Q & A with the school board candidates

The Radnorite Staff

School board elections are fast approaching. Next Tuesday, November 2nd, our community will vote to decide who we want directing Radnor Township School District. Without a doubt, in the past two years, students have become hyper aware of how the school board’s decisions affect our learning environment — from zoom to distanced in-person learning. 

To increase communication between RHS students and the school board candidates, the editorial staff of the Radnorite reached out to each of the candidates to get their answers to questions that are most pressing to the students of RHS. Although most of the students cannot vote, we are the demographic most affected by the results of school board elections. All of these answers are unedited, and each candidate was given an equal opportunity to participate.

What advice do you have for current high school students?

Andrew Babson: 

I’d like to offer some research-based advice which I’ve seen improve youth goal achievement. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s very effective: be creative yet detailed about drafting a plan to reach a goal for yourself. You can actually make several of these goal statements and plans, and fit each one on a sheet of paper, to start. For the same goal, be a little unrealistic with one plan, perhaps more realistic with another plan, and maybe, wildly ridiculous with another. Your plan(s) should include detailed steps you think you need to take to reach your goal, including what you’d be willing to sacrifice to reach it, and, importantly, what you think you’d need support-wise to take those steps. There is a lot of good research to suggest that the act itself of thinking through goals and writing down detailed steps to realize them, however imaginative, will encourage you to make actual progress toward them. Even if this isn’t necessarily your thing, just try it. Full disclosure: I’ve been somewhat resistant to goal-setting and planning all my life! I’ve realized, though, that beyond talent, hard work and luck, it is a real difference-maker when it comes to achievement.

Photo from Andrew Babson

Beth Connor:

The high school years fly by quickly. There is so much to learn both academically and about yourself. I would suggest students create a healthy balance of both academics and fun. Academic success is important, so take your studies seriously and don’t be shy to ask for extra help. For fun, be brave and try new activities. Radnor has an amazing amount of clubs and activities to get involved in. Since high school can be full of stress both academically and socially try to not sweat the small stuff but look for the big picture.

Photo from Beth Connor

Sarah Dunn:

Take the time to get to know yourself and pursue your own dreams.  Take classes that challenge you and ones that are just fun.  Take advice and input from the people you respect and those who care about you, but ultimately, take ownership of your path when you walk through the doors of RHS and when you leave.  Take your education seriously, but take time to enjoy your friendships!

Photo from Sarah Dunn

Dave Falcone:

Enjoy the moment.  It has been an incredibly hard two years.  While we aren’t quite back to “normal” yet, I would encourage all students to cherish the days that they have together and to appreciate the time that they have as Radnor students.  This community can be a great support system and as our high school students grow older, move away, and look back on these days I am hopeful that they will remember how they were a strong and committed group of students that overcame tremendous obstacles to do great things!

Photo from Dave Falcone

Laura Foran: 

When I was a student at Radnor – my father told me that “I was born on third base but most certainly did not hit a triple”.  Being grateful for what you have been given is a pathway to a better life for all.

Photo from Laura Foran

Lydia Solomon:

High School is a special time to try different things, explore, and learn about yourself.  Challenge yourself academically by taking classes in English, Social Studies, Science, Math and World Language. There will be plenty of opportunity post high school to specialize in a specific area.  Take advantage of the incredible variety of extra-curricular activities that are offered at Radnor.  Learn to play a musical instrument and participate in band or orchestra.  Try out for a sports team and learn how to work as a team member.  Participate in a club that interests you such as Model Congress or Best Buddies. Volunteer your time to a cause that is important to you.  But most importantly, remember to have fun.  Take time to make friends and enjoy spending time with your friends.  Strive for a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle that nourishes you intellectually, socially, physically, and spiritually.

Photo from Lydia Solomon

Susan Stern:

My biggest piece of advice is to take the courses at Radnor that really interest you.  Do you love physics?  Go for it. Are you wondering if art is your passion?  Take that sculpture or drawing course.  The District has such a wide variety of courses from which to choose that I hope every student makes the most of the opportunities available.  While it is important to work with your parent(s) and school counselor to make sure you meet all the required courses to graduate, and to select the appropriate level of difficulty for your courses, this is YOUR opportunity to explore your interests and abilities as you make your way toward your post-high school plans.

Photo from Susan Stern

Bob Whitehead:

I think one of the most valuable, long term things a student can do is work to cultivate a positive and resilient mindset.  It’s not a skill specific to industry or situation, rather it’s a framework that can be applied throughout life and I believe pays huge dividends.

Photo from Bob Whitehead

What are the strengths of Radnor Township School District?

