The four applicants vying for a vacant position on the Christina School Board made their cases Tuesday night for why they are best suited for the job.
In the running are Naveed Baqir, a software developer and community activist; Katie Gifford, an associate policy scientist at the University of Delaware; Tim Kim, assistant director of student life for UD’s English Language Institute; and Claire O’Neal, a visiting assistant professor at UD and president of the Newark High School PTA.
During a public meeting in Bear, the four spent 90 minutes answering questions from current board members.
The board will vote Oct. 8 to appoint one of the applicants to serve until the next school board election in May 2020. Then, voters will select someone to serve the remaining four years of the vacant term.
The vacancy was caused by the resignation of Catherine Hegedus, who quit the board just minutes after being sworn in July 9.
Hegedus, who ousted two-term incumbent John Young in May, announced during her campaign that she would not be able to serve should she be elected, due to family health issues that arose after the filing deadline passed. However, Hegedus decided to leave her name on the ballot to give voters a choice. Had she dropped out, the election would have been canceled, and Young would have automatically received a third term.
Voters weren’t deterred by the unusual circumstances, electing Hegedus by a landslide. The election saw the highest turnout for a Christina board election in the last 10 years, with Hegedus earning the most votes of any single candidate in that time frame.
Board President Meredith Griffin said that regardless of who is chosen, the district is already a winner because there are four dedicated, highly qualified applicants seeking to make a difference.
“This really does bode well for the future of our district,” Griffin said.
Baqir, a 41-year-old resident of the Westover Woods neighborhood, talked about his humble upbringing in Pakistan and said he wants to serve on the board to provide Christina’s students the resources he didn’t have growing up.
“Every single student who goes to the Christina School District is my child, and I can see the potential in those children that even their birth parents may not be able to see,” Baqir said. “That’s why I want to make sure all of those children have the resources that they need, and their teachers have the resources, so they can make sure that those children are able to achieve their God-given potential.”
Baqir was an elementary school teacher in Pakistan and has also taught at UD and other universities. He also served as a founding board member of the Tarbiyah Islamic School of Delaware.
His ultimate goal, he said, is to make sure teachers feel more valued.
“Give them the respect we give our soldiers and pay them like we pay our doctors,” he said.
Baqir said he can use his relationships in the community to win Christina the support of traditionally disenfranchised populations.
“I want to be a trailblazer,” he said. “I want to make sure any other brown, yellow or red kid in the district tomorrow does not have any problems standing up and offering solutions.”
Gifford, 41, of Devon, said one of the issues facing education in Delaware is fragmentation, pointing out that any one neighborhood has kids who attend a wide variety of traditional, charter and private schools.
“I think that’s really a lost opportunity for building community,” she said. “Let’s work toward making the traditional feeder schools people’s first choice instead of what they do if they can’t get into charter or choice or a private school.”
She speaks from experience, as her son once attended West Park Place Elementary before she had him transferred to the private Newark Center for Creative Learning due to dissatisfaction with a since-rescinded policy prohibiting parents from opting their children out of state assessments.
Gifford said Christina should consider consolidating grade levels in its schools, such as creating buildings that house kindergarten through eighth grade or sixth through 12 grade. The biggest enrollment drop-offs come when students are switching schools, she said.
“You might retain more of those students and have them in the same building for a longer time and be able to have multi-grade participation in some of these programs. The arts and music are especially suited to that.”
If appointed to the board, she plans to engage constituents with regular email updates and meet-and-greet events.
“I’d really like to be part of strengthening the district for the future,” she said.
Kim, 36-year-old resident of Brookside, said he often gets a negative reaction when he tells people he graduated from Glasgow High School.
“They make a face every time, like, ‘Wow you survived,’” Kim said. “That’s terrible. We had a great experience at Glasgow.”
He said the district needs to focus on changing its public perception by doing a better job telling its story.
“We’re going to have to get creative. Storytelling is not a simple thing. We might have to dedicate resources to crafting that message well and getting it out there,” Kim said. “That enthusiasm can change everything. It’s been tough recently, but it can change and be a source of strength and pride.”
He said the district needs to focus on improving and modernizing the way it approaches teaching in the high schools.
“The world is changing extremely rapidly. Higher education is working very hard to keep up with it,” Kim said. “We’re facing a reality we cannot even imagine, and we’re still preparing our students with a 20th-century mindset.”
He added that Christina should adopt a curriculum with more creative, autonomous learning that goes beyond just preparing students for college and also teaches them how to be “an effective citizen.”
O’Neal, a 40-year-old resident of Devon, said both her sons attend Christina schools – Shue-Medill Middle School and Newark High School – and that she has been involved with the PTA for a number of years. She was one of several district parents who spoke out prior to the May election, saying that the district needed a change from Young and urging voters to vote for Hegedus so the board could appoint a new member.
She said Christina’s biggest challenge is a lack of communication, noting that she spent a lot of time campaigning in support of the district’s referendum in May and found many people were misinformed about the district.
Changing the perception of Christina is crucial to its success, she said.
“My primary goal as a board member would be to reach out and communicate with our constituents and our stakeholders about all of the wonderful opportunities that await all children at Christina School District traditional public schools,” O’Neal said. “That’s how our communities grow and that’s how our communities blossom – by having a greater number of families stay in the district as opposed to choice out of the district.”
Still, she said, there are promising signs for Christina, such as news that enrollment is up this year at Newark High and Shue-Medill Middle.
“I think the Christina School District’s stature is on the up and up,” she said.
O’Neal said that her deep involvement in the school district as a parent and volunteer makes her an ideal candidate to serve on the board.
“I’m somebody who’s already familiar with the district, with district issues, district politics, building issues, and who also is a stalwart supporter of the district,” she said.