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YHR Article: Yakima school board candidates discuss COVID, bilingual education and early learning

By Vanessa Ontiveros

Published in the Yakima Herald-Republic on October 5, 2021

Yakima voters will decide two positions on the Yakima school board this fall as challengers try to unseat a pair of incumbents.

Position 1 and Position 2 are up for grabs in the Nov. 2 general election. The positions are unpaid and come with four-year terms. Ballots will begin being mailed Oct. 15 and winners will take office Jan. 1.

In the Position 1 race, Kenton Gartrell is taking on incumbent Graciela Villanueva, who has served on the school board since 2011.

Gartrell ran for Yakima City Council in 2019 but lost to Eliana Macias. During that election, Gartrell was involved in a confrontation with a supporter of his then-opponent. Following Election Day 2019, Gartrell made comments on his Facebook page accusing local political figures of bigotry. He was also temporarily suspended from his refereeing duties by Washington Youth Soccer for making inappropriate comments to a female referee in 2015.

In August, Gartrell posted a video to his personal and campaign Facebook pages of a confrontation between himself and two staff members of Nob Hill Elementary School. In the video, Gartrell expressed his and his family members’ refusal to wear masks inside the school building. All students, staff and visitors must wear masks or other facial coverings when inside school buildings according to the Washington State Department of Health’s K-12 requirements. Districts are required to support compliance with this rule.

Villanueva is seeking her fourth term on the board. She first joined in 2011 and has served continuously since 2014. She is the current board vice president.

In the Position 2 race, Ryan Beckett is trying to unseat incumbent Donald Joseph Davis Jr.

Davis has served on the school board since 2016. He was initially appointed to the position and later won election for it in 2017. In 2019, he was publicly censured and removed from his position as vice president of the board following board policy violations. He was also banned from Stanton Academy for five years following a reported confrontation with a student in 2018.

Beckett has never held an elected position but did serve on the Yakima School Foundation for eight years, including two as president.

According to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, Becket’s campaign has raised $12,144.64 this election cycle and the Davis campaign has raised $2,350. The other candidates opted not to disclose their contributions, which is allowed provided the total does not exceed $5,000.

In early 2020 and prior to the pandemic, the school board unanimously approved a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlined goals related to kindergarten readiness, student engagement, bilingual education and graduation rates.

YSD was among the last districts locally to return to some form of in-person education in the previous school year. This school year, students are back to full-time, in-person instruction.

The district has had nearly 100 cases of COVID among students and staff since the start of the school year, according to data from the Yakima County Health District.

We asked each candidate three questions. Gartrell declined a request for a live interview. Davis did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Do you support the school district’s COVID protocols? Why or why not?

Beckett: In general, yes, I support the COVID protocols.

I think that the district was very wise to close down when they did and for everyone in our community — and for everyone nationwide really — to step back and learn as much as we could about COVID-19 and how best to respond to it. I also have been pretty critical that our local district was so slow to reopen compared to other districts in our region, in Central Washington and compared to around the country. But I understand that they were overly cautious. I felt like we were at a point where the other negative aspects of being shut down or being on Google school and whatnot were outweighing some of the risks from COVID-19. So I’m glad that we’re open again in-person.

I think they’re doing a great job. (Assistant Superintendent of Operations) Stacey Locke’s team seems to be really on top of testing and strategically figuring out where problems are and how to address them to where we are able to keep the buildings open as best we can, even when there are flare-ups. It’s like everything else. We all want the best for public health and safety, and we all want the best for our kids. And it’s a balancing act. And I feel like overall the district has done a pretty darn good job.

Villanueva: COVID was a really big challenge for our students, families and staff and schools.

The fact that our schools were closed for — I think it was 18 months — was such a big challenge. Parents couldn’t work. Students didn’t have the education that they needed and deserve. Staff struggled to transition.

Well, I think our staff transitioned very well. And I think the efforts of our district were incredible in ensuring that every student had a laptop and free access to Wi-Fi. All of those things were really, really great things and ensured that learning could continue. However, what we all want and desire is for schools to be open and for schools to remain open. I think that we need to do everything we can to ensure that our schools stay open. And that means that the schools’ COVID protocols are completely appropriate, ensuring that everybody is masked up and that staff are vaccinated.

You certainly don’t like a mandate any more than the next person, but it’s important that we put our personal feelings and partisan politics aside to ensure that our schools remain open.

The district’s strategic plan has goals related to equitable education and bilingual education. What would be your approach to those goals as a school board member?

Beckett: I think, personally, my approach is that we should really focus on our basics, and that everything else — whether well-intentioned or not — it can be a distraction. And our biggest issues are really needing to be on improving our academic results, and reading is first and foremost there.

The district’s goal for being bilingual, biliterate, is a fabulous goal and I think there’s some really great opportunities focusing on literacy, especially in our pre-kinder and kinder programming to get kids ready for school. To me that’s the single most important thing we could possibly be doing as a school district. And it’s where we should be focusing the majority of our time.

Villanueva: My approach to those goals would be using a data-informed approach. It’s important to understand the data as it applies to kindergarten readiness and student achievement and outcomes throughout the K-12 life of a student.

Data will help us understand where disparities exist, and data will help us understand the underlying reasons for those disparities. I think once we have that data, we’ll be able to make decisions that can have a direct impact on those outcomes with the result of ensuring equity for all students. In regard to bilingual education, I think the same approach is important. When the district went through the strategic planning process, I was a key member of that in all phases of the development of the strategic plan. And one thing that we heard, as a board that we heard loud and clear is that the community really wanted a bilingual education program. So, we were really excited to bring that program back to the district, and not just helping our English language learners learn English, but also our English language speakers learn Spanish. That was a loud and clear direction that we received from the community that participated in the development of the strategic plan. So, I think it will be an important part of our strategy as we move forward.

In fall 2020, kindergarten enrollment saw a 14% drop statewide. How would you strengthen the district’s approach to preschool through third grade?

Beckett: I don’t think you can emphasize enough how important the pre-kinder programming and education really is in this day and age. And so, if there’s any opportunity our district has to expand upon that, whether it’s through enrollment or extra programming or whatnot, I think we should be researching it and addressing it as best we can.

The reality is enrollment in public schools might be dropping because people might be choosing other avenues of education, whether that’s home school or private school. And school choice is important, and we have to respect what parents decide to do with their children. I would point out how important it is and how amazing the opportunities are for kids to be enrolled in our district, especially at that young age. There’s a lot of really great and exciting things coming down the pike, so I would point that out to parents along the way as I spoke to them. But I don’t know if there’s a silver bullet to that.

If there’s statewide reductions in enrollment — especially coming out of the year of Zoom school — there’s probably, you know, a variety of families that are just researching different options.

Villanueva: My main area of focus would be on early childhood education. There is a lot of data that shows a very clear line between kindergarten readiness and high school graduation. In fact, I just looked at an article that showed that when children are ready for kindergarten, that results in an increase in high school graduation of 14%. So, there are very clear correlations in data that support the importance of early childhood education so focusing on pre-K, I think, will likely make the most impact to students as they progress through school.

There’s a lot of other data that also indicates that children reading at grade level at third grade has an impact on their successes in school and even in life after school. So, putting all of the resources we can into programs to ensure that pre-K, K, and your early elementary years, ensuring that our students have all of the support they need to learn how to read and to comprehend what they’re reading, that will help those students be more successful in other subjects as they progress through school, like math and science and social studies.

Reading really is a core skill that is vitally important. So, focusing on reading skills and providing whatever resources are needed to ensure that all of our kids are reading at grade level by third grade will be really important as we move forward.

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