our district would support such a policy. If, in collaboration with parents, individual schools wanted to institute a uniform policy, I would be very supportive. Santa Barbara Community Academy currently has uniforms, and that works well for that site. There is some research that shows uniforms can help level the socioeconomic playing field and that with everything else being equal, dress codes and uniforms can increase performance.

NOOZHAWK: Would you support a proposal to ban certain forms of gang apparel and styles?

SUSAN DEACON: If a school system’s bottom line is learning, let’s focus on eliminating distractions. Dress codes make sense for three reasons, not all gang-related: Safety — Baggy clothing is a safety concern, and a signaling mechanism used by students involved in gang activity. There is no place for this kind of behavior/dress. Promiscuity — Provocative dress should not be encouraged or permitted. Non-attention-grabbing clothing should be the standard if we want kids focused on academic skills and knowledge. Socioeconomic signaling — In a district serving a wide spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic classes, signaling of economic differences through clothing choices can only be divisive.

NOOZHAWK: What are your thoughts on the district’s proposal to hire two gang-intervention specialists, also known as outreach workers — at a salary of $49,000 each?

SUSAN DEACON: I am very glad the board voted unanimously to set in motion the hiring of outreach workers. The community is looking to the district for leadership on this urgent problem. We would be negligent not to act. I’m still waiting for more specificity and to see what a “day in the life” of the outreach worker looks like. Whom will they report to, and how will we evaluate their success? Let’s focus on prevention and channeling at-risk students into positive school-based activities. The district’s role should not be a policing one. The board appropriately determined the proposed salary was too high.

NOOZHAWK: The district is being asked to pitch in $64,000 annually to keep the truancy program alive. Historically, the program has been funded by Santa Barbara County, but the Board of Supervisors has said it would cut the entire program unless individual districts pony up. Would you vote yes or no on spending that amount?

SUSAN DEACON: School superintendents from Santa Maria to Carpinteria say districts don’t have the funding to take this on, and I believe that is true. Truancy is a real concern; it’s disruptive for teachers and all students, and interferes with learning. Santa Barbara schools can continue the functions we have already in place, such as parental notification and counseling. Other interventions, such as support if students fall behind in their classes, should be a priority. The California Education Code states there are legal consequences for students who are habitually truant, and ultimately enforcement of that falls outside the purview of school districts.

NOOZHAWK: Do you support using one of two unused parcels of district-owned land to build price-controlled housing for teachers?

SUSAN DEACON: The cost of housing in Santa Barbara has a chilling effect on our ability to hire and retain teachers. The district must consider workforce housing, and the district-owned Tatum property near San Marcos High is an attractive option for development for teacher housing that I support. For a variety of reasons, including location and impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, the Hidden Valley property appears a less viable option. The district currently has costs associated with both properties, but no income. This doesn’t make fiscal sense, and we need to move ahead on district initiatives to put this land to work.

NOOZHAWK: Do you generally agree with the direction in which Superintendent Brian Sarvis is taking the schools?

SUSAN DEACON: I think it’s clear Dr. Sarvis genuinely cares about the children in our district. I am concerned there has been less-than-optimum progress on the achievement gap. But as an outsider who cannot know the complexities of the personnel changes that might address these problems, it would be premature for me to offer a critique. A new board will have new ideas, and I am hopeful he will be open to these.

NOOZHAWK: What’s your favorite book?

SUSAN DEACON: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I first read this in college, and it changed my view of the world. I recently re-read it, and it stood the test of time. Other contenders: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Life of Pi and The Killer Angels (about the battle of Gettysburg), which I’m fond of because I taught them in my English classes, and the most recent contender — Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

Click here for more information on Susan Deacon.