Appelbaum sees communication as key for district’s success

Between now and Election Day, the Greenwich Post will be running profiles of the six candidates running for four spots on the Board of Education. This is an interview with Debbie Appelbaum, one of the two Democratic candidates endorsed by the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee.


Democratic candidate Debbie Appelbaum has years of experience heading PTAs and is now looking to bring that perspective to the Board of Education. — Ken Borsuk photo

Democratic candidate Debbie Appelbaum has years of experience heading PTAs and is now looking to bring that perspective to the Board of Education.
— Ken Borsuk photo

A mother who has been active in leadership positions in the PTAs at all three levels of Greenwich’s public schools, Debbie Appelbaum says that her desire to serve didn’t end when her children graduated from high school.

But it also didn’t immediately lead her to where she is today, running a political campaign for a spot on the Board of Education as a Democrat.

“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can give back to the community, and when look at my background and think about what I have to offer to Greenwich, it’s education,” Ms. Appelbaum told the Post this week. “I looked at other volunteer boards in town. I applied to the Selectmen’s Nominations Advisory Committee and I spoke to [First Selectman] Peter Tesei about open board positions. But when I considered those boards it was like I was trying to force a fit. Then you come to the Board of Education and I have more than 10 years of experience as a PTA president at North Street, Central and Greenwich High School. I’ve seen the full arc of my kids going through the schools and I’ve seen how it all connects.”

Ms. Appelbaum said she feels the Board of Education is the natural fit for someone of her experience working with the school communities and also on volunteer boards like the Junior League of Greenwich. She said she believes she knows what makes a board that functions well and is ready to hear conversation about “the good school system that we have.”

“I’m tired of hearing about the ‘failing system that we have,’” Ms. Appelbaum said. “Clearly there’s room for improvement. There are issues. But education is fluid, and today’s issues will be different tomorrow and two years from now and four years from now. You have to have people who will move with that.”

Ms. Appelbaum said that while conversations about issues typically “start from a negative point of view,” this shouldn’t be the case. She points to the district’s achievement gap, which testing has shown is a particular problem with students on the free and reduced lunch program not scoring as high as their wealthier counterparts.

“Their performance as compared to the performance of similar students in other parts of the country and parts of Connecticut is good,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “Can they have stronger achievement? Yes. But you need to address some of the pieces that make their starting point different than some of the other students. To me, the smaller the achievement gap is at the start, the easier it’s going to be to close it. You need to look at what makes our most successful students successful and what of those resources do our least successful students not have and what of those can we provide.”

Ms. Appelbaum said by making efforts to allow all children to start kindergarten with “a full, rich English vocabulary” can pay off because it allows them to develop reading and language skills at the same starting point. That means looking at quality pre-K in Greenwich and making sure it’s available and that people want to use it and studying whether a year of English immersion is needed before a child enters kindergarten.

It also means more parental involvement at home and in school where there can be a language barrier between the school and the parents. Ms. Appelbaum suggests that can be helped through translation software and more outreach and English instruction, giving parents more of a chance to be involved in the school community and have direct interaction with their child’s teacher.

Just having something available isn’t enough, Ms. Appelbaum said. To make sure that people know about what the district is offering and take advantage of it, it’s a matter of marketing and communication. And communication is a key theme in what Ms. Appelbaum laid out in terms of what she believes she can do if elected to the board. To her, communication isn’t just about the district and the schools working with parents, but also the board working with the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Representative Town Meeting with regard to its budget priorities and making sure people have a positive outlook on the district.

“There has to be proactive communications with a communications plan put together by the board,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “People should know what’s going on in this district that’s new and interesting and positive. That means creating a PR campaign and squelching the misinformation out there. We can explain the programs we have going and talk about digital learning. That means having a full plan to the town boards and the parents and taxpayers who don’t have students in our schools. If we get that information out there and make it user friendly and accessible, people will see why they have to care.”

Ms. Appelbaum says there needs to be a “communications blast” using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread news, and she also favors a redesign of the district’s website to make it more user friendly. She said that can end the notion that better things are happening in Greenwich’s private schools than in the public ones, which she feels is inaccurate. Ms. Appelbaum said she’s already seen an improvement in communications under Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, praising his willingness to meet with people to create connectivity with the district, but it can get better from the board’s and the schools’ ends by being more proactive.

Her goals for the next four years aren’t just limited to communications, though. To improve achievement in the district, Ms. Appelbaum said, she’s optimistic the common core standards being implemented will provide a boost by providing more hands-on, interactive learning in the classroom. And she’s also a proponent of the district’s move toward digital learning because it would allow teachers more of an opportunity to offer individualized instruction while preparing kids who are already well versed in technology to thrive in a digital world. But she stressed that achievement in the district has to be measured through more than just test scores.

“We’ve gotten very into the measurement of success based on standardized test scores, and there’s so much more that goes into education beyond that,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “There’s the ability to think. There’s the ability to problem-solve. But it’s hard to measure those things, and that’s something as a board we have to look at. How do we measure them so people understand their importance and how they combine to make successful graduates.”

Ms. Appelbaum also looks at the data the district has collected and says it has to be used better. She said this shows student progress and development beyond yearly standardized tests and that this will be improved by digital learning as it takes hold throughout the district. By looking at the data to help students and trying to find the link to bring it all together, Ms. Appelbaum said improvements can be made that will impact overall achievement.

In a more immediate issue, the Board of Education is also still focused on what to do about the state’s racial balance mandate. Two elementary schools, New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue, are considered to be imbalanced and the district is considering an open choice plan that could potentially create a new magnet program at North Street School. While some parents have said this issue should wait until after next month’s elections, Ms. Appelbaum, like her fellow candidates, said waiting until the new members are seated would be a mistake.

“It should be taken care of as soon as it’s responsibly OK to do so and the board has all the information it needs,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “To me, personally, no amount of catch-up and research and reading the documents I could do could put me in as knowledgeable a position as the members who have eaten, breathed and slept this issue. This is something that’s evolved, and they’re the ones that have talked to the people and heard from the experts.”

In regard to the open choice plan, Ms. Appelbaum said she’s optimistic it will ultimately work but that might not be a result that’s seen until three to five years from now. She said the only way it’s clear if magnet programs are working is by making sure there are seats available at New Lebanon and by making sure the programs at Hamilton Avenue and Julian Curtiss School are effective both as a draw and for creating academic achievement.

“Parents have to see that this is working for them to get behind it,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “That’s what will make them comfortable. There are some perceptions that good things are only happening in your neighborhood school, but there are happy kids in every building. I think this will ultimately work, but right now you’re not going to have a lot of volunteers. That’s not a reason not to try, though.”


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