Powers seeks hand in rebuilding trust between teachers and students following equity audit results

Janice Powers. (Deborah Lowery)

Janice Powers is looking to implement the district’s recommendations on the racial equity audit if elected to the Pelham Board of Education, building off her work with Bridges of Pelham.

“I think the equity audit put a nice cover over these issues that we can’t ignore that have to be addressed,” said Powers. “They’re not going to go away if we don’t address it.”

“[I] didn’t view the equity audit to tell me what was happening in regards to race in school.” Powers instead spoke with black students in the middle school and high school about their experiences.

“It never started with these kids being happy,” she said. “It always started with ‘well this happens’ and ‘that happens’… particular to my work in Bridges, being called the n-word of all varieties, kids being told that they’re slaves. Then recently I went to the anti-Asian hate rally where I spoke, and listening to those students who still tell me that people would pull their eyes back, like people are still doing that. People did that when I was a student 20 years ago.”

The two school board seats on the ballot are currently held by Eileen Miller and Jess Young, who are both seeking reelection. The other two candidates are Michael Owen-Michaane and Ian Rowe. Terms of office are three years. The vote for trustees and the district budget is May 18.

“I support the equity audit, and I think one of the main things that needs to be addressed is building that trust within school again, between the students, but also the students to the teachers,” Powers said.

She said that the district should take a better look at diversifying curriculum and finding ways to make it more inclusive. “If you’re reading a book with the n-word in it, what’s our policy on that? I would say the n-word should never be used in the classroom, and it should be explained why it should never be used because when you use it in the classroom, it gets used in the cafeteria and on the playground and it’s scratched on a locker.”

Powers said the effort to diversify curriculum should not only be for African American culture, but for all cultures in order to represent all students. She also mentioned the importance of the district supporting teachers and ultimately bridging any the existing divide between diverse students and white staff.

Powers went through a modified Princeton Plan as a teenager. “And if I hadn’t gone through a modified version of it, I would not be here in Pelham Manor, I wouldn’t be an attorney, because I grew up in an underfunded, segregated poor black neighborhood because my family immigrated,” she said.

Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was in middle school. When she graduated, her teachers encouraged her to attend a better high school. Powers commuted by bus, subway and foot daily for four years to learn at a predominantly white high school. “There were pluses and minuses to that, but if it wasn’t for that option available to me, I wouldn’t be the educated person that I am today living here,” said Powers.

The racial equity report by the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, specifically suggested the Pelham district revisit the implementation of the Princeton Plan at the elementary level to better integrate younger students. The Princeton Plan, considered ten years ago, would eliminate the neighborhood elementary school system, instead populating the schools by grade.

Powers said a selling point in her move to Pelham was the short distance between schools from houses, giving her the peace of mind knowing her child could get home safely from school.

“I value neighborhood schools just like everyone else,” Powers said. She said she will not “demonize” the Princeton Plan, but if elected it’s “not something I’m seeking to impose on other people in my community,” as she understands how much the community values its neighborhood schools. According to Powers, implementing the Princeton Plan is “not a decision for one board member, that’s a decision that has to come from the input of all members of the community.”

She said alternative ways of connecting students in the four elementary schools could include activities such as “Pel Pals” where students would write to a pen pal, or an outdoor event of some sorts.

At the start of the pandemic, Powers said having her daughter home was difficult and she found her daughter’s normal bubbly, energetic self shifted after being isolated at home. She said the hybrid model “was the beginning of something better” and she is extremely thankful for the return to full-time in-person learning.

Powers believes the district needs to make the emotional support of students in their return to school a top priority.

“I don’t think social and emotional health has been a priority in the schools, and I’m glad in some ways that the pandemic focused the district on it,” Powers said, noting inclusion of professional staff, group discussions and other ways for students to access emotional support as ways for the district to approach this need.

Editor’s note: The Pelham Examiner is publishing individual profiles of the candidates for the school board. Below are the other stories published in the series.