Bringing an Educator’s Perspective to the School Board
A Q&A with Dr. Mayra Gomez, an administrator in West Linn-Wilsonville School District who is also a board member in Gresham-Barlow
The role of a school board is to work alongside the district administration to set priorities, develop a plan of action, and gain community buy-in for the district’s beliefs. In national education coverage, school boards don’t often get the same attention as the educators in their districts, but they are powerful advocates for all children in the community, and having a strong board makes a significant difference for students and educators.
It’s important for a district’s superintendent and other administrators to maintain a productive working relationship with board members. This is not present in every district, yet it’s an element that provides the necessary foundation for success across all schools. The Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon, led by Superintendent Dr. A. Katrise Perera, is one place you’ll find an example of a school board and administration whose open communication and strong relationships are benefitting learners.
Dr. Mayra Gomez, who became a board member in the district in 2018, is someone who brings a needed perspective to leadership. Dr. Gomez, who is currently the board’s Vice-Chair, is an educator in her own right: she is the Director of College and Career Readiness in the nearby West Linn-Wilsonville School District. As the only educator on the Gresham-Barlow board, she has an invaluable approach to understanding the challenges and opportunities in a district. In this Q&A, we had a chance to gain some of Dr. Gomez’s insights on district leadership, the role of the school board, and to learn why it’s worthwhile to have educators in the mix.
Q: What were the motivating factors that led you to run for a school board seat?
Dr. Gomez: It was a combination of experiences, starting with my background as a high school student of color in Oregon, and then my later experience of being a teacher in the district. I would hear how students of color today are feeling the same things I’d felt years earlier. Additionally, talking with my colleagues of color, we sometimes felt invisible, marginalized, and powerless to speak up for our students.
All of these factors motivated me to move into administration. To increase my circle of influence, I started as a building administrator. I soon realized there were constraints due to policies that were in place, which at the time limited my ability to achieve all of my objectives. This ultimately led me to look more deeply into what a school board does.
I happened to simultaneously be a chair for a non-profit in Gresham, Oregon. As part of my role, I reached out for an interview with Oregon State Representative Carla Piluso, a stakeholder for the non-profit. I asked her to share how she balanced being a state representative and a school board member. Through our subsequent communication, I learned there was an opening on the school board, and the rest is history.
Q: Now that you’re on the board, how are you helping to support Gresham-Barlow’s focus on access and opportunity?
Dr. Gomez: We have a large refugee population in our district, so equity and access are key focus areas that we always keep in mind. Our objective is to take community voices into account when we make policy. As an example, we are reviewing our current volunteer policy that requires a background check from a third-party agency. Families are required to give a social security number to go through the check process. Unfortunately, this policy creates a barrier for some families. As school board members, we need to examine how we can eliminate this barrier while keeping student safety in mind. Reminding school leadership that even having a state ID requires legal status, and this can be a significant barrier because we have a large number of mixed-status families.
ELL and AVID teachers form close relationships with students to make them feel safe, supported, and informed without disclosing information that makes them uncomfortable. For instance, the state of Oregon has a tuition equity policy that makes any student who graduates from an Oregon high school eligible for state financial aid. But often students and parents don’t know about the policy, so it’s important for the district to make them aware.
As a first generation Mexican-American, I have a strong motivation when it comes to equity. Both my parents were born in Mexico and grew up without formal education, and I’m the first of 39 grandkids to attend college. I take access and opportunity very seriously.
Q: How can the school board work productively with administrators and families in a multicultural district?
Dr. Gomez: Parent empowerment is essential; not just inviting parents to attend meetings, but really giving them space to express their needs and values. There is a tendency to ask the parent to assimilate to administration rather than the other way around. There needs to be a change in this area.
In Gresham-Barlow, our bilingual and bicultural communication advocate helps to keep information flowing between school and families, no matter family background. Every school board communication gets translated into a variety of languages.
When it comes to board meetings, unfortunately, they are not always an easy method of feedback for all families. For example, we had a safety meeting where we were sharing information about new safety procedures in schools. We had an interpreter for the families who didn’t speak English. But the families just listened. They didn’t express opinions or speak. I knew they had something to say, but the format was uncomfortable. As a school board member, it’s important to determine if there could be resources available to conduct individual meetings just in Spanish, Russian, and so on. Multiple sessions would allow for greater sharing and impact. Moving away from the classic PowerPoint discussion led in English with translators needs to be examined.
I’m interested in learning how other school boards go about this issue of communication. In my role as an administrator, I am able to have lots of one-on-ones with families, but as a school board member that isn’t the case. I’d like to see that change.
Q: What are a couple ways the school board can ensure money is used most effectively?
Dr. Gomez: Budget is a big deal, but it’s not just about adopting the most affordable resources. It’s about using the most effective curriculum that reflects the stories of the students. We have been implementing 9th grade credit whole initiatives. The process makes sure that students remain on track to develop career and technical programs while increasing graduation rates with equity always in mind.
We are intentional with hiring, FTEs, and starting new programs. We project ahead to predict the outcomes, and who will be affected, trying to avoid just perpetuating the status quo when allocating funding.
Q: What are some of your objectives for Gresham-Barlow over the next few years and how can the school board support this vision?
Dr. Gomez: As the only educator on the board, my goal is to recruit at least two more people that bring different perspectives. I want to leave at least two more in my place. I want different views to balance the vote. I wish to share my experience with other people to let them know that it’s not as intimidating or as difficult as it sounds, and encourage others to run for the board and bring needed perspectives. I also want to support Dr. Perera in recruiting a representative staff.
As a teacher, I noticed only a few staff members of color in the past and want to continue my support for minority teachers and school board members. We are starting a Grow Your Own program this summer with Time-Warner Pacific that is aligned with Career and Technical Education programs. It helps support students and classified teachers who are interested in becoming administrators.
Race should not be a determinant for academic achievement, so helping close the gap through various initiatives is part of the program. Being intentional with what we are approving in the budget is a major part of the plan.
- edCircuit – A School Board’s Role in Providing Access and Opportunity for Students
- The Learning Counsel – Leadership Equity: Q and A with Superintendent Dr. A. Katrise Perera, Gresham-Barlow Schools
- National School Boards Association – No Place Like Home