South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Sandra Karriem knows where the schools have been and what direction they’re headed in now.
Karriem, who is running on a slate with Andrea Wren-Hardin, has lived in the community for 22 years, long enough for her children to go from kindergarten through high school in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and on to college.
Education excellence is important not only to students and parents in the two towns, she said, but any property owners and anyone interested in keeping the community viable.
“The schools don’t serve all the kids well. We stress the value of education but we need more kids to benefit from a great education. I’m proud of the work we've achieved in the school district but there’s a lot of work left to be done,” she said. “I would like to continue working on the programs and initiatives we started. I’m excited about the progress we've made with closing the achievement gap.”
Not 'De-leveling' But 'Access for All to a Quality Education'
One of the hot-button issues in the district is leveling. Karriem voted to de-level 7th grade science, social studies and English language arts last spring, combing Levels 3 and 4 into one level. Karriem said she wants all children in the district to succeed.
“The way I look at it, I try not to speak of terms of leveling and de-leveling. I want all our children to have access to a quality education,” she said. “It’s clear the current system is not working properly when the lower levels are mostly filled with kids of color,” she said. “My kids were in Level 4 and back then I was one of the only parents of color in those classes at back-to-school night. It didn't make sense to me. We must make change.”
Karriem wants to increase access to higher level courses for all students, which means implementing some structural changes.
“Changing levels is not in and of itself an answer,” she said. “We have to have certain fundamentals in place. We must make sure rigorous standards-based curriculum is in place. We need to make sure all the kids are receiving the kind of education they should be getting.”
Karriem said the board has accomplished a lot by improving the English language arts (ELA) curriculum and communications with the community, by closing the achievement gap, by providing more teacher support and evaluations, by providing programs for struggling students and more opportunities for enrichment, and by implementing universal full-day kindergarten.
“Our new language arts curriculum is vast improvement over what we had before,” she said. “It’s imperative we develop a rigorous standards base. The new teacher evaluation system will make a vast difference in how we develop and provide them support to be better teachers.”
Communication with the community, in part, is the key to success, she said.
“I believe we're making improvements in the way we communicate with the community and with parents: We’ve revamped the website, Brian Osborne delivers a comprehensive state of the schools address, we have workshops, an e-newsletter and Power School, which enables to the ability to communicate with parents,” she said.
Additionally, “We’re sending out surveys, beginning to get on Twitter. We still don't have the level of participation that we'd like,” she said. “I want to help parents be better advocates for our kids. We have expanded intervention programs. We've also implemented programs to expand after-school programs, to help prepare them for success in next step. And, test scores show we're making strides in the closing the achievement gaps.”
Karriem is also proud of the budget the board adopted this year. “This board adopted a fiscally responsible budget to move us forward in the district,” she said. “Since I've been on the board, we’ve had a low tax impact every year. We have to be responsible to the needs of our taxpayers.”
Karriem and her husband and two children moved 22 years ago to Maplewood where they lived for 10 years before moving to South Orange, where they’ve lived for 12 years. An active volunteer and member of Prospect Presbyterian Church, she has also served as President or Executive Board member of the PTAs and HSAs of the schools her children attended, as board member and President of the Achieve Foundation (then known as the South Orange-Maplewood Education Foundation or “SOMEF”), as a board member of the YMCA, and since late 2007, as a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
“I love the diversity of the community. I can’t think of any place else I would like to live,” she said. “I’ve been deeply involved in the community because it’s a community worth celebrating.”
Karriem was born in Jamaica and came to the United States when she was 12. She attended the Bronx High School of Science, then later Princeton University, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her law degree from Columbia University in 1983.
Karriem works as the in-house counsel for Panasonic Corporation of North America, which gives her expertise in the areas of contract negotiations, real estate transactions, bankruptcy and secured transactions, she said. She also serves as Corporate Secretary of the Panasonic Foundation to help reform K-12 public schools.
The Last Word
As a parent, she was always an advocate for her own children, who both graduated from Columbia High School — one went on to graduate from Princeton and the other is currently attending Pomona College in California..
“I felt I had to be involved at all times,” she said. “Even parents who are professionals and sophisticated can find that challenging. It’s not always that easy. I believe you have to stay involved at each level — make sure the schools are responsive to your child’s needs.”
Find out more about Karriem and her running mate Andrea Wren-Hardin at http://www.karriemwren-hardin.org/