The Nov. 3 election of an at-large member of the School Board has three candidates, all with connections to the Portland Public Schools.
Stacey Hang, Yusuf Yusuf, and Nyalat Biliew hope to fill the seat being vacated by Mark Balfantz.
Hang, a nurse at Yarmouth High School, was a teacher for 10 years, is an alumna of the Portland Public Schools, and has two children in city schools. She and her family live on Summit Street.
Marginal Way resident Yusuf is a mental health case manager who works with students in the Portland Public Schools.
Biliew, 25, attended several city schools, graduated from Deering High School, and resides on Oxford Street. She declined to be interviewed.
In their interviews, Yusuf and Hang expressed differences of opinion about the School Board’s decision to remove school resource officers from city schools.
Talking about school attempts to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, Hang said she and her colleagues often say it’s like “building a plane as (they’re) trying to fly it.”
While she said she “can’t imagine” the pressure on Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and other administrators to “work on a spectrum of people’s fears” with regard to the pandemic, she thinks social-emotional learning needs to be a focus in future discussions.
“My frontal lobe is fully developed and it’s hard to acknowledge what’s going on,” she said. “I can’t imagine being a 12-year-old who’s used to being very physical with their friends, and (now) they can’t leave their classroom and the movement breaks aren’t there.”
Hang, 44, said the current state of education is going to spur “a lot of mental health concerns” for students, which need to be addressed before the district continues “cranking away at the nitty-gritty curriculum stuff.”
The self-described “science person” said she was outspoken this summer about her desire to keep school resource officers in schools. She said she believes “more research needed to be done” to support their removal.
“If they could have proven to me that SROs were totally harmful to our kids I would graciously support it and be like ‘yep proved it, done,’” Hang said. “But I wanted more information that got rid of a resource that was there for 20 years.”
As a school nurse, she said, resource officers would be helpful to her at work, and she felt the vote to remove them was “a really quick decision without long-term planning in place.”
If she is elected to the School Board, Hang said she wants to educate herself “as much as possible” about the best way to navigate budgeting and plans to take advantage of finance classes offered by the Drummond Woodsum law firm on how to deal with a school budget.
With regard to encouraging more equity in the schools, Hang said she plans to “do some research” about the situation throughout the city.
Making sure the School Department has enough translators is important, she said, as well as working to educate parents who may be new to the U.S. about what to expect from American schools.
“I need to educate myself about what we’re up against,” Hang said.
Yusuf, 40, works with students that he said have suffered “the most impact” of the coronavirus crisis from an education perspective.
He said while he agrees with health professionals on the COVID-19 safety guidelines for schools, his clients, who include immigrants and special needs students, face additional hurdles during the pandemic: problems with technology and understanding health protocols, which he said are exacerbated by language barriers.
The pandemic has also delayed some of his clients’ assessments, Yusuf said, which in turn has prevented them from getting the services they need on time.
Working with that population is what inspired him to run for the School Board.
“I have learned a lot about family dynamics, I learned how the Portland Public Schools work, and learned a lot about the things that hold people back,” he said.
Yusuf’s experiences at work also informed his position on the school resource officer debate, which he called a “fundamental issue” in the city school system.
“I have heard a lot from the students that the integration of SROs leads to a great sense of fear, mistrust, (and) skepticism,” he said. For students of color specifically, Yusuf said, SROs sometimes made it difficult for students to “feel safe” at school.
Going forward, he said he believes supporting the wellbeing of students will require looking at the issue from a social-emotional perspective. He said he would also want to consult with members of the community to come up with more equitable ways to support students.
Yusuf said there is a need to budget for updates to some school facilities in the future, although he said budgeting “is always challenging,” and he thinks Botana and other Portland school officials are “doing a great job allocating resources.”
As someone whose career has taught him the importance of “cooperation,” Yusuf said a key step in establishing more equity in Portland’s schools will be to involve minority students in the planning process.
Bringing “students, parents and teachers to the table” will be important, he said, when discussing issues such as promoting a more inclusive curriculum.
“We need to focus on how we can learn from our differences,” Yusuf said.