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Lawrence school board candidates address issues ahead of Nov. 6 election

The eight candidates running for four seats on the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education in the Nov. 6 election come from diverse backgrounds, but most agree the district should tweak the curriculum to prepare students for life after high school, whether they go to college or go to work.

The candidates addressed that issue and several others in questions posed to them by the League of Women Voters through its online “Vote411 Voters Guide.” The questions ranged from how to improve the curriculum to their thoughts on school safety and security, especially given the recent addition of armed police officers in the schools.

Incumbent board members JoAnn Groeger, Joyce Scott, and Kevin Van Hise are seeking re-election to three-year terms, and incumbent board member Dana Drake is seeking to fill an unexpired term that will end in 2021.

Groeger, Scott and Van Hise are being challenged by Tam Ngo, Jennifer Perry and Keva Stewart. Drake is being challenged by Becky DiPierro.

Asked about changes to the curriculum that would improve it and prepare students for the future, Groeger and Drake emphasized working with vocational-technical schools to develop programs for non-college bound students. Citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Drake said some of the fastest-growing occupations require little or no college education.

Ngo suggested forming partnerships with technology companies and research centers in the area to provide workshops and school-year internships to give students experiences that would help them plan for their future.

Scott agreed that working with small businesses and corporations to provide internships would be helpful to increase students’ exposure to real world work experiences.

Perry called for balancing preparing students academically and preparing them socially and emotionally. Students know how to use technology, but their interpersonal skills are lacking, she said.

“The curriculum we use should be a means to encourage this kind of learning, too,” she added.

DiPierro said “basic life skills are an important piece most of our schools miss. School-wide social skills at the elementary level, executive function at the intermediate level and personal finance skills at the high school level (should be taught).”

Van Hise would like to focus on increasing students’ logical reasoning skills and writing skills, as well as adding courses that teach life skills, such as budgeting and personal finance, vocational skills and business interactions.

Stewart believes teaching technology should begin at the elementary school level. To compensate for the lack of access to technology in some homes, a partnership could be formed with the public library system to offer an after-school enrichment program that provides access to computer classes, she said.

On the topic of adding a school resource officer (SRO) and two Class III special law enforcement officers in the schools, there was some agreement, but with nuances. The positions were added in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The SRO is a Lawrence Township police officer. The Class III special officers are recently retired police officers now employed by the police department. All have received special training and all carry a gun.

DiePierro and Ngo do not disagree with placing the officers in the schools, but they suggested the officers’ duties need to be clarified, with input from parents and the community.

Groeger, Drake, Scott, Perry, Steward and Van Hise support the decision to place the officers at Lawrence High School, Lawrence Middle School and Lawrence Intermediate School.

“With the addition of the officers, another layer of protection and a sense of security has been added. Our teachers can focus on teaching and our students can focus on learning,” Drake said.

Stewart agreed the armed officers offer another layer of protection and suggested holding a school-wide assembly to introduce the officers to the students “as our protectors, rather than simply someone with a gun.” It would be less frightening for the children, the candidate said.

Acknowledging the disagreement in some parts of the community over placing armed officers in the schools, Perry said, “I do believe it could have been communicated differently by both the district as well as by those who opposed it.”

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