FALL RIVER — January will bring three new faces to the School Committee: Bobby Bailey, Shelli Pereira and Sara Rodrigues. They’ll be joining the committee at a tumultuous time for the school district, which is navigating the pandemic, a leadership change and other challenges that accompany educating in a large urban district.
“I think we have a lot of repair work to do in the city. As a whole, we’ve been in the spotlight for not-great reasons and I think restoring trust and integrity is going to be a huge factor in the work we do as a committee,” Rodrigues said.
Here’s what the newly-elected members are looking forward to working on in the new year:
Bobby Bailey, who works as the minority outreach coordinator for the Fall River Housing Authority, said his first priority will be touching base with educators and students to see how to make them feel the most supported. He’s interested in holding forums, either formal or informal, to talk to teachers and other schools staff about what they need, especially as they work to help students return to a sense of normalcy after more than a year of education disrupted by the pandemic.
“As cliché as it sounds, I think it’s just drawing back and learning to build relationships again,” he said.
Rodrigues, a clinical social worker, also said listening to educators would be a top priority for her.
“I’d like to spend more time hearing from the people doing the actual work in our classrooms every day and get an understanding from them about what they need,” she said.
Pereira, a social worker with the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, said implementing universal free pre-K across the school district is one of her biggest goals. Research indicates that students who attend pre-K have better attendance and graduation rates later on, and it would help jumpstart parent involvement in their child's education, she said. And as a single parent, she understands the importance of having reliable childcare.
“We need to be assisting people so they’re not spending their entire paycheck on daycare or pre-K just so they can go to work,” she said.
Opposing the new charter school
All three newly elected committee members expressed opposition to the new charter school proposed for either New Bedford or Fall River.
Pereira said fighting the proposed school will be another top priority for her as she joins the committee. She considers herself an advocate for charter schools, but with two in the city already, Fall River doesn’t need another, she said.
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Instead, the school district should be allowed to focus on developing its existing programs, like vocational education and B.M.C. Durfee High School’s early college program.
“This is what’s going to make Fall River better. And siphoning money to a charter school in New Bedford is not what’s going to help make our community better,” she said.
Bailey also said he was opposed to the proposed new charter school, saying he was worried that taking money away from traditional public schools would make it harder for the district to improve its statistics.
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“With the amount of money we’ve received from the state, the things we’re receiving from the federal government and the facilities that we have, we can’t continue to create these charter school pop-ups and disperse resources without solving some of the problems we have in-house,” he said.
All three of the new committee members raised concerns that the new school, which would focus on STEM education and having its students take early college classes while in high school, would duplicate offerings already available at Durfee.
"I’m not convinced that the proposed charter school has anything innovate and to offer our students," Rodrigues said. "Families should certainly have some options in their children’s education — education is not a one-size-fits-all process — but these decisions need to be made thoughtfully," she said.
Making the district welcoming for all
Rodrigues said she wants to focus on making people feel welcome in their school buildings.
“My biggest passion is certainly around creating a district of genuine inclusion and belonging. Everyone — every student, every family, every teacher — benefits from inclusive practices that promote belonging,” she said.
Pereira has one proposal that she said will make students feel more comfortable going to school each day: ensuring that each high school and middle school in the city provides free menstrual products in all of their women’s bathrooms.
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“We really need to get heavily involved, get loud if we need to, and make this happen,” she said. “It is in my opinion, a health issue.”
Bailey, the first Black person elected to the Fall River School Committee, said he hopes his presence on the body helps inspire local students.
“Representation means everything,” he said. “If you’ve never seen someone in successful roles like these… how do they even know what’s possible?”
Audrey Cooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Three newcomers prepare to join Fall River School Committee