Questions for School Committee Candidates: Evelyn Gomez

Editor’s Note: Next week the town will go to vote on a number of issues including two seats on Belmont’s School Committee. Earlier this month, Blogging Belmont sent questionnaires to the five candidates for those two positions with a number of questions that we felt were important for voters to understand candidates’ positions on before they vote. This week, we’ll be publishing the responses we received, highlighting one candidate each day and posting their responses as received.

Our second response is from School Committee Candidate Evelyn Gomez. Evelyn is a current Belmont School Committee member, having been appointed to fill a vacated seat. She’s running for a full, three year term on the Committee. Evelyn is a three year resident of Belmont and an Invention Education Coordinator at the Lemelson-MIT Program. Her campaign website is here.


Click on the links below to jump to the question.

Many parents are unhappy with the Belmont schools this year because of Covid-19. What would you say to them? 

Evelyn Gomez, Belmont School Committee
Evelyn is a Belmont School Committee member running for re-election.

This year was hard! We experienced the most disruptive public health and public education crisis the nation has seen in generations. Let’s be generous in our understanding of everyone’s efforts to get through this year. As a school committee, we did the best we could with the constantly evolving information available to us at the time and the real-world constraints of our schools: overcrowding, high teacher to student ratios, 100+ fewer full time employees, and over $10 million in funding in comparison to peer districts. Teachers did the best they could after being asked to change their teaching practices overnight, and they did an admirable job. Mistakes were made and we learned from those mistakes to finish the year stronger than we started. 

This pandemic has shown us the cracks in our society. We rely on schools for childcare, education, socioemotional support, and so much more. We must fund our schools fully to achieve these goals.

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What can be done to improve things in BPS in the remainder of this year? How about next year?

We need to focus on making amazing memories for our students. In 50 years they will not remember the number of minutes they spent in each class; they will not remember how they “fell behind academically.” They will remember the joy of being together and connecting with other humans after a year of isolation. We are moving in the right direction by prioritizing bonding with teachers, socially distant gatherings for kids, and celebrating their successes. 

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Some say – rightly or wrongly – that the School Committee doesn’t know how to work with the Belmont Education Association (BEA) to improve schooling during the pandemic. How would you work with the BEA?

Since my time on the BSC, I have been a part of union negotiations. I have seen a big evolution in the relationship between the SC/SD and the BEA. This Fall, at the height of the reopening debate, I saw a lot of fear on both sides of the negotiating table. That fear led to mistrust and people not always assuming best intentions. However, in the past couple of months, I have seen an improvement in this relationship. Meetings are more cordial and it is clear that both parties are willing to give a little on their priorities for the benefit of the kids.

I would attribute this improvement to a building of trust. As an SC, we have made an effort to highlight all the ways in which we support our teachers. We followed many of the recommendations of BECA as an action step toward becoming an anti-racist district.

One solution to keep this relationship evolving in a positive direction is to make sure at least one SC member is a part of the Joint Labor Management meetings with the BEA members and school administration. These conversations are more informal and allow us to hear directly from more BEA members about their concerns. Understanding why the BEA is holding strong for a particular issue is imperative to finding a workable solution. It also allows us to identify when the BEA is not in alignment with their membership, which has happened this year.
We also need to help eliminate the narrative that the union is separate from our teachers. Our community has deep respect for our teachers, but somehow that respect does not translate to respect for the union. We have an important task in building our schools back better than before, and we cannot do this without our amazing teachers and the union.

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Many children are experiencing setbacks in their education this year and the learning deficits could be long lasting. What should the School Committee do?

I would say that our kids are resilient! They will have opportunities to learn what they need to learn. Our teachers are amazing, too! While they might be teaching in a different way this year, they are still teaching the standards that they normally would. They are in constant communication with each other about setbacks to the curriculum so that these can be revisited at another time. Teachers will have to spiral back to re-teach concepts next year, just as they always do.

Kids can be made to feel as though they are falling behind, or they can be made to feel empowered that they continue to learn despite the global pandemic that has uprooted our lives.

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On a per pupil basis, Belmont ranks near the bottom in the state for spending on our schools and for numbers of teachers. Do you consider that a problem that needs to be addressed? If not, why? If so, how do you plan to fix it?

Despite the lean budget, most students have done considerably well by standardized measures. Affluent families have and will supplement their children’s education with out-of-school enrichment opportunities, while low income students will have to make do with less in school. Only a significant investment in early education and support for our most vulnerable students will yield better outcomes for kids, which also saves taxpayers money over time!

So yes, I do think that this problem needs to be alleviated so that we can provide an equitable education for all kids. We need to support the override with a Yes vote on April 6!

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How much control does the School Committee have over the budget and what would you do to improve school funding?

The school committee’s role is to set the vision for the district, hire/fire/evaluate the superintendent, and create the right conditions for success. This means that we must advocate for a budget that will allow the superintendent to be successful. We work with the superintendent on developing a long-term plan to accommodate our growing school district. As members of the Finance Subcommittee, we have a say in where funds are allocated and which “buckets” the funds come out of.

I believe it is imperative that we use the COVID crisis to reexamine our core beliefs as a town to set the priorities for our schools moving forward. Perhaps there is an area that we no longer feel is important and we can be diverting those funds to do more coding and project based learning. My big remaining question is, how do we best democratize these decisions with our current system of government?

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As one of six School Committee members, what is your plan for exercising leadership or making a difference on the School Committee?

