BOE D6 Candidate Conversation: India Ochs
Name: India Ochs Profession: Public Servant/Attorney Age: 45 Town of Residence: Annapolis Email Interview: AJ: 1) What do you believe are the three most pressing challenges that the BOE for AACPS will need to deal with? OCHS: Quite frankly, the most pressing challenge for AACPS right now – that needs to be addressed at all levels --is the same thing generations have dealt with, which is the discrimination and inequities our most marginalized populations face every day. COVID-19 has widened the spotlight - and opportunities- for many kids who struggle from lower socioeconomic families, or students of color, students with limited English, and students with disabilities, many of whom have parents focused on food, shelter, or access to health care before helping with learning let alone their limited access to technology or other supports outside school walls. I know the current Board and AACPS administration cares deeply about these kids and eliminating the inequity gaps, but sometimes even the concept of equity is not viewed correctly, or it is pushed aside for later, or assumptions are made about what kids are capable of learning at home, and that can not continue if we really want to adhere to “All Means All”. The other two pressing challenges have become even more critical given the current crisis: teacher retention now with the 2020-2021 budget being more limited than planned due to the economic impact of COVID-19 and mental health support given that our kids already were facing serious challenges with depression, anxiety, and other traumatic induced emotions, and now COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of many more kids – and teachers – and as I have said in the past, those emotions or trauma will not disappear once the school doors open. And if I may throw in a 4th pressing problem- AACPS has been great tying to handle e-learning during the shutdown but too many kids are NOT actually participating- at least not on a consistent basis, and that is OK for this final marking period, but there has to be a better model, better structure of learning in the fall, if we don’t fully return to in-person classes until next January." AJ: 2)How can these challenges be met with success? If you were meeting the challenges for equity and safe schools for students what would that look like to them in their daily classes? OCHS: There are several ways these challenges can be met with success, which goes beyond things like higher graduation rates. Your second question goes with my first challenge of eliminating all the inequities, and that will only happen with the elimination of hate and biased behavior, decrease in bullying, more support from the very beginning in Pre-K for students of color and with disabilities so you see more of them in AP classes in 12 th grade. And we need more diversity of content in the curriculum so it’s not just guest readers during Black History Month, but our kids learning about both people of color as heroes when studying science or English, along with learning all components of racism and discrimination – not to mention our history of Maryland needs to go beyond just St. Mary’s and English Settlers but learning about our actual local history like the huge influx of Filipinos to support the Navy early in the 20th century or all the barriers Dr. Aris T Allen broke that made him worthy of having 665 named after him. And with teacher retention, it’s not just getting the pay and step increases to keep the stellar teachers we recruit every year, but reducing class size so both teachers and students build stronger relationships. Successful teacher retention also includes respecting teachers of color so they are placed in all subjects and all grade levels instead of stereotyped into certain teaching roles – and properly promoting them within departments or the administration. And if we achieve all of that – true equity, teacher retention and expansive mental health services, we then will have students fully engaged in the classes they deserve to be in, pursuing goals in their life, with teachers who can give them the attention they each deserve. AJ: 3) Why does mental health matter to public schools in Anne Arundel County? What would be your suggestions to help students and even staff.? OCHS: Mental health is probably the most important part in achieving the best education and unfortunately it was a crisis in our public schools long before the COVID-19 shutdown. Just think about anyone’s life – how productive are we at work if dealing with stress or depression? How many days do we delay laundry or cleaning the house if dealing with anxiety or sadness after a traumatic event? So how can our kids be fully attentive in class and completing their assignments if they are dealing with abuse at home or their parent lost their job or they don’t know if they will have dinner, or they have to be the translator for their parents or they were bullied playing Roblox the night before, or they crave routine and the bus route suddenly changed. We need more counselors and we need to remove responsibilities from the counselors’ duties that are not counseling-related. AJ: 4) Why is transportation an issue? What can be done? OCHS: Transportation is another critical issue