By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
“I don’t think our people are being represented very well,” explained Trish Brammell when asked what motivated her to run for Carter County Board of Education as a write-in candidate.
Brammell, who has a daughter with special needs in the school system, decided to run as a write-in candidate for the Third Educational District after approaching the board with suggestions for a staggered return schedule that she felt the board rejected out of hand.
“Their minds were already made up,” she said.
It was too late to get her name on the ballot at that point, but there is always a place on the ballot where voters can write in a candidate’s name, and Brammell is hoping that she can get enough of those write-in votes to replace the current board member for her district, Lisa Ramey-Easterling.
The plan Brammell approached the board with would have called for a staggered return to school. Students would have been divided based on the first letter of their last name, with half the students going to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays under her plan would have been reserved for cleaning and sanitizing classrooms, providing tutoring, and course work for special needs students. All students would have participated in online classroom activities on the days they were not in the building. But, she explained, if a student came to school infected with COVID-19, her plan would have cut the risk to other students in half.
In addition to the board, who would have had final word on any policy, Brammell wanted the concerns of teachers and parents to be taken into account. While the board heard from her during a regular meeting before school resumed, she didn’t feel they gave the plan any serious consideration before proceeding.
She felt they were ignoring her request as a parent, and failing to represent the desires other parents and teachers.
“If our representatives aren’t representing us, who are they representing?” she asked.
While the board’s plan did allow any family not comfortable with returning to school to continue with online education for a period of time, Brammell said she felt the district needed a middle ground to limit exposure as they began returning to school.
“There are so many factors in our decisions,” she said. “So many kids are being raised by grandparents (who may be immunocompromised), and we already have a substitute shortage.”
“There were other options that weren’t considered,” she continued. “They didn’t even care enough to consider the A & B schedule (her staggered return plan). Now we have had to quarantine. I think it would have been less severe (with the A & B schedule).”
“I’m not saying do the A & B schedule forever, just to start out.”
But lest you think she’s a one issue candidate, Brammell isn’t running solely on the coronavirus and the board’s response to it. The former teachers’ aide and substitute teacher also feels like there is too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on the children. She prefers a more holistic approach, that looks at the whole child rather than how they score on tests.
“I would like to see the focus be on kids first, test scores second,” she said. “When I worked at Prichard, when I left at the end of the day, I never wondered how they scored. I wondered if they had electricity through the winter. I wondered if they had food to eat. I think we place too much emphasis on test scores.”
She noted that children like her daughter are never going to score highly on standardized tests because of their disabilities, and while that is accounted for in the school’s testing process, it doesn’t take into account children who score poorly because they are hungry, or worried about things like rent that children shouldn’t need to concern themselves with but do. Even among neurotypical students, she noted, every child has different talents and different ways of approaching and understanding their lessons.
In her home, she said, “we celebrate every single victory,” and that way of thinking has changed her perspective on how standardized tests should be administered and how education should be approached.
“Not every child is going to be distinguished (in their standardized test scores) and that’s ok,” she said.
Those students who don’t do well on tests may learn in a different way, she said. They may excel at carpentry or welding or in electrical work – necessary skills that require their own intelligence that doesn’t necessarily translate well to testing. Or they may excel in the arts or music.
“I think of that quote attributed to Albert Einstein, if you judge every animal based on their ability to climb a tree, the fish is always going to feel stupid, no matter how well it swims,” she said.
In addition to those different ways of approaching problems and different innate talents, she said, there are home factors to consider. She shared a story of one child who was having a hard time focusing on her homework because her home electricity had been shut of during the winter. While the school resource centers do a good job of helping a lot of those children and their families, she said, they don’t always catch every situation. In the case she mentioned she noted that the teachers took up a collection to help get the family’s electricity turned back on. But, she said, that one act didn’t fix all their problems or undo the lost study time the student had suffered.
“How dare we have the audacity to demand they score the same on tests!” she said of students like the one in her story.
She said that every teacher she knows has bought things out of their own pockets to help students like the one in her story, and while it’s commendable and means a lot to the students, teachers can’t maintain that level of stress for extended periods any more than anyone else.
“Our teachers are so overwhelmed and I don’t know how much more they can handle before they reach a breaking point,” she said. “Teachers are so much more than teachers. They are therapists. They are friends. They are mentors. And often they are mommy and dad.”
She knows that as a lone voice on the school board she can’t fix all of these societal issues on her own. But she wants to be a part of helping fix it.
“As a mommy, I want to fix things,” she said. “I want everyone to know that I’ll fight for them… to take their concerns and frustrations to heart.”
And she wants it to be about the kids first.
“I want our leadership to be just as excited about the kids who get an internship as the kid who gets a full ride to UK,” she said. “Every kid out there has potential.”
If the board can support teachers in developing that potential, she said, all those kids can succeed in their own way. Then, she said, the test scores will follow.
“If people feel valued and appreciated, they will work harder,” she said, noting that it goes for students and teachers alike.
“I know a lot of that pressure (to perform well on tests) comes from the state,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be the main focus.”
It puts a lot of unnecessary stress on teachers and students, she said, adding, “it’s time to start trusting (teachers), their experience and their professionalism.”
“These kids have the weight of the world on their shoulders… and it rips your heart out,” she said of children with less than ideal home situations.
“I want people to know… I’ll fight for their babies just like I fight for mine,” she added. “I hope people will vote for me because I absolutely adore their children.”
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