Q&A with Piedmont Exedra

In this interview with the Piedmont Exedra, I talk a little more about my history and stances. Read on to find out more! Or, view the full article at the Exedra site here.

2015 PMS Parent Club president Hilary Cooper, center, spearheading Teacher Appreciation gifts

What inspires you to run for office?

I believe in public education and feel strongly about serving our community.  I have held many volunteer positions in this community and I have also worked as a substitute teacher.  I believe that this year is a defining moment for all of our institutions, especially education.  If elected, I will work collaboratively with our community, teachers, administrators, and parents to find solutions to today’s unique challenges.  Our response will require open-mindedness and innovation.  We all want to see our children thrive, and so we must re-imagine how we teach them and keep them safe.

What are your qualifications to be on the School Board? Any special skills or experience the voters should know about?

I am in a unique position because I can represent many different groups of our community. I am a parent of two recent Piedmont grads and understand what it means to send a student through our K-12 system.  I am a volunteer and have focused most of my time on working with our school community.  I was part of the PMS Block Schedule Task Force and I served as parent club president through two new principal hires (at PMS and PHS).  Additionally, I organized seven consecutive Walk Through Registrations and I served on the PHS Class of 2019 Senior Committee.  Through all of my volunteering, I have spent a lot of time on our campuses and have great working relationships with the teachers, staff and administrators.  In addition, I have a proven track record of raising money for our schools by co-chairing Spring Fling, The Giving Campaign and Measures G&H.  Those fundraisers and parcel taxes have brought in over $10 million annually for our schools.  I taught first grade and have also worked in the classrooms at PHS as a substitute teacher.  I understand the many hats we ask our teachers to wear and I also have seen the incredible work that our teachers do on a daily basis.  Now, as an empty nester and community member, I serve on the board of The Cancer League and am a provisional member of the Piedmont Garden Club.  Being a part of these groups lends me the ability to understand each perspective and help us all work collaboratively to ensure an excellent educational experience for all students.

What do you see as the most challenging issues currently facing the school district?

I think most people would agree that re-opening our schools safely and effectively is going to be the most significant challenge our district has ever faced.  We have weathered many storms in our community and I think it is incumbent on all stakeholders to come together in this moment to find a solution.  I am very aware of the anxiety and fear that constrain our decisions, but we must continue to move forward with action.  If we can acknowledge that there may not be a perfect solution for quite some time, then we can work on finding a solution that provides some relief in this most challenging of times.  Beyond that, I think that our children’s social and emotional well-being must be addressed.  Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is just as critical as academic and cognitive learning; no child can learn when they are struggling with empathy, motivation or self-esteem.  While many students are having success with online learning, all of our students are missing the personal interaction of being in the classroom with their peers and teachers — most especially our young learners.  It is imperative that we find a way back into the classroom.

What do you see as strengths of the Piedmont schools?

Our schools are regularly cited as the reason Piedmonters moved here.  Our reputation for offering students an excellent education is well known.  We have amazing teachers and staff, many new and improved facilities and outstanding athletics and extracurricular programs.  But above all of these things, I think what sets us apart from other schools and districts is our proven record of innovation.  We were one of the very first districts in the state to adopt a one-to-one connected learning program, providing Chromebooks for each student.  At the time, we were focused on ensuring our students would be receiving a 21st century education.  Little did we know how critical that program would be in the Covid era.  Our Wellness Center has become a model for other secondary schools, emphasizing that the social and emotional health of a student is critical to their education.  The Piedmont Makers group was established to support and inspire all of our students through STEAM education.  Their  “Fab Lab”  will be a highlight in our new STEAM building.  Without the passing of Bond Measure H1 this would not have been possible.  Our district’s forward thinking mindset will enable us to better address the challenges we face today.

Do you see yourself being especially involved in any particular school issue or program, whether or not it’s your top priority?

Our children are growing up in an historic moment.  From the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement, they are coming of age in a time unlike any other.  I have heard many students raise their voices to be heard and I have seen them protest and march.  Our students need and want to talk about these incredibly tough issues.  We need to equip our teachers with the tools to safely and productively engage in conversation with our students and create learning moments.  As students become activists, we must provide them with the skills they need to both speak and listen with sensitivity.  There are many areas in our curriculum that could accommodate this, especially our social studies classes.  I am excited for our students’ generation to become involved members of our society and I welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with our community to make sure our students are outstanding contributors to the world.

How and when PUSD should return to in-person instruction has been a polarizing topic since the start of the pandemic. If elected, how will you balance the needs of various stakeholders — teachers, parents, classified staff, administrators, students — in your decision-making on this issue?

