On Wednesday night, the Bend-La Pine Schools community learned all about the philosophies and goals of two educators — one of whom will likely be the district’s superintendent by July.
In Bend-La Pine’s online Q&A session with the two superintendent finalists, Kristina Bellamy and Steven Cook, the duo were asked questions about COVID-19 learning loss, equity and reopening schools. The candidates, who both presented themselves in an affable, upbeat fashion, also briefly spoke about themselves and their goals.
The two sessions were moderated by local teacher Naomi Sugimoto Crummett. Eleven community members — including parents, school staffers, community activists and a third-grader — joined the virtual chat to ask their questions directly to the finalists.
These are summaries of the two separate sessions.
Bellamy — currently the director of K-12 teaching and learning in Anchorage School District in Alaska — began her session by noting that her pronouns were she and her. She did this to be inclusive for all those viewing, she said.
“You are welcome to be who you are,” Bellamy said. “Together, we create space for each other.”
Inclusivity was one of Bellamy’s self-stated core values, along with service and excellence. The latter goal isn’t just about kids getting As, but also about the school district serving students using the best possible methods, she said.
“This is about being critical of our current systems and processes,” Bellamy said. “That is the crux of excellence. That breeds innovation, and innovation is so imperative.”
Bellamy repeatedly stressed the importance of inventive, collaborative solutions when asked about elementary literacy rates and recouping learning loss from children learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“How willing are we to reshape the box so we can get a different result for our kids?” Bellamy said.
Bellamy also brought up the 50 community organizations and non-profits she collaborates with in Anchorage, as well as groups she worked with when founding a charter school in Tacoma, Washington in 2013. Teaming up with outside organizations is crucial, she said.
“Education was never intended … to be done in isolation,” Bellamy said. “It was always a community event.”
When asked about how she would address racial and LGBTQ discrimination in Central Oregon, Bellamy said she would prioritize having tough conversations about those topics with students and the community.
“It’s not comfortable. It does not feel good. (But) we have to do it,” she said. “Our kids cannot wait.”
When asked how she feels about reopening schools during the pandemic, Bellamy said there isn’t a perfect decision. But everyone in the community — including those whose voices might not normally be heard — should be included in that conversation, she added.
In particular, Bellamy singled out concern for students living in multi-generational homes, being raised by grandparents who would be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“If we send kids back to school, what is our liability or responsibility to those families around potential exposure and sickness?” she said.
At the start of his session, Cook — currently the superintendent of Coeur D’Alene Public Schools in Idaho — touted his problem-solving abilities and tenacity.
“I’m willing to jump into just about any situation, get in up my elbows and get dirty,” he said.
Cook said his main goals as an educator are to champion diversity and equity, emphasize collaboration and build strong connections with students.
“If you want to hold kids to high expectations, you need to have great relationships with kids,” he said. “If you invest in students, they’ll walk through walls for you.”
When asked about elementary reading literacy, Cook said he believes having more diverse characters in books could help students from underprivileged backgrounds learn to read. That will create a passion for learning, he said.
“We’ve got to make sure we have books students can relate to,” Cook said. “There has to be a plethora of choices to make sure kids can see themselves in the books they’re reading.”
Cook responded to a question about COVID-19 learning loss by pointing out that certain students will return to school further ahead in their learning than others, depending on their home environment.
“How do we close those gaps without sacrificing high achievements for every kid?” he said.
Like Bellamy, Cook said he was unable to give a decisive answer about reopening schools.
“It’s tough to answer that question and say, ‘We’re back in school May 1,’” he said. “I wish it were that easy.”