Tam Dinh and John Rivera-Dirks are competing for the Mercer Island School District school board director position 5. The general election is Nov. 5.
Dinh is a professor and program administrator Saint Martin’s University with three children in MISD schools according to her candidate statement on the King County Auditor’s Office website. She attended the University of Washington and University of Southern California.
Rivera-Dirks served as a U.S. diplomat and has had a career in education technology, according to his candidate statement on the King County Auditor’s Office website. He attended Williams College and Columbia University.
How much should the school board support extracurriculars?
Dinh: I believe that our K-12 public education system should seek to educate the whole child and recognize that education does not happen only in the classroom. Extracurricular activities are essential to the total development of a child and can augment and enhance the learning in the classroom. Not only do extracurricular activities allow children to explore and develop their own interests and hobbies, children are learning and applying their knowledge and skills in another context. Learning to work as a team, time management, and real life problem solving ultimately lead to increased leadership skills, and better emotional and physical health.
Engagement and connection to the larger community is also important to the healthy development of a child. On Mercer Island, we are blessed to have a wide array of extracurricular activities where children are connected to community leaders, mentors and coaches who care about them and model prosocial behaviors.
The Mercer Island school board should definitely support extracurricular activities by encouraging students to explore and apply their interests and talents outside of school, engaging with extracurricular organizations and coaches to see how and where the MISD could be of support, and exploring teachers’ interests in leading after school activities and programming.
Rivera-Dirks: My vision for the Mercer Island School District centers around student success – in the classroom, and in life. This includes my support for extracurricular programs that build and strengthen our community, promote diversity, equity and inclusion, and provide for the well-being and mental health of our students. This summer I met with Mercer Island high school seniors deeply involved in extracurriculars. They shared how important extracurriculars are to their development and education — learning teamwork, leadership, responsibility and developing self-confidence. Studies show that students in extracurriculars earn higher grades, have better attendance records and lead well-balanced lives.
While our community is fortunate to have such wonderful extracurricular programs, parents and students understand that participation in them costs hundreds of dollars a year, which can become thousands of dollars over the course of primary and secondary school. Even on Mercer Island, some extracurriculars require families to make tradeoffs in their budgets — and yes, there are students here who don’t join something because they can’t afford it.
The school board must seriously look at extracurricular accessibility for all students. When students want to start an extracurricular that furthers the goals of the school district, or participate in one but don’t have the funds, the school district has a responsibility to create an environment to support them.
How much should the board be involved in curriculum decisions?
Dinh: Some of the school board’s main responsibilities such as setting district policy, planning, setting, and monitoring goals, and approving the instructional program are directly related to the curriculum. It is important that the school board upholds state mandates while remaining respectful of the superintendent and teachers’ expertise and being accountable to the community. To do this, the school board needs to be transparent and actively reach out to students, parents, teachers, staff and the community to hear their needs and concerns. Curriculum decisions should always be driven by students’ needs, grounded in data- and evidence-based strategies, and with feedback from MISD stakeholders.
Rivera-Dirks: The school board must hold our school district to the highest standards when it comes to curriculum decisions and their implementation, setting bold goals that prepare students for college, career and life.
My vision is for curriculum that balances academic excellence with student well-being. One that invests in high-quality learning materials, hiring and retaining innovative educators and preparing our educators with professional development so they provide an enriching and challenging experience in the classroom.
As a member of the school district’s technology advisory group, I hear regularly from innovative teachers who integrate technology into the curriculum to make subjects more interesting and challenging for students. For example, my son’s first-grade teacher uses iPads for students to produce video reports and to learn code.
Students should graduate knowing what I call the “three C’s”—coding, the U.S. Constitution and compassion. Coding and technological literacy are key 21st century skills. Understanding the U.S. Constitution, as the college board explains it, is “necessary for students to shape our world and to be an empowered citizen in our democracy.” Compassion and empathy are core skills for relating to other people by showing kindness and understanding the life experiences, needs and motivations of others.
I support having a strong STEAM based curriculum because math and science are foundational disciplines for the jobs of the future, and because the humanities and the arts—visual, musical and performing—improve students’ cognitive ability, critical thinking and self-expression.
In addition, the school board must continue to closely monitor and support the implementation of social-emotional learning (SEL) — a cornerstone for supportive and successful learning environments to help students thrive socially, emotionally and academically.
How can the board help teachers and staff overcome affordability issues of living on Mercer Island?
Dinh: I believe the three most important job considerations for most teachers like myself are the working environment, compensation and living conditions. Although the McCleary Act may limit our ability to provide better pay for our teachers and staff, we can still influence their working environment and living conditions. Mortgage, rent, transportation, and health care costs are on the rise. We should explore different ways to compensate our teachers and staff such as providing transportation and housing subsidies, mileage reimbursement, etc. The school board can work with the city council to determine community-wide subsidies and support alternatives to help increase the number of teachers and staff able to live on the island or to assist with the transportation cost of those who live farther away. The school board can also work with the larger community to see how they can show support and appreciation to our teachers such as teacher discounts at Mercer Island retail shops and restaurants. We should also continue to advocate for our teachers and staff at the legislative level.
Rivera-Dirks: The shortage of affordable housing for educators and staff is a regional issue, not just limited to Mercer Island. I propose the Mercer Island school board join neighboring school boards to work with city and county governments to find solutions to the cost of living problem. For example, a coalition of school boards can work with King County and Sound Transit to reduce the commute costs of our educators by providing free or significantly-reduced fares. The opening of light rail on Mercer Island and the expansion of bus routes will expand home-city options for school employees. Starting this school year, the school district can trial-run a morning and afternoon shuttle for school employees from the transit center to Mercer Island schools to make public transportation a more feasible commute option.
What can the board do to secure school bus drivers, thus securing transportation to non-district sponsored clubs and activities?
Dinh: A good working environment, competitive compensation and affordable living conditions are also barriers in securing school bus drivers. The strategies we use for teachers to create a good working environment and increase compensation could also be used for bus drivers and other staff. The school board could ask for a comprehensive review of the current strategies and efforts. This information could help inform an outreach and awareness campaign to attract drivers, reduce barriers that may narrow down the pool, or make policy changes that would increase our retention of bus drivers.
MISD bus drivers’ priority should be to ensure that students get to school and to district-sponsored clubs and activities. However, the school board could engage with the community to hear their needs and explore the possibility of a MISD-community partnership regarding transportation on the island. For example, we could explore the possibilities and limitations of non-MISD organizations renting school buses and hiring MISD bus drivers to take students to non-district sponsored clubs and activities. To address financially unsustainable part-time working conditions, we could explore solutions where a bus driver may be employed as a MISD employee as well as a city employee or an employee in one of the businesses on Mercer Island.
Rivera-Dirks: Bus drivers are usually the first and last school staff our students see during the day. They provide an essential service for safely transporting our children to school and back home again, and in some cases to before/after school programs. I visited with our school bus drivers and they care truly about the students — in many cases, deeply enough to drive as a second career. We need to offer competitive salaries and benefits, aggressively hire new personnel to fill gaps, and continue to show appreciation for their service.
We are fortunate to have high quality programs on the island that add to and complement what the district provides. Having a flexible transportation service is a great way to add to those programs to benefit our community for no, or very little, extra cost to the district.