I do believe that our students need to return to in-person learning and that their social and emotional well being makes returning a top priority of my campaign.  That said, I do think it’s critical that we let science drive the decisions.  I know many districts and schools in the state have already applied for a K-6 waiver and that will afford us the opportunity to learn from each other and implement best practices.  Some studies out of China, France and Switzerland have suggested that children under the age of 16 are far less likely to spread COVID than adults.  There are also many studies that suggest that it is very unlikely for someone to contract COVID from surfaces.  As we learn more and develop guidelines to ensure the safe return of our students to the classroom, I support applying for a special waiver for our youngest students.  I am also interested in exploring how we can provide COVID testing for our students and teachers.  Some districts have started using tests for students and teachers and we should strive to secure funding for such a program.  We need to create a safe environment and get our kids back in the classroom.  

PUSD’s budget depends on state and local funding. What would you do to ensure our funding is robust?

Over the last decade, I have served in various volunteer roles that have enabled me to work closely with the district.  I have attended Budget Advisory Committee meetings and I have worked tirelessly to raise money for our schools.  Unfortunately, California remains 41st in per student funding and because Piedmont does not meet certain criteria like free lunch and English Language Learning, we do not receive the same funding as other districts.  I don’t see this changing anytime soon, especially as the pandemic has further highlighted the disparities between school districts.  Our budget has had additional pressure put on it with our obligation to employee pension funds.  Since we have limited opportunities with state and federal funding, we must continue to raise money at a local level.  I would propose that we consider evergreening our local parcel tax (Measure G, which provides one-quarter of our district’s budget) so that we can assure those funds into perpetuity.  We, as parents and community members, must also continue to strongly support The Giving Campaign, which raises millions of dollars annually for our schools.  Parents new to Piedmont must be educated that we are an excellent public school district in part because of the financial support of our community.

What do you think about PUSD facilities and bond measure H1?

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to substitute teach at PHS.  The classes are cold in the winter and hot in the fall and spring.  Many classes have limited electrical outlets and extension cords snake through the rooms so that students can charge and work on their laptops.  The chairs and desks are decades old, and walls and roofs are stained from water leaks.  So, it’s an understatement to say that I was thrilled when Measure H1 passed.  It’s also safe to say that I will continue to support reasonable bonds that will improve our PUSD facilities.  All three elementary schools have been upgraded and renovated, and in the case of Havens, completely rebuilt.  Our high school is in the midst of two new building construction projects.  I am excited to see the new STEAM building and I sincerely hope that our community will continue to support the infrastructure work that needs to continue.  Our middle school should be next on the list.  When I was president of the parent club at PMS, we raised money to renovate the teachers’ lounge, but that was just a drop in the bucket of what that campus needs.

Between the city and the schools there are many shared facilities and programs. What is your perspective on city-school partnerships and collaboration?

I am a big believer in collaboration and I can’t think of a better partner for our district than the city.  What makes Piedmont so special is our community and our sense of “small town.”  We know our neighbors, we look out for one another and we always have a cup of sugar to share.  If our community pool is leaking 3,000 gallons of water a day, then let’s fix it!  I know it feels like there are a lot of projects going on and that’s true.  But our buildings and facilities need help; we can’t continue to put band-aids on cracks in our foundation.  Our kids will benefit from a community pool and we should all support Measure UU.  The city has long been supportive of our district, and when I co-chaired Measures G&H, the city postponed the campaign for a new pool in order to support our campaign.  This is the kind of partnership that serves the whole community and is to be commended.

Recent events have highlighted the educational inequity between Piedmont and nearby school systems such as Oakland Unified. What measures, if any, do you think PUSD should take to address this problem?

The pandemic and the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others has highlighted the inequities and racism that have become institutionalized in our communities.  In schools, from availability of laptops and connectivity to health care to racial injustice, we are seeing the divide as we never have before.  We must address these issues at the same time that we address issues of safety as we reopen.  To simply go back to how things were would be a missed opportunity.  We are lucky to have some amazing support groups in Piedmont like the Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee (PADC) and the Piedmont Racial Equity Committee (PREC) that we can collaborate with for solutions to help our neighboring districts.  We should work with other districts to share information, whether at the classroom level or parent club level.  I would also like to explore opportunities for our students to become more actively engaged with students in neighboring districts.    

School Board members must navigate a wide range of parent opinions and demands. How will you handle those pressures?

Serving four years as a parent club president presented me with many opportunities to work with parents and support groups with specific interests and agendas.  The one thing that was always clear to me is that every parent wants what is best for his or her child and that often leads to passionate and emotional conversations.  I have found that listening is always the best place to start and then I try to find common ground.  We constantly face competing priorities.  For example, through the grant process at the high school we often faced tough decisions based on student needs and available funds.  I learned that making sure parents are well-informed was the best way to ensure that all parties understood the outcomes.  Information sharing often happens at the micro level.  I hosted many parent coffees with school and district administrators, especially when there were heated issues to be tackled.  They were well-attended and they created an opportunity for parents to be heard and to ask questions, and also for the administration to be heard and provide information.  We are all committed to providing our students with an excellent education in a safe environment, and these types of gatherings can help ensure that parents, teachers and the administration understand each other. 

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