The Parent-Advocate At-Large: LaTonia Monroe Naylor…
UPDATED 11/5/17: For grammar and clarity.
This post is the first of several profiles of Springfield at-large School Committee candidates.
SPRINGFIELD—The battle for School Committee has, to the extent the populace is tuning in at all, been less prominent than the one for City Council. Like City Council, School Committee has an at-large opening, which tantalizing cynics and idealists alike. With a large underprivileged population and school quality a barrier to attracting residents, the office is critical.
The four who survived the September 19 primary and now compete for the two at-large seats present four different options for voters. LaTonia Monroe Naylor stands as the parent-activist, who thrust herself into the minutiae of advocacy and volunteerism. As a candidate, she has sought to transform that record into a political advantage with a broad promise to listen.
“You don’t have to be the one in charge, just listen,” Naylor said. “I think the more you listen, the more you’re able to make decisions that positively impact our kids.”
Naylor is the only candidate with children that have gone through the system—Denise Hurst’s older son just recently aged into school—and it has defined much of her outlook as a candidate.
But Naylor is also a new candidate and new to politics generally. With Hurst expected to win a second seat, Naylor is, in effect, in a three-way faceoff against newcomer Ryan Hess and former City Councilor Jimmy Ferrera for the other seat. On September 19, Ferrera came in second behind Hurst with Naylor and Hess in third and four respectively.
However, she has nailed down one tried and true part of politics: ex-rivals endorsements. Both James Anziano and Joesiah Gonzalez, who failed to make it past the preliminary came out in support of Naylor in a pair of releases from her campaign.
“She will listen, speak, and empower” parents, students and staff Anziano said in the release. In the second release, Gonzalez was equally effusive in his praise, saying Naylor is “someone with morals, ethic, and someone who understands the issues our schools face today as a parent.”
In an interview with WMassP&I, the mother of four discussed her job, her advocacy and plans if elected.
A grant and educational program manager at the United Way, Naylor said her career began in the corporate world. At the United Way she oversees grants to schools throughout Hampden County intended to improve graduation rates and empower students in leadership.
“It’s both personal and professional,” Dora Robinson said in a phone interview. Robinson, the former president and CEO of the local United Way, has known Naylor for years. She said education has always been central to Naylor feeding into her advocacy today.
Like many parents who seek school committee seats, her kids’ education prompted her to become active. She said she has seen transitions are possible at even the toughest school.
For example, after her son began experiencing problems at a charter school, Naylor enrolled him in White Street School. She was nervous given her daughter’s negative experience there, but found principal Kristin Hughes had changed things.
“My daughter was literally coming home having a nervous breakdown,” Naylor said of her daughter’s White Street experience. But her son found the school had changed and he loved it.
“His teacher called crying to me, I’m think what did he do something. She’s like ‘He wrote me a letter saying thank you for believing in me,’” she said.
However, she also has a perspective from outside the system as well. One of her daughters is an Academy Hill student. There she got to know Maria Gulluni, whose child also attends the school.
In an email, Gulluni said Naylor had a unique perspective with children in several different schooling environments. “She has a fantastic work ethic and is dedicated to her children, whom she has placed in public, private and charter schools depending on their individual needs,” Gulluni said. Naylor “will have a great perspective on what Springfield students need.”
There are many needs. Naylor called for deeper relationships between the city’s colleges—all private save Springfield Technical Community College—and city schools. She also said schools needed to do better prepping kids for college.
At bottom, however, is leadership and outreach, Naylor says. While acknowledging the socioeconomic factors that affect education in the city, she said the key was encouraging parents and families to take ownership of the school and their children’s education.
She pointed to Duggan Academy, a public middle school on Wilbraham Road, whose student population suffers from the same problems as other Middle Schools. But that attitude is not universal in the school system, though Naylor acknowledges the “empowerment zones” for each of Springfield’s middle schools was key to Duggan’s success.
Nearly two months after the death of activist Jafet Robles, activists are likely to keep pushing his core issue. One such example is keeping schools from becoming channels to incarceration. Naylor noted the wild variation of the use of police in the schools and how the structure of their deployment affects students and staff.
Naylor acknowledged safety issues exist. However, she has found many cops are acting as as disciplinarians, not maintaining safety per se. “They’re being asked to come into a classroom for things that are really minor,” she said. The situation may end up on students’ criminal records. The School Committee must assess, she said whether sworn police or security officers are appropriate in some circumstances.
Financial problems have hovered over the system of late despite surges in state funding.
The result, Naylor observed, have been cuts in arts, physical education and other special programs. She suggested replicating what some schools, again highlighting Duggan, are doing and inviting the community in to help finance or provide such enrichment programs.
It will take a lot to fully grasp and a four-year term can go by quickly. However, Naylor’s supporters assert she can set the agenda in the commonwealth’s second largest school system and stand out.
“I see her as a new leader,” Robinson said.