as the January 2020 report by an outside consultant laid out with 27 recommendations for corrective measures. Buses are late dropping off or picking up kids from school. Some kids who technically are within walk zones face dangerous and/or exhausted routes with no sidewalks or hazardous roads (why are tickets only issued for the speed camera catching cars going a minimum of 52 mph on a 40 mph road next to Annapolis Middle? Not to mention why is a city street like Forest Drive 40mph in the first place?) and tell me how a 6th grader without access to a family car is supposed to carry a cello 1 ½ miles to school? There is no GPS tracking software so parents can’t know if a bus already left a stop early or is running late. And there are no cameras on the buses to help resolvebullying or fights – things the bus driver cannot and should not have to deal with as they are driving. AACPS must check it’s ego at the door and implement all 27 recommendations from the consultant’s report. AJ: 5) What do you see as the strengths of AACPS? Where can the system do better? Do you have any suggestions on how they might do that? OCHS: would not be seeking a seat on the Board of Education if I hadn’t seen so much strength and potential in AACPS from the time I was a student at Hillsmere Elementary. In the 40+ years I have been in Annapolis, I have seen the remarkable teachers AACPS always has had, and what a role model it hasbeen for students on both the state and nation level. I couldn’t be prouder of the fact our student member of the Board has had full voting rights for over 40 years and while I wish we still were the only county in the nation after all these years, we continue to show others how valuable individuals under the age 18 can be as leaders and decision makers. Our student council isn’t about planning proms or graduation, but decades of legislative work and policy decisions at the local and state level, which I can attest to as being CRASC’s Chief Legislative Coordinator for two years in high school and helping to pass the service learning requirement. We also are so lucky to be located where we are, with opportunities to collaborate with the Naval Academy, local colleges, and governments, the cultural arts, and premiere medical institutions in Baltimore and DC. Another critical area AACPS could do better is with students with disabilities. There is no question the special ed teachers and staff care about our kids and are doing everything possible to support them, but there’s not enough to fully address the needs of all our kids with different disabilities. AJ: 6) What problems are peculiar to AACPS and what issues are chronic widespread issues that schools around the country see? OCHS: Equity, mental health, bullying and biased behavior, lack of funding all are things you can find around the country. At the same time how AACPS addresses certain issues is somewhat unique. Case in point equity during the shutdown, AACPS has distributed over 10000 Chromebooks to students and staff, focusing first on one per family before just starting to distribute more upon request as I am talking to you. And they required the majority of people to drive or walk to school locations to pick up the equipment. Other surrounding counties focused on those in immediate need first, going directly to communities where not everyone has a car and giving a Chromebook to each kid in a family, if the family didn’t have enough for everyone. AACPS also circulated a survey beforehand asking what kind of electronic devices families had, not thinking ahead that Google classroom is only fully effective on actual computers/laptops- not iPads or phones, or the fact parents will need to use the computer already at the home, for work. If AACPS had done outreach more like our sister counties, hundreds, thousands of kids would not be catching up all these weeks later. Another example of what makes AACPS different, as has often been talked about, is our county is 3rd in the state for per capita income, yet we pay our teachers such low salaries that many cannot live in our county, or jump to a sister county for an increase of $20,000+. AJ: 7) What are your thoughts on how to best help ESOL students integrate into a successful academic routine? OCHS: We should make sure all ESOL students are properly tested and use those results to understand what they know and need help with. Along the same lines getting to know you activities also will help tailor the best way to help them learn. Just like with any student, if we give ESOL topics they are interested in for reading or writing, they will be more engaged and invested in learning. Integrating more group work can help too, along with making more lessons visual Teachers should also take time to learn about their background without making them feel like they represent everyone in their culture. From my past work fighting slavery of farm workers, I quickly learned not to assume every one from Central or South America can communicate with each other in Spanish, let alone with people in English. Some countries have thousands of individualized dialects, and so we as Americans cannot just assume everyone from a certain country comes from the same culture. We also need to understand family dynamics and increase outreach, especially