Akriti Bhambi for School Committee, 2021
Challenger running for committee for the first time
Background: Health public policy | Focuses: Accountability, safe return to in-person learning, strengthen community and government partnerships for summer, extracurricular, and preprofessional experiences
Why did you decide to run for a seat on the School Committee?
My family came to the United States with a single suitcase and hope. Growing up, my mom struggled with her mental health and dropped out of school. At a young age, I was forced to step in and take care of my younger siblings. Education was my only pathway to secure a better future. I became the first woman in my family to go to college, and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard.
I’m running for School Committee because every student in our schools, regardless of their ability, deserves a world-class education, safe school buildings and systemic reform that centers racial and gender equity.
What are the top three issues you would like to address if elected?
First, I would fight for equity in our district by making sure that our investments and policies are effective and necessary. We don’t know at a comprehensive level what’s working in our budget and what’s not. We need a better way of holding ourselves accountable to the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend every year on our schools.
Second, we need to acknowledge and support diverse learners. Universal pre-K investments are crucial to leveling the playing field and closing the achievement gap, especially for Black and brown students. We also need to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, deserve to leave our schools and have access to a stable, middle-class life. We can do this by expanding the district’s partnerships with trade unions and local businesses to create pipelines for employment.
Third, students can’t focus on their academics if they are struggling with issues such as housing instability or mental illness. I would advocate to improve behavioral health services in our schools and to support and expand our family liaison services so that students are set up to succeed.
What are the most effective ways to strengthen the district’s initiatives to promote social justice and racial equity?
Throughout my career in government and public policy, I’ve seen too many initiatives that are meant to promote social justice and racial equity but simply don’t have that impact. The most effective way to promote equity is to know who is in need, develop solutions with that same community and support long-standing investments as long as those solutions work. We need an audit of our equity agenda in the district. We need to pull in students, families and staff from communities of color, within the disability space and those struggling to make ends meet and empower them to work with leaders to shape meaningful public policy. Leaders also need to be coordinated, accessible and humble enough to recognize when they have erred.
How can the district improve its efforts to provide culturally sensitive instruction tailored to student interests, skill sets and ambitions in light of the diversity of student backgrounds?
We need more teachers of color and more teachers, including teachers of color, with dual degrees in special education. We need more aides in the classroom to support lead teachers – we can partner with local universities to support this. We need to support the social and emotional needs of our students by ensuring our staff are equipped to deescalate crises and connect students with appropriate resources. District curriculum should be taught through an antiracist lens and must include life skills, including financial literacy and project-based learning, including internships so that students find pathways for success. We need to recognize that learning is a highly individualized process, and we must continue ask our students the question, “What excites you?” as opposed to assuming the answer.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students and staff since March 2020 has revealed strengths and weaknesses in the system – are there specific items that you would review or revise?
Learning can’t take place if our classrooms are not safe and accessible. We should continue to look at the ways we utilize our capital investments and Massachusetts School Building Authority funding to routinely update our schools’ infrastructure, especially in light of the need for proper ventilation, open space and universal accessibility. We need to communicate effectively and regularly with parents regarding policies on public health measures both now – as we are still managing the Covid-19 pandemic – and in case of future emergencies. This includes policies regarding treatments such as vaccines, contact tracing and outbreak protocols, and what happens to the continuity of our education in the event of a major disruption to our community’s well-being.
We also need to ensure that all students have equitable and fluent access to the technology they need for remote schooling, should that need arise again.
Additionally, the pandemic illuminated the deep connections between well-being and academic success – we need to continue to support investments in mental health and wraparound supports for our students.
As a School Committee member, how would you encourage the district’s after-school providers and partners to improve or expand services?
I would advocate for extended after-school hours so that working parents don’t have to juggle their responsibilities with ensuring their students have full access to enrichment opportunities. We need greater investment in mentorship programming and early career opportunities. We also need better coordination. The district partners with many community providers, but parents often find the available options difficult to discern. I am concerned about the increasing costs of after-school programming for families. We also need to assess our availability of transportation to after-school services to ensure all students have access to their benefits. Additionally, students in out-of-district placements ought to be encouraged to be included in local after-school programs.
What processes would you put into place to encourage parents and caregivers to have a voice in shaping the district’s priorities?
There are several ways to ensure that parents and caregivers are heard by the district. During the Covid-19 pandemic, School Committee and other district meetings have moved to online forums. While we have begun transitioning to in-person meetings, we can keep those meetings accessible to parents who are unable to come in person by preserving an online option. As a committee member, I would be available regularly to listen to the needs and concerns of parents and families. I would advocate to increase the diversity of family liaisons and guidance counselors, especially those who speak the languages representative of our students and families. We also must solicit regular feedback from parents and students regarding what’s working and what’s not. Too many in our community feel isolated from having a voice in how we educate.