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VOTE411 Voter Guide

Berkeley Heights School Board {_getChooseLabel(this.selections.length)}

The school board’s primary responsibilities are to:Set the vision and goals for the districtAdopt policies that give the district direction to set priorities and achieve its goalsHire and evaluate the superintendentAdopt and oversee the annual budgetManage the collective bargaining process for employees of the districtMembers of the School Board are elected for a three year term.

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    Sai Bhargavi Akiri

  • Peter Chang

  • Candidate picture

    Robert Cianciulli

  • Candidate picture

    Ramya Kasthiri

  • Candidate picture

    Joy A Young

Biographical Information

Why should you be elected to the school board?

What do you consider an important challenge facing the school district? How would you address it?

What are the most important factors for student success? How will you, as a school board member,ensure that those factors are addressed?

How will you communicate with parents and others concerned with education? How do you plan to respond to concerns?

As a Program Manager with 20 years of global project management experience in strategy and planning, my role at Bristol-Myers Squibb is to manage multi-million dollar program budgets and enlist approvals from diverse groups of stakeholders. I will bring that skillset to build consensus amongst parents, teachers and administrators. If I am elected, the skills accumulated in my 20 years as a certified project manager will be of great service to the Board of Education. I will be dedicated to ensuring that our schools run efficiently, effectively and our children get a world class education that equips them for their futures.

We have a great district but one should always strive to do better. If elected to Board of Education, my priorities will be:

1. Efficient Use of Allocated Budget for BOE - Are we getting the most “bang for our buck,” as we spend approximately $21,000 per child in our district? In these unprecedented times, I would like to ensure our tax dollars are being efficiently used to provide the best education possible for our children. I honestly believe in providing a world class education to our children, so they are successful in the demanding global job market.

2. Community Outreach and Engagement - Most parents are busy and unable to attend the BoE meetings to provide their valuable inputs on students' needs. They also miss out on decisions made at BoE meetings. Therefore, I propose that all BoE meeting be live-streamed.

3. Effective Communication and Transparency - Most parents and residents are unaware of projects approved by BoE. I would work to improve communication on projects, budget spending and status updates on our districts “5 year strategic plan.” As an example, most residents might be surprised to hear that a planned referendum in 2020 for media center updates has now been postponed to next year. Given the current times of financial uncertainty impacting everyone, the proposed multi-million dollar updates to media centers needs to be reevaluated.

4. Impactful Policies - Our district's policies should reflect the overall education and development of our children along with special needs, extra-curricular activities and transportation. We need our curricula to engage a child in his/her overall development. I am concerned that all elementary schools are not taught uniformly when it comes to executing the district's curriculum. The gaps were very evident this year when the district switched to remote instruction in March. I believe our district needs to devise periodic evaluation to address learning gaps between the schools.

5. Collaboration with Teachers - My family had a great remote learning experience with Mrs. Watkins and Mrs. Finklestien’s 3rd grade classroom teachers in March. I want to work with teachers to replicate the successes at William Woodruff elementary school to bring them to schools across the district. We also need to strive to balance screen time at elementary schools with traditional paper and pencil while children are still developing their fine motor skills.
Engagement, Communication, and Transparency - Most parents and residents are unaware of projects approved by BoE. I would work to improve communication on projects, budget spending and status updates on our districts “5 year strategic plan”. As an example, most residents might be surprised to hear that a planned referendum in 2020 for media center updates has now been postponed to next year. Given the current times of financial uncertainty impacting everyone, the proposed multi-million dollar updates to media centers needs to be reevaluated.

The BOE, as a representative body, cannot expect for families to understand the intricacies of important decisions in a few hours within the context of a highly controlled meeting. Our school system is the primary reason families move into our community, and they ought to be as informed as the individuals making the decisions that affect it. Families should also feel empowered to ask their questions and apply scrutiny to every decision the BoE makes. If elected to the BOE. I will take the information to parents using a variety of mediums. I will not view hard feedback as an attack but more as an opportunity to learn and adjust systems or policies so that they best represent the needs of children and families.
1. Individualized learning geared to address each child's needs. For too long, the American system of education has attempted to fit each child into one way of learning, with slight modifications based on special needs. Our district can explore ways to alter this so that education is child-driven. Instead of asking, “what is wrong with the way this child learns and how can we fix it?,” we need to start with the question, “what is wrong with the way we are teaching this child?”

