Rychter wants greater focus on mental health, closing achievement gaps

Metro Wire Staff

The Stevens Point Area Public Board of Education has nine candidates on the Feb. 15 primary.

Nine candidates will compete for four open seats on the board. Incumbents Jeff Ebel, Barb Portzen, and Rob Manzke, are being challenged by newcomers Jennifer Bushman, Miguel Campos, Alex Sommers, Kari Prokop, Dennis Raabe, and Lisa Rychter. The top eight vote-earners will move on to the April ballot.

Questions by the Stevens Point Area League of Women Voters. Candidates Jeff Ebel and Kari Prokop did not submit responses.

Lisa Rychter’s answers follow:

Why did you decide to run at this time for the position of Stevens Point Area School Board member?

I have a strong desire to serve and volunteer my time in our community. I would love to have the opportunity to serve on the Stevens Point School Board to work towards improving the accountability and consistency within the Stevens Point Area School District. There is a need to improve the collective efficacy of the Stevens Point Area School Board, administration, and school district staff. Furthermore, there is a need to develop a collaborative, working relationship again between our district educators, district administration, the school board, and community stakeholders.

What is your relevant background and experience to be an effective School Board member?

I am passionate about education and have been working for 15 years as an educational Speech-Language Pathologist in elementary schools. Currently, I am employed by the School District of Waupaca. I previously held an educator position within the Stevens Point Area School District and I believe this gives me an additional, unique lens as a candidate as I continue to have many wonderful, professional relationships with my former colleagues who continue to work in the Stevens Point Area School District.

What do you see as the top three issues currently facing our Stevens Point Area schools and how would you address them?

The top issues facing our district are as follows: working towards closing the achievement gaps related to student learning within our district, improving the mental health of our district students, and improving the collaborative, working relationship between the school board, district administration, and education staff while also ensuring we hear from our community stakeholders.

I strongly support an increase in advocacy for better education for all students and closing academic achievement gaps. Two researched-based tenets that I would like to see our district have in place are 1) research and develop plan(s) to work towards having smaller class sizes; smaller class sizes are known to be more conducive to improving student learning and 2) developing the opportunity for teachers to have Professional Learning Community (PLC) time — this involves common planning and learning time for our teachers within the already scheduled workday to work together and learn together, as well as learning from one another. PLC time will assist in developing Collective Teaching Efficacy (CTE) for our district education staff. CTE is the perception of teachers in a school that the faculty, as a whole, can have a positive impact and influence on student learning. This happens when teachers feel supported and valued. CTE has been rated to have the highest effect on improving student learning and achievement. We need to ensure we make retention of good teachers and competitive staff recruitment a priority. Our teachers have the important responsibility of shaping the future of the children in our community, preparing them to be successful. A key facet to ensuring student success is making sure our educators feel valued and heard.

To help improve collaboration between all of the necessary stakeholders, increased opportunities to educate our school community on happenings within our schools, and improving awareness of school board decisions are incredibly important. A major component of this is to strengthen the transparency and communication across our school community; we need to reinstate school board committees, ensure important topics are allowed to be discussed at the open school board meetings and send out surveys to garner opinions on district actions.

What is the School Board’s role in ensuring that students from all races, classes, creeds, and gender are given opportunities for a high-quality education within a safe and respectful setting?

One of the most important and basic roles of a school board is to govern school district policy while ensuring students are supported and successful. Access to an appropriate and quality education for all district children is necessary, regardless of race, class, creed, or gender. The school board has an important responsibility to oversee that quality education is provided to our district children, while working collaboratively with school district administration and education staff to discuss how best this can be done.

Schools are being asked to handle the increasing mental health concerns of students. Would you support increased funding and policy changes in addressing these needs?

Supporting the improvement of the mental health of our district students is VERY important to me. I would support discussing ideas and initiatives that could potentially help and assist in addressing mental health concerns.

An initiative that I believe would help to improve our student’s mental health is the development of CONSISTENCY and EQUITY in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) for students district-wide. This would involve plan(s) to develop CONSISTENT Positive Behavior Support language district-wide so everyone in the district (staff, admin, PK-12 students, parents, community members) knows expectations. Every building in the district would adopt the same Positive Behavior Support principles and language would be the SAME to help improve Social and Emotional learning (see other graphic below for reference on PBIS and SEL).

Along with this goal for CONSISTENCY in-district, we could move forward to meet with community partners, especially those who cater to our student population, to collaborate. WHAT IF they adopted the same Positive Behavior Support principles at their facilities? It would be so wonderful to have the community involved in our social-emotional learning efforts! When expectations are universal, clear, and consistent, children thrive socially and emotionally.

Another initiative that I believe would assist in improving our students’ mental health is having licensed guidance counselors in our elementary schools. Currently, we do not have licensed guidance counselors employed at the elementary level in the Stevens Point Area School District. We need to have guidance counselors at the elementary level; they are so very important to pre-teaching social-emotional skills, implementing positive behavior support, and supporting the mental health of students.

Do you agree with the actions of the School Board aimed at keeping students, staff, and teachers safe during the Covid pandemic? If not, what would you do differently going forward?

There are decisions made by the Stevens Point school board in the past two years that I agree with and some that I do not agree with. However, I do believe that the school board members made decisions they thought were best during a very difficult time.

Going forward, I believe the school board members need to vote to bring full accountability back to the school board. In April of 2020 and in September of 2021, the school board members voluntarily gave up their votes to give the superintendent full, operational power over day-to-day COVID-19 based decisions. The district is not meant to be governed by one person. This NEEDS to change. To be honest, many school district decisions could be connected to the use of COVID-19 as a reason.

Regardless of any reason, one person should not be making operational decisions for a school district related to school district policy, whether it is COVID-19 related or not.

There is a reason and purpose as to why we elect members to the school board. It is to have a group of individuals with a different knowledge base, different backgrounds come together and work toward a common goal – to determine how to best support student learning and success.