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Q&A With Duval County District 2 School Board-Elect Elizabeth Andersen

Elizabeth Andersen

  Elizabeth Andersen, a former teacher turned therapist, was elected to the school board for Duval County’s 2nd District on Tuesday. She beat Nick Howland to replace Scott Shine who did not seek re-election after his first term. Andersen will be representing the Beaches.

Andersen sat down with WJCT News to discuss her new job, in the first of three-part series with the new school board members.  

What would you say are your three most important priorities?

“I think that the most important priorities for Duval County are of course that our kids are safe, making sure that we are achieving our highest potential - I’d love to see us get an A, we’re so close to be an A district - and making sure all of our spending is wise and thoughtful.

We have some budget concerns and so we want to make sure that with the limited amount of discretionary funds that our school board has to use that any cuts and all the spending that we’re using is really in the best interest of children and our teaching staff. So that we can maximize our learning potential and our achievement.”

Given it’s your number one priority, what does the safety of students look like to you? What kinds of policies would ensure the safety of children?

“For me, it’s important that we’re looking at early intervention and prevention strategies, so young, at every grade level, but starting early with things like social and emotional skills building. So our children have self regulation and self awareness. So that they’re able to relationship build and problem solve. And I think ultimately that’s what’s going to lead to a safer system. We’ve had lots of reactive measures and things that have come out of Parkland such as our school safety officers. I know we’re also looking at other measures, like metal detectors are on the table right now. But I think if we have to use any of these things we’re too late. So I think it is really important that, as a district we look at, early intervention and prevention.

I am really excited that we’ve been able to expand our mental health services. We’ve increased the number of therapists per student in the district, but it’s not quite enough. So we need to work hand in hand with our agency providers in the communities and also with our school to make sure our teachers are trained and have the skills that they need.”

How will the work you’ve been doing, prior being elected to the school board, inform the ways in which you do things?

“As a licensed mental health counselor, specializing in children, I think that being able to bring in that expertise, understanding child development, understanding the challenges and obstacles that our children and their families face… and also the challenges and obstacles that our teachers face. I’ve been working in schools with children, as a community-based therapist for many years now. I’ve helped district personnel, teachers, parents, and children at every level. So understanding those barriers to success and achievement is going to be an important perspective for making decisions, policies and helping to guide our superintendent and the school district.”

What do you see as the Duval County Public Schools’ strengths?

“Our biggest strength is the diversity. I think we have a beautiful melting pot of children and schools and staff that are very engaged in our community that offer wonderful neighborhood schools to the communities where they reside. And I think we are achieving very well. The growth our students have made over the past several years have been very impressive. The size of our County and the achievement that we have seen is pretty fantastic.”

What would you see as its weaknesses?

“The biggest concern right now is going to be our facilities for me. I think we have old school buildings and we need to make sure they’re being  maintained. I think that our enrollment and teacher retention are also important factors. We need to make sure that we’re keeping our students attending our schools, that we’re offering them the best choice in our public school system and that our teachers are well taken care of. Because that’s ultimately what will ensure our children succeed. And if they’re succeeding, we’re succeeding as a community.”

How do you ensure your teachers stay? And how do you recruit more qualified and representative teachers?

My first priority is making sure I am talking to teachers, that I am talking to schools’ staff and principals, to find out what their needs are, to make sure we’re giving them a voice. Our hands can be a little tied when it comes to things like funding and teacher salaries. Of course, they deserve to be paid appropriately. So, we’ll continue to work with our collective bargaining efforts with our teachers union to make sure our teachers are adequately compensated. So hopefully that will help with retention. But I think other than that, it’s going to be a top-down level of respect and appreciation, making that they’re being treated as professionals and that their voices are being heard everyday.

What do you think about the Teach for America program? Are you for it or against it?

“The Teach for America when we first began working with them made a lot of sense for Duval County. I think that being able to get in young, fresh, energetic, excited teachers into some of our schools that are otherwise hard to retain teachers is great. But because of budget constraints and the results we’ve seen with not being able to retain those teachers for lengths of time… I don’t know that that’s the best way to spend money at this point. And our district has decided not the continue forward with that contract and that relationship. That relationship was too costly.

I would love to see the money we were spending with recruiting through TFA to support and retain teachers on our own.”

What do you think about charter schools?

“Charter schools play and important role for our communities and our families in the way of offering choice. Charter schools should offer innovation or something unique that children might not be able to access through our public school system. Charter schools that are privately managed by companies and entities that are profiting off of our public tax dollars are problematic to me that are not offering any innovation or providing achievement at a higher right than the neighborhood public schools that are just draining enrollment from our neighborhood public schools need to be monitored closely. We need to be careful about how and where we approve those schools. Because we lose money for children in our public school system and we can’t lose money. Not for our kids and not for our teachers.”

So if I understand correctly, you’re not opposed to charter schools. It’s just a matter of how they operate.

“The whole point of a charter school is to be sort of a learning laboratory to provide innovative or new ways of teaching, that can come back to our public school system [I think] is a great idea. I think there’s a role for them in our community and certainly for parents and children that these schools offer something that aligns with their cultural values, or an opportunity they may not able able to get in their public school system. That’s important but we can’t do it at the expense of our public education system.  ”

Why is this work so important to you? Why are you on the school board?

“I truly believe that education is a great equalizer. Our community in Duval County is huge. It’s very diverse, and we have very different children, families, teachers, from all over, and I think if we do a good job taking care of our public education system then that will lead to a safer, more stable, civically responsible community. I am a Jacksonville native and I love this city. I think we owe it to each other, as community members, to work toward a common good. And to make sure our public school is strong and thriving for our children and for our future.”

Abukar Adan is a former WJCT reporter who left the station for other pursuits in August 2019.