It has been an eventful eight-plus years on the Piedmont Unified School District Board of Education for Sarah Pearson and Andrea Swenson. The pair helped oversee a period of both change and continued academic success since being first elected in February 2012.
“I think the main thing that I’m proud of is the relative stability the district has had,” Pearson said. “It feels like every year we were tightening our belts. When I came on the board at first, it was ‘don’t expand the footprint’ — just try to maintain the programs we have every year.”
Said Swenson, “When I was board president, I asked for a master facilities plan and we went through a lot of work for that. We ended up passing a bond which was a lot of work.”
Both expressed pride at the progress in the district and optimism that their replacements will do well into the future. Veronica Anderson Thigpen and Hilary Cooper will take their seats in December. Pearson and Swenson participated in their final regularly schedule Board of Education meeting on November 10.
Pearson and Swenson at a variety of public functions over the last 8 years
The immediate priority for the new board is the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and how soon children will be able to return to school. The issue is extremely complicated. Some students have struggled with online learning. The virus has killed over a quarter of a million Americans and some teachers have an elevated health risk.
“The two new board members coming in during the midst of the pandemic, that’s going to be really hard,” Swenson said. “We just don’t want anybody to get sick. But, if all you ever worry about is whether somebody gets sick, you’d never open up again. Even if you follow all the rules, it’s not totally risk free.”
“A bunch of our teachers are scared, much as they should be. There has been very little national guidance on this and the state has punted everything to our counties. And it’s hard. Piedmont might be the first district in the county to send kids back to school.”
She added that this time of year may create more danger.
“My husband works for Kaiser Permanente where the numbers of hospitalizations are going up,” she said. “We’re trying to tell our parents, ‘Don’t travel, don’t go anywhere during Thanksgiving or Christmas.’”
Pearson said, “I think the main issue we have right now is morale. It’s so challenging with COVID — trying to make the plans to let kids go back into school … when it’s a frightening time to think of doing anything in an indoor space.”
Both celebrated the focus of the district on student wellness. Pearson said finding balance for students in what can be a high-pressure environment that demands high achievement is key.
“People who choose to live here are often making sacrifices to live here,” she said. “I think the ideal situation is when kids feel internally driven and internally motivated. I know that’s one thing the schools have worked on.”
She added, “To me what’s important is that every student matters. I like the idea that all of our kids (are) making progress every year. All of them are moving forward. It’s not perfect, but I feel like we have done a pretty good job of being able to provide a pretty rich experience for most of our learners.”
Pearson added that addressing student stress was also important. “Are we demanding too much of our students? Do you not offer AP classes and instead offer honors classes? Do you remove the grade bump? We had a great workshop with teachers, community members and students, getting feedback from all different segments from our community [on this topic.].”
Post-COVID-19, there will be more challenges for the district. Sometimes, there’s nothing that can prepare you for those.
“I think we’re poised to do really well,” Swenson said. “(However), we’re dealing with some things that everybody is dealing with: budgets, teacher shortages. The teacher shortage is hitting Piedmont. We’re going to have to figure out a way to pay our teachers well.”
“Piedmont has always been able to help itself. We’re fine, but there are just longer term structural issues that are going to have to be addressed statewide and nationally,” she said.
Pearson would like to see the curriculum expanded.“For example, we have a lot of offerings in science and now in computer science. We have some wonderful electives in social studies. We have a really strong English department. I think it would be great if we could have more humanities, philosophy, poetry.”
“I would have been interested in seeing where health ed and the more social emotional curriculum could be either integrated into existing curriculum or more leadership courses.”
What’s the best advice for Anderson Thigpen, Cooper and the rest of the board?
“One of the things I realized on the board, even though we had goals and priorities and we tried to keep actions in line with the goals and priorities, every year something unexpected comes up,” Pearson said.
This year, that was more true than ever.