In my 8 months, I started the Equity Subcommittee to dismantle the racist systems we have in place. We are close to starting the equity audit. Normally, this would have taken a year to set up. I made it happen in months. Examining our systems will improve access to equal opportunities for all students. 

I have also advocated for the inclusion of students and parents at the decision making table. I know that some people, probably you included, think of this as a stall tactic. However, this is what the community wanted! We are letting people – students and parents – into the decision making process. This is one form of transparency.

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What should we do to improve how our schools respond to children with special needs?

As parents, we are our children’s first and most influential teacher. Training parents to provide appropriate interventions for their children at home is crucial. Investing in and supporting parent education, advocacy efforts, and early intervention is imperative if we want our students with special needs to succeed. 

During this pandemic, dozens of families have experienced a serious disruption to their children’s support services. Without additional support, children with special needs cannot access the same curriculum as their peers, which leads to disparate outcomes. We must commit to closing the gap between the services that are required and those that were delivered. We are morally obliged and federally mandated to provide these supports! 

As we shift into a new phase of school reopening, we need to prioritize minimizing schedule disruption and changing of teachers for this group of students. Special education teachers and aides need advance notice to plan for a smooth transition. We also need to hire Special Education Chairs for every school. This is a position that is standard across most districts and relieves some of the demands that coordinating special education services places on the classroom teacher. 

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In your opinion, do Belmont schools have a problem when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equity? What should our schools be doing differently in hiring, curriculum, school climate, and working to improve outcomes for children of color?

I have spoken to many people of color who have experienced racism first hand in our schools. Students have felt discriminated against and excluded from the curriculum. Kindergarten children participating in the METCO program were banned from coming to BPS this year because of “behavior problems.” The tragic death of Henry Tapia is proof that Belmont is not immune from racism.

As a school committee member, I led the charge on the creation of the new Equity Subcommittee, which will examine and dismantle the systems within our district that lead to inequitable outcomes for marginalized communities and bring accountability to our school system. The work of this committee will also focus on how we hire and retain teachers of color, which serve as the first touchpoint for many students to someone whose experience is different than their own. Students respond better to teachers that share their experiences, so this will be to the benefit of every single student. We also need to decolonize the curriculum, meaning that it needs to reflect narrative from non-dominant groups. It means choosing a variety of texts from authors that reflect the growing diversity of our school system and country. We must continue to invest in professional development for teachers and students alike so that we can all identify our own biases and work to overcome them.

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Many parents are upset at the ending of the accelerated math options in 6th and 7th grades at the Chenery.* Should our schools have different math offerings for children of varying ability levels? Or does that cause some children to get left behind?

Excellence in our public school system cannot exist without equity. The math acceleration debate in Belmont is not an equity issue in the way that many parents think about it. ‘Equity’ is a word used with increasing frequency in discussions of math acceleration. Some argue that recent efforts focus resources on children who walk into school every day at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers, with the end goal of bringing all students to the same educational benchmark. The false dichotomy occurs when we start saying that the children with the disadvantage (compared to their peers) are diverting funds from the kids who require a higher level of challenge. This is not an “either/or” situation, but a “yes, and…” situation. Yes, we want to appropriately challenge all students! We can all agree on that. It is imperative that disadvantaged students be given the resources they need to succeed and every child needs to be challenged appropriately.

As I think about math education at the Chenery, I am making the following assumptions:

  1. The process for assigning children to a class must be understood by the community, standardized, and equitable.
  2. We must collect data on where our children really are in their math education journey (along the standard progression of math courses) and place them in appropriately challenging classes, not just base the decision on their grade level or age.
  3. We need quantitative (tests) and qualitative (work samples, teacher recommendations) information when placing children in the appropriate math class.

Based on these assumptions, I believe there needs to be a three pronged approach to supporting our schools in offering a high quality math education to our children.

  1. We must invest in early math education in elementary schools by hiring math specialists and designing curricula that allow children to build mathematical intuition.
  2. We must support our teachers as they move our district toward more interdisciplinary courses that challenge students in new ways and ask students to use their math skills to analyze and solve real world issues.

In the short term, I think we need to reinstate the math acceleration program to appropriately challenge kids at even the highest levels of achievement. We can plan on phasing out the math acceleration program with the understanding that children will be challenged in new ways as our teaching practices change.

(*) Editor’s note: School Committee Chair Andrea Prestwich informs me that Belmont will be maintaining an accelerated math program based on Somerville’s MX2 Geometry program, which will be implemented in time for the start of the new school year. Superintendent Phelan will be presenting the administration’s plans at a forthcoming School Committee Curriculum Subcommittee meeting.

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Do you plan to vote in support of the Proposition 2 1/2 Override? Please explain your decision to vote YES or NO on the override. 

From 2010-2020, Belmont school saw a 21% enrollment increase, during which the budget grew at an annual rate of 6.45%. Although this significantly exceeds the 2.5% maximum property tax allowed by Proposition 2.5, Belmont is spending $14.8M less annually in comparison to the state average of per-student spending. Any cuts to the budget would negatively impact students: less resources, fewer teachers, higher class sizes, and limited programming. 

Despite the lean budget, most students have done considerably well by standardized measures. Affluent families have and will supplement their children’s education with out-of-school enrichment opportunities, while low income students will have to make do with less in school. Only a significant investment in early education and support for our most vulnerable students will yield better outcomes for kids, which also saves taxpayers money over time!

We also need to make structural changes to the way we run our schools. I think there are a lot of lessons learned this year how we can deliver content to students and engage them in new ways. We should analyze these changes to see if they could lead to long term savings.

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