2. Authentic safety created by a warm and welcoming environment that fosters meaningful friendships. And it also creates an atmosphere that promotes learning.. Safety is best developed in an atmosphere of respect and understanding among peers. We have to do a much better job in fostering that in ways children can understand. A child feels safest among friends and in environments that cater to how they think, learn, and live.

3. Education driven by passion and creativity, giving teachers the resources they need to inspire children to learn, and making learning something children look forward to. Now, especially, it is important that we continue to provide our students and teachers with the tools and technology they need to succeed and it is also important for the technology to mesh well with many learning types to fit the needs of a diverse group of students and be aligned to their developmental stages.

4. A well-rounded education that understands the importance of history, the arts, and literature, STEM and physical activity.. Standardized testing is important, but a comprehensive education that contributes to the cultivation of informed and compassionate children is also crucial. Thus, it is important to also maintain extra-curricular activities and other social events to ensure that students are also developing “soft skills” and a high emotional intelligence.

5. Diversity - Weaving diversity into school culture seamlessly so that children can learn to appreciate each other and learn through multiple cultures. Diversity is not a top-down concept. It is lateral and the product of interactions in natural contexts; appreciation for diversity is best created by using everyday opportunities that exist to bring children together in friendship. Diversity is an important framework to create a just and equitable society. As globalization continues and the need to interact competently with different cultures becomes more critical in almost every field.
As a Program Manager, I send daily, weekly, and monthly status updates. My communication plan is based on key stakeholders’ needs. If elected, I propose to send a bi-weekly and monthly email updates to all parents. Also, I propose the provision of a monthly/quarterly update on “allocated budget spent” vs. “planned future needs” to all residents of Berkeley heights.

I also believe we need to move beyond email and controlled environments in speaking with parents. I would like to build upon some of the improvements made with regard to engaging in social media and meeting with parent, parent groups and residents outside of formal meeting environments face to face especially when impactful changes are being considered by the district.

As I indicated, concerns ought to be received assuming the best intent. I am open to constructive criticism, even if I disagree with the concern, to achieve a reasonable degree of compromise.

We should not approach problems with pre-determined solutions; any significant change ought to be the product of a process involving parents, children and educators with different beliefs and ideas coming to the table. External expertise is important, and data is critical, but the final authority on how something important should look are parents, children and teachers. Communication needs to occur throughout the process of any change, not at the end point. Change should be developed from the ground up, laterally, not top down.
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As the only Board of Education candidate this year with experience on the Board, I have debated the important issues including the budget, the teacher's contract, and security within our Schools both publicly and privately with our other School Board Members and have the best insight into how the Board and its members work. When serving on the School Board’s Facilities Committee, I dealt with large scale projects such as the ongoing window installation project at Hughes elementary school, the construction of the vestibules in our school buildings in order to increase security seamlessly, as well as the environmental issues that arose during the track and field work at our high school. Additionally, I was appointed as the Board’s legal liaison concerning education legislation being proposed and debated in Trenton, including draft legislation on the state’s mandate of full day kindergarten. I have also served as the Board’s liaison to the Board Secretary concerning the review and analysis of newly proposed district policies, including our bullying and drug policies. Professionally, I have practiced law for over 25 years right here in New Jersey. This has given me valuable experience in drafting policies and procedures, chairing committees, and resolving a wide range of issues that arise at any given time. I do this as part of a large, collaborative, and diverse team
The biggest challenge for our District at this point is certainly remote learning. The best method of dealing with COVID 19 and its effect on education is first to accept and acknowledge that the District must have remote learning policies that evolve, just as the state of COVID 19 has evolved over these past several months. I believe strongly that parent, teacher, and administrator input are all key. The District should continue to engage all groups through the use of standardized surveys sent directly to parents as well in more informal ways such as the PTO, the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation, and e-mails sent to and compiled by the School Board and District Administrators.
Factors affecting student success include focus on early education, having the most effective district support personnel such as school counselors, student preparation, and afterschool clubs that provide additional places to promote and foster our students’ interests in everything from STEM to the performing arts. As a School Board member, I would ensure that these factors are addressed by periodically discussing satisfaction in these and other areas with parents as well as the District Superintenden
Communication is key. I have always been a strong supporter of our District finally beginning to livestream our School Board meetings. A great way for parents to express themselves is by stepping forward at School Board meetings to address the Board, either via stream or in-person. However, I would also not expect that each resident with a comment or concern to need to take the time to come to a Board meeting in order to be heard. As a Board member I will continue to be available in multiple ways: via e-mail, phone call, or even to meet for coffee. However, based on my experience on the Board, I do also have one other suggestion: if you have an issue, question, or concern, please do not hesitate to send our Superintendent an e-mail after you have first gone through the appropriate chain of school administrators reporting up to her, and also copy each School Board member on that e-mail. Board members need to be aware of the feedback that is being received by the District. Most often, a parent’s concern is more appropriately responded to by the Superintendent rather than the Board; however, making us aware of that issue or concern would best enable the Board members to make sure that the Superintendent has responded to a parent’s concern. The Board’s role is somewhat limited in terms of scope; however, one of the core responsibilities of every School Board is to make sure that the District is well-run
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I believe I should be elected to the school board because I will bring a fresh and distinctive perspective as both a former teacher and a current practicing attorney. Being a first generation Indian American and parent of young black children, I will be an important voice for our district as it navigates a path toward a more inclusive school culture that respects our community’s growing diversity.

