Everett School Board candidates focus on graduation rates

The incumbent says rates are rising. Her challenger says more can be done.

Janelle Nixon-Burke (left) and Pam LeSesne

Janelle Nixon-Burke (left) and Pam LeSesne

EVERETT — The challenger has no ax to grind with the incumbent in the lone contested race for the Everett School Board, but she does think the district can do more for students who feel disenfranchised.

Janelle Nixon-Burke said she has deep respect for Pam LeSesne, who is finishing a six-year term in District 5.

“My issue was like a now issue, not a 2019 issue,” Nixon-Burke said. “She happened to be the person in the seat.”

Nixon-Burke said she hopes she can be a voice for parents whose children sometimes run afoul in matters of classroom discipline. They are students who need extra help, not more punishment, if they are going to make it to graduation, she said.

LeSesne, a retired U.S. Navy captain, points to the district’s improving on-time graduation rate, that now exceeds 90 percent, and a 94 percent graduation rate if one includes students who take five years.

“There is still work to do,” she said. “I want to reach that point where we have a 100 percent graduation rate. I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to be able to do that.”

Nixon-Burke has seven children. They range from twin 3-year-olds to 20. Three are in the school system, including one who has faced disciplinary issues, including having been suspended, Nixon-Burke said.

Through that experience, she said, she has met other students and parents in similar situations. Once a child is out of school for any length of time it becomes hard for them to re-engage and catch up, she said. She said she has spoken with students who have dropped out as early as the eighth and ninth grades and she fears that fosters a school-to-prison pipeline. Nixon-Burke said she feels some students are treated differently than others.

“We need to actually worry about what the kids need to get through school,” she said. “We have to catch it in the beginning, not worry about it after the fact.”

Nixon-Burke said many parents are afraid to speak out about their frustrations. “Fear is not in me,” she said.

LeSesne said she is pleased with the increasing number of students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement, honors and science, technology, engineering and math classes. She wants to see more internship opportunities for college-bound students and have the district develop apprenticeship programs for students planning to join the workforce after high school graduation. She emphasizes the importance of extracurricular programs. She also said she favors six-year terms for school board members, saying there is a steep learning curve for new members.

A key issue ahead will be adding classroom space in the rapidly growing south end of the district, LeSesne said.

Both candidates are concerned that charter schools eventually could take resources away from existing campuses in the Everett district. There are no charter schools in Snohomish County to this point.

Nixon-Burke said she doesn’t believe standardized tests accurately reflect student achievement. She opposes teacher merit pay and vouchers that would use public money to allow students to attend private schools.

The candidates say their own educations helped shape who they are today.

LeSesne was involved in student government and the Junior ROTC at her high school in southern California. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in mechanical engineering. She served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years.

Nixon-Burke attended Catholic school before enrolling in a public high school in Missouri. She quit school in her junior year, earned her GED and went on to enroll in community college where she studied medical assisting and computer technology.

Besides school-related committees, LeSesne has served on Everett’s Civil Service Commission and as a board member for Snohomish County Senior Services and Habitat for Humanity Snohomish County.

Nixon-Burke has been involved with the Evergreen Middle School PTA and the Snohomish County NAACP.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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