If the American Medical Association has doctors on its board, why shouldn't the Prince William County School Board count more educators among its members?
That's the question that former Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary School principal Lillie Jessie is asking as a candidate for the open Occoquan District seat at the special election this November.
"At this time, I think it’s important that we have a person on that board who has a background and experience in education," Jessie said. "I think that’s the piece I bring to the board. I know how teachers work, I know how principals work, and I know how to work with parents.”
Jessie said that former Occoquan District school board member Grant Lattin said he had never received a complaint from an Elizabeth Vaughan parent.
"I know the needs of parents," Jessie said. "I am a parent. As a middle-class parent, I know how to advocate for my children. I want to be an ear and a voice for teachers and for parents and for kids and for learning."
Jessie has worked with PWCS for 35 years, and spent 20 of those years as the principal at Elizabeth Vaughan. During her time as principal, the school was named a National Model Professional Learning Community School. It also received School of Excellence, Virginia Title I School of Distinction, Closing the Gap and Governor’s School Board Awards.
Jessie isn't satisfied with simply doing well by national standards, she said. She also wants to see PWCS succeed by international standards.
“My main focus is to ensure that we have a rigorous curriculum," she said. "One of the major responsibilities of the board is to provide oversight of learning. Our kids have to compete in the new economy and make sure they have the skills to be productive in that new economy. The national challenge is creating a career-bound curriculum. As a nation, we’re finding that we’re not as competitive.”
In international exams, U.S. students scored 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, Jessie said.
“The biggest thing for us is making sure that our kids are able to compete," she said. "Everything is changing. The jobs our kids are going to have have not yet been invented. The world is changing and moving at a faster pace."
Closing the Achievement Gap
To that end, Jessie wants to work towards closing the achievement gap between majority and minority students in subjects like reading and math, especially as it tends to widen in middle and high school. She has experience with closing such gaps from her time at Elizabeth Vaughan.
"I know what high levels of learning look like," she said. "I've seen children who were not supposed to learn, learn, and learn at high levels. I have seen teachers perform when given the resources and professional accolades that they really should receive. It's really about building teacher capacity and creating leaders in your school."
When Jessie first moved from Illinois to Prince William County, she had a background in special education and began working at Muriel Humphrey Day Care Center.
"I went into public school life as a diagnostic prescriptive teacher," she said. She worked with students with learning disabilities.
Then PWCS asked her to begin working with teachers to help kids who were having difficulty learning.
No Child Left Behind
She served as the supervisor of the local Title 1 program for 10 years, and is familiar with No Child Left Behind.
The new No Child Left Behind model coming to Virginia concerns her.
"The standards are so low for students," she said. "That to me is a major consideration. "We're looking at attaching teacher evaluations to student performance."
But there's too many variables for that to work well, Jessie said.
"I’ve done a lot of work with No Child Left Behind," she said. "I know that high teacher performance is possible. My focus has always been learning. And there’s a difference. You can’t just say that you taught something and that students didn’t learn. “
Jessie praised the teaching staff of PWCS.
"I think that we have a quality teaching force in this county," she said. "These are some of the sharpest people in the world."
But there are higher goals to be met, she said.
“The goal of the school system is to be world class," she said. "In order to be world class, you’ve got to look at where are we internationally.”