My unique background includes:

• Teaching high school biology in New York City. Using my master’s degree in teaching, I faced the challenging task of motivating a room full of high-energy teenagers in a school district that lacked textbooks and a defined curriculum. • Volunteering at GLHS. I have spent the past several years volunteering as a Princeton alumna. Attending college fairs, conducting admission interviews, advocating successfully for admittance of GLHS students to Princeton, and participating in the summer Jump Start program has given me unique insight into the full potential of our student body. • Practicing as an attorney. Based on my experience as associate general counsel at American International Group, Inc. (AIG), I can collaborate with other members of the school board and the district to develop innovative and compliant solutions to the more complicated issues faced by our town. • Being a parent of color. I am a first generation Indian American and my husband is a first generation Haitian African American. Having an elected official with this viewpoint can provide a unique perspective toward the collective discussion and the improvement of relations within the district.
The most important challenge is the strain that COVID-19 has put on our school district and its administrators, educators, students, and parents.

Presently, we must ensure academic equity for our students, keeping in mind that all of our students are remote at least 50 percent of the time. Additional support from the district is required to help teachers guarantee that students are attending classes, turning in assignments, and meeting grade-specific benchmarks.

Some of my proposed action items may include:

• Bi-monthly communications by the district on best practices, specific to grade levels, and how such best practices are being implemented by teachers • Weekly check-in meetings by principals in order to understand and address specific challenges in in the remote and hybrid learning environments • Additional support from district specialists (such as reading specialists) • Clear communication on whether the standards in the district’s social and emotional learning framework are being implemented and have been met

Prospectively, we must plan on how we will address the inevitable learning gaps that exist once all students return to school full-time. The natural learning regressions that exist in September will be amplified based on differing experiences in the remote and hybrid environments.

We can prepare for this by:

• Creating more frequent and targeted learning assessments throughout this year, and communicating with parents on how these assessments will be used to measure student learning • Offering optional courses, programs, and supplements during the summer with a focus on readiness for the next grade • Educating (and thereby empowering) parents on specific topics, including grade-specific assessments that will inform future placements in tracked classes
In my volunteer role as a Princeton alumna who interviews prospective high school students, I understand firsthand the desire for our district to be competitive among our neighboring towns. However, a large part of academic success stems from academic culture – a sense that the district is striving to create plans for each student to ensure his or her own academic success based on individual abilities and desires. Such academic success may be pushing one student to try for an additional honors class; it may also be encouraging another to drop a stressful AP class in favor of an attractive extracurricular activity.

As a school board member, I will encourage and support the adoption of district programs and processes that focus on enhancing positive academic culture.

As examples, I would advocate for:

• Augmenting counselor/advisor programs in both the middle and high schools (pairing a student with the same advisor throughout the three or four years) with a focus broader than just selecting classes • Hosting regular panels and learning sessions for both middle and high school parents to identify areas where additional support is needed • Surveying students at least once a year (starting in seventh grade) and using those survey results to i) empower students to determine their own academic paths and ii) task students with the responsibility of creating self-progress reports

If we turn our focus to academic culture, one in which every student feels valued and motivated to do his or her best, we will inevitably run alongside with the top districts in our state.
Communication is one of the three key pillars of my platform. One of the biggest challenges for our school board is bridging the perceived gap between the district and the community; this requires greater engagement of all stakeholders, more opportunities for feedback and buy-in from all voices, and regular communication of any updates or progress.

