When educators get elected: Meet CA school board member Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

By Amanda Litvinov /photos by Kenneth Hamilton

This profile is the second in our series on why it’s so important for educators to run for office, and for the rest of us to support them! Read about Kansas teacher and state Senator Anthony Hensley here, and stay tuned for future profiles.

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, National Board Certified fifth-grade teacher and trustee on the Washington Unified School Board, West Sacramento, California

NEA Today Fall 2015While she admits there’s a learning curve and a juggling act for educators who take office, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez says it’s all worth it because it brings the educator’s perspective to important community decisions—especially those that directly affect students. She is now in her 11th year of teaching in Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

Education Votes: As a busy teacher and mom, how did you decide to run for the school board?

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez: I went to a meeting about an open seat, thinking this might be part of my five- or 10-year plan—something I wanted to learn more about and try down the road. I looked around the room and saw someone who worked for Michelle Rhee, founder of Students First.

I disagree strongly with the philosophy of the “education reform” movement. I imagined the future for my own infant daughter—who is now four and has a one-year-old sister. Their school, I felt, had already been damaged by the scripted curriculum and the pacing guide police and the test score mandates. There had been a lot of damage done. Then, I thought about someone who worked for Michelle Rhee sitting on that school board, and I thought, “Now’s the time.”

EV: What did you learn during your campaign?

SK-G: Even though the anti-public school rhetoric is out there, people like and trust the educators they know and those who serve in their community. If you knock on doors and explain that you’re a classroom teacher and how you want to look out for students’ interests, people will get behind you.

EV: What did you bring to the board when you were elected?

SK-G: I am the only classroom teacher serving on our board. My colleagues are passionate and well-intentioned, but their approach to helping kids in poverty was to focus on raising test scores. While I can’t talk about specific test content, I can talk about what standardized testing does to students. I know how to look at a student’s strengths and weaknesses so much better than someone who is paid $10 an hour to look at a screen of student writing that flashes up for a few minutes and give it a grade, as on standardized tests.

EV: What has serving on the board taught you?

SK-G: One thing I’ve learned is how to have in-depth conversations about public education with people who are outside the profession. I learned to talk to my fellow board members who want to understand the details better. I can’t use “eduspeak” to talk to colleagues coming from other disciplines if I’m going to get them on board with me to help students.

EV: Biggest accomplishment so far?

SK-G: First, we voted not to hire a director of curriculum and instruction who had never taught before. That’s my area of expertise, and I know that it takes someone with classroom experience to set a vision for other teachers. We also hired a new superintendent—our number one job as the board. I took my role very seriously. We met with union leaders, chamber people, parents—about 50 people total—and I asked all of their hard questions. I’m not on the board for me. I’m on it to bring that teacher voice to every decision this board makes.

EV: Any advice for other educators considering a run?

SK-G: Do it! We need good people to run, and educators are built for this with their understanding of what students and educators actually face. A word for the ladies: So often as women, we think we aren’t fully ready and we undervalue the experience we bring to the table, where a man with the same experience or less would feel completely comfortable raising his hand. You’re an expert on education who needs to be heard.

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