Two Educators Compete To Represent Southeastern San Diego On School Board
The school year is winding down for 130,000 students in the San Diego Unified School District, but a race for the District E seat on the school board is just getting started.
The candidate who wins the District E seat will represent the neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego, where 45 of the district's schools are. The area's former trustee, Marne Foster, resigned in February after pleading guilty to receiving financial gifts over the legal limit.
The school board appointed Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, 65, to finish Foster’s term, which ends in December. Whitehurst-Payne hopes to continue on by winning the four-year term.
“I am a competent knowledgeable individual who has experience beyond any candidate,” said Whitehurst-Payne, who was recruited right out of Duke University to be a teacher in the San Diego Unified School District. She was 21 at the time.
In her 31-year teaching career in the district, she taught math at Roosevelt Middle School and O’Farrell and Mission Bay high schools. She also was a college administrator at California State University San Marcos for 10 years. She holds a doctorate in education leadership from UCLA.
During her first three months as interim trustee, Whitehurst-Payne said she has visited every campus in her district. She wants to see more people volunteering in their neighborhood schools.
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics, Duke University; doctorate in education leadership, UCLA
Career: Interim trustee with the San Diego Unified School Board; former teacher and consultant with the district for more than three decades
"I operate from a model of, let’s work together," Whitehurst-Payne said. "Let’s stop so much rhetoric and loud talking and sit down and ask ourselves, 'What can I do? I have a role.' Whatever your position is: parent, community person — you have a role to play. Do it."
Her challenger is LaShae Collins, 35, an adjunct professor at San Diego State University and district director for state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego.
“I really think that I’m the person that can bring some different views to the board in the way that the system should operate, especially because I have children and they’re going through the process,” said Collins, who was raised in southeastern San Diego and graduated from Lincoln High School.
Collins’ two children are students in District E schools, where she has served on the Parent Teacher Association. She holds a master’s degree from San Diego State University, where she is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership.
Family: Married with two children
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in education, San Diego State University; doctoral candidate in educational leadership, SDSU
Career: Adjunct professor at SDSU; district director for Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego
Hobbies: Playing piano, dancing, family time
“It has become clear that our school system is at a major major crossroad,” Collins said. “Parents and community members are having a hard time navigating our system, and the focus has actually shifted from the needs of our children to the ones of adults.”
Many of the students in District E come from low-income, minority families. The persistent achievement gap remains a top issue in the area. Economically disadvantaged African-American students consistently test lower than their peers. At Crawford High School, for example, 85 percent of 11th grade African-American students last year tested below average in math, compared to 31 percent of all students districtwide.
“It’s very difficult for me to understand why it is we can’t get it right about African-American children,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “Because I went to an all black school, K through 12, as a child in Virginia in the South, and we achieved. It was assumed that we would achieve, and we did.”
Whitehurst-Payne is passionate about closing the achievement gap by drastically increasing resources and programs to those who are struggling.
“If you’re ... giving all of the children the same treatment, then you’re not going to decrease the gap,” she said. “You have to do something more for the group that’s lowest."
She said music and art are examples of programs that are lacking. "We have not been getting our fair share of music support," Whitehurst-Payne said. "So they’re addressing that for the fall. They’ve promised me."
Collins said fixing the achievement gap will take one-on-one intervention.
“Relationships are key,” Collins said. “I’m looking at it more as an attitude gap. When you can change the attitude of our students and with the people who are interacting with our students, you can change a number of things. They will push harder because someone else is behind them supporting them.”
She said she doesn't accept the idea that because District E is a "predominantly low-income area it’s going to be harder to educate these kids."
A looming teacher shortage is another top concern. Both candidates support high school career pathways and grow-your-own teacher preparation models, which encourage and support youth to go into teaching in their own communities.
“So start identifying kids who want to go into this particular field and get them locked into those proper college courses and start preparing them for that,” Collins said. “That will be one way to help because this shortage is going to continue.”
Whitehurst-Payne wants to reinstate a paid internship program that she started in the 1990s to strengthen and diversify the teaching force with people looking for a career change.
She said the district could focus on individuals “who are finished with one career or who think that they’d like to offer 10 to 15 years of good service.” If they have bachelor's degrees, they could become teachers, she said.
"We can get them trained as an intern teacher and bring them on board,” Whitehurst-Payne said.
Both candidates said they were inspired to become educators at a young age. Collins was in junior high when she said she transformed her garage into a summer school classroom for neighborhood kids.
“And parents, literally, they brought their kids over and I made lunch and everything,” Collins said. “That’s when I realized my overall passion for education.”
Whitehurst-Payne’s inspiration came from her mother, who would cry as a child when school buses passed by and she had to stay home to pick strawberries.
“And she decided that her daughters were going to go to school and did everything she could to ensure that we did,” said Whitehurst-Payne, who was the second of four girls.
Both candidates will be on the June 7 ballot in the District E neighborhoods. They will both advance to the general election in November regardless of whether one candidate wins an overwhelming majority in June. The vote in November will be citywide.