Some ideas for greater outreach (pull) are frequent surveys (pulse checks), a digital suggestion box that is regularly monitored and can be responded to as issues arise, and monthly school board “listening sessions.” The listening sessions – conferences in which the school board simply listens to the issues and ideas of the community without making any real-time decisions– are especially critical in understanding concerns regarding significant topics, such as school reopening.

A monthly (push) email that keeps the community informed of what is being worked on, any ongoing progress related to current topics, and whether attention being given to other issues (regardless of whether a resolution has been met), would also enhance communication and open dialogue on important issues.

I plan to encourage the district to enhance communications with parents, both soliciting their feedback and providing updates on progress, so they feel engaged in the decisions-making process of the school board.
Campaign Email
I am running for the Berkeley Heights Board of Education (BOE) because I believe in the value of giving back to our community and our school district. As a child of educators, I understand how important it is for schools to allow our students to develop relationships, increase knowledge, express themselves, investigate opportunities and be inquisitive in a safe and nurturing environment. My professional and personal experience includes:

- Former workplace experience and space planning manager and currently workplace strategy lead and change management professional for Americas region at an American multinational healthcare company. In these roles I planned and executed a campus master plan impacting 425K square feet of office space and now work collaboratively to enhance productivity and to create a sense of community for employees in the workplace.

- Direct experience responding to COVID-19 pandemic; created Return to Workplace Guide for administrative workplaces.

- Volunteer for Girl Scouts as troop leader, organizing multiple community service activities.

The aforementioned experiences as well as my unique perspective as an African American parent will all inform my unique perspective in my role if elected to serve the BOE.
The impact that COVID-19 has had on students, families, teachers and administrators is an important challenge facing our school district. This is an unprecedented crisis which can exacerbate educational deficiencies and cause a potential loss in learning.

Short-term, we must ensure that students are engaged in learning and that the learning environment is consistent for all students from kindergarten through high school. Although each student may have access to similar resources when working virtually, the support they receive at home will vary greatly due to the personal and professional commitments of their parents and the set up of their work environment. This can increase the disparity in learning.

To address this challenge I propose:

- Reevaluating existing methods of assessment and adjusting to capture the positive and negative impacts of virtual learning. Education remediation plans must be put in place for each child.

- Increasing communication between faculty and parents to address concerns. This could include monthly listening sessions for the parents that are facilitated by each school principal and guidance staff. These sessions may increase based on the need of an individual school.

- Increasing outreach and understanding of the academic, social, and emotional impact of the new educational model on our students. This can occur through classroom discussions, surveys and focus group discussions. Only once these challenges are understood, can planning begin.

- Gathering data into a system that is easily accessible and creates meaningful reports for evaluation. This will require a review of existing systems to ensure they meet the needs of the current learning methodology.

- Providing additional professional development opportunities and sharing of district wide best practices among all faculty. We must be open to leverage any innovations coming out of this crisis. That can be achieved by piloting new learning platforms and methods of delivery that could benefit the district.

- Monitoring the budget for unexpected COVID-19 related expenses that can create a financial strain on our educational system. Monthly financial updates should be provided and recommendations should be discussed with the community if budget modifications are required.

Long-term, we must develop an education remediation plan for when students return to school full time. The plan must identify competencies of each student that require attention with individual action plans and measurable outcomes for success.
The most important factor for student success is the understanding that the individual needs of students differ and we must address those differences. Focus and drive varies among the students and the required support is not one size fits all. We must decipher how each student is motivated and provide individualized direction for them to meet their goals. The schools must create an inclusive culture that makes students feel like they are a part of the school community regardless of their ability. This can be achieved by augmenting the counselor/student relationship at the middle and high school levels with additional support from another faculty member that can serve as a mentor.
We need to ensure that we are reaching everyone and provide an opportunity for every voice to be heard. Not everyone processes information in the same way and a multi-tiered approach of gathering and sharing information with the community is needed.

Some ideas for greater outreach can include facilitating topic specific listening sessions with the community. This session would be in addition to the scheduled board meetings. Follow up from the listening session could include posting a video that addresses concerns identified during the sessions and summarizes information about a topic, emailing and posting frequently asked question (FAQs) and adding quick links on the current district website that will allow for easy access to all documentation related to a specific topic.

One idea could be sending out mailers to the entire community when a topic affects all taxpayers. An additional way to gather information is to distribute a yearly pulse check survey, followed by data review and distribution of a summary of key findings and providing action items for areas that require improvement.

A more informal method of gathering information would be providing an electronic feedback box on the website. This multi-tiered approach enhances two-way connectivity across our community.