if online learning continues into the fall. We are making too much assumptions that parents will help their kids at home, but I have seen too many stories on social media of families where the 12 year old is helping the 10-year-old because the parents cannot understand the lessons in Google classroom. AJ: 8) Why did you choose to teach? What do you like about it? OCHS: Although I am not a teacher by profession, “teaching”, or helping others learn or understand new things has always been part of my character, starting with conducting my first workshop to a Girl Scout troop on the Eastern Shore when I was 11 and giving my first “lecture” to grades 1-6 at a school in Baltimore when I was 12. Since then I spent over 30 years conducting different workshops, webinars, leadership forums on all different issues and to different audiences- whether it was a lecture on human rights and disabilities before 800 people in Canada, a workshop on juvenile detention reform with 20 people at a national conference, hosting lunch sessions at work on stress or fitness, facilitating a day long training with other students from the Maryland Association of Student Councils to prepare them to lead groups during Legislative Day when I was 17, or talking to 18 four year-olds in my son’s daycare about diversity and differences – and each time it just brought out my passion in storytelling and connecting with people and seeing that I got through to at least one person. But one of my most gratifying moments in life was when actually teaching a law class to high school seniors during my last year in law school. It wasn’t just about finally being able to develop creative ways to teach the lessons, or even the joy haring my passion for law with others, but seeing the kids dig deep inside of them when discussing the impact of discrimination, or seeing them use critical thinking when working on their final case projects, when I was able to get them invested in thinking of different sides of a legal argument on “fun” cases like the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Not to mention, if I may go back to my first lecture at age 12, the letters the students wrote to me from that school in Baltimore – which I still have to this day – help motivate myself knowing what I say to others, whether in a lecture or just sharing one on one, makes an impact and can motivate people to make an impact on others too. AJ: 9) Why do you want to be on the BOE? Why should someone vote for you? OCHS: In all honesty, my whole life has prepared me to be on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. I vowed back in elementary school to support our public schools for the rest of my life because I felt so lucky to have the teachers and education I was exposed to at Hillsmere Elementary and I have been officially advocating for AACPS since I was in 8th grade, and now as a parent with a 4th grader at Hillsmere. I know how great AACPS can be, and I want that experience for my son and all our kids. I know I bring the whole package to District 6, with my background in law and policy, 30+ years public speaking and educating diverse audiences, and the unique perspective seeing both the brilliance and inequity in the AACPS system as the only candidate who is a product and parent of Annapolis schools and has the most advocacy experience for AACPS in District 6. I also bring the most experience on Board of Director functions, ethics, and fiscal responsibility, with being the president of six very different local, national and international Boards of Directors, including two terms as PTA President at Hillsmere. Of equal importance, this is a historic election with county residents finally having a voice in who will represent us on the Board. I have been “first” in all I do, whether it was due to my speech disability (e.g., first student that can’t talk to be in drama and debate classes, first attorney to use a speech generating device in a courtroom) or the numerous nonprofits and projects I have successfully started from the ground up – and I believe being the first elected to the Board of Education will set the example for ALL our residents – young and old – that we all have a voice and anything is possible. Not to mention if elected, I will join the likes of our student member with full voting rights by being the first member of any Board of Education in the nation (maybe the world) with a speech disability (who isn’t deaf). But at the end of the day, I will go back to the quote I used earlier about how important it is for people to know you care about them. It’s not my experience or skill that should be the primary reason to vote for me, but seeing my lifetime record of caring about our public schools and community, especially within the Annapolis area. Trust and honesty have always been the core of who I am, and I want people to know that will remain my priority while on the Board- and so they should vote for me knowing they are investing in someone fully invested in them and their needs and dreams, someone who will not waver to ensure equity is more than just a slogan and securing the best high quality education for all our kids and support for our teachers, and someone who will continue to build trust with our kids and community to achieve such success.