Andrew Babson: 

A strong school district is one in which all students are challenged and supported in equal measure. When schools have adequate resources, and when communities have a culture of prioritizing education, good things tend to happen educationally: good people can be hired and want to stay working in the district, the community enjoys and is motivated to maintain a high standard, students share in that motivation. These are all generalities, of course. But Radnor’s strength as a district persists over time because of these macro-level factors, which also reinforce the micro-level factors of effective pedagogy and administration, and an ethic of caring and support for students. We are in a very good place right now as a district regarding these strengths, but we can always improve, and we are poised to do so, as outlined by district leadership in our recently-drafted Comprehensive Plan.

Beth Connor:

Radnor’s strengths lies in its teachers and parents. Our teachers are some of the very best who work to provide a high quality of education to our students. Radnor parents are engaged, supportive and involved in every aspect of our schools. Together our teachers and parents make a great team.

Sarah Dunn:

Radnor Township School District has too many strengths to enumerate.  We benefit from the bounty of a community that values high quality education and willingly invests in the future of Radnor children.  We have skilled and caring educators.  We have administrators who strive to be on the cutting edge of educational initiatives.  We have office, transportation, janitorial, maintenance and food service staff who take the time to know the children in their care.  Finally, we are a District that does not rest on its laurels.  We constantly strive for improvement.

Dave Falcone: 

Radnor Township School District is strong, first and foremost, because of the amazing teachers and students that we have.  Without the absolute best educators and students committed to learning, we are just any other school district – but we continue to prove, year after year, that we are unique.  Secondly, RTSD is strong due to its diversity of thought.  We have students that are confident to challenge ordinary thought and to push an entire community to continue to grow and evolve.  Thirdly, Radnor is proud.  Our students, our teachers, our staff, our administration and our alumni are proud of who we are and what we stand for as a school community.   

Laura Foran: 

Radnor has many great qualities.  These are young folks, are for the most part coming in to our buildings well rested, well fed and ready to learn.  That puts them ahead just walking in the door.   We should be thankful for those parents that are fierce advocates for their children. 

Lydia Solomon:

Radnor is an amazing community that supports public education and takes pride in our public school system.  Radnor is also a caring community where people are generous and help their neighbors.  These community values are tremendous strengths for the Radnor Township School District.  We are very fortunate to have a long history of recruiting excellent teachers, which builds a strong academic tradition.  Radnor also offers an abundance of opportunities to pursue almost any interest a student might have. Radnor has a vast and diverse curriculum that offers instruction at various levels in several subject areas.  Radnor high school offers 28 AP classes and several integrated courses.   Radnor was one of the first districts in the area to offer full day kindergarten and we are currently offering an early learning program.  Other strengths of the district include offering an innovative and challenging curriculum, small class sizes, mental health supports for students, and a vast array of music, sports, and other extra-curricular activities.

Susan Stern:

One of the biggest strengths, and therefore greatest assets, of the District is our dedicated teachers and staff.  The passion and commitment they bring to students is evident and they make a difference every day.  Another strength of the District is the variety of courses that are offered at the high school.  It allows our students to find and nurture their passions and talents, whether it is music, art, sports, or in a club.  Finally, an important strength of the District is the diversity of its students.  We have students from countries around the world represented in our schools.  Celebrating that diversity and recognizing the richness in all the various cultures represented throughout Radnor is a real strength.

Bob Whitehead:

There are many, but the short answer to me is the staff/faculty and the camaraderie within the student body.  I understand it’s a challenging time right now, but I know that with time and conversation this group will come out of it stronger and closer than ever.

Are there any ways you think Radnor High School could improve its learning environment?

Andrew Babson: 

There is always room for improvement. One way to improve is providing more support for the mental health aspects of being a student. High standards are great, but support to reach those high standards is necessary. Another should build on our strong core value that “knowledge and learning are good”. It is one of the few values that really unite us as a community, so we should rally around that. One important way to do this now is to be more inclusive. What drives this goal of inclusivity is a commitment to pluralism (maintenance of shared values while celebrating differences) and fairness, also called “equity”. Fairness is a moral imperative, but practically speaking, it also makes for a more harmonious community. E pluribus unum is a founding ideal of our republic supporting pluralism. Pluralism assumes that, a baseline of shared moral tenets having been agreed, we are stronger as an inclusive community than an exclusive community.

Beth Connor:

Our elementary teachers need continuing education and training in phonics programs with explicit, systematic instruction to support all of our young learners. In all grades, teachers need extra resources as they work to identify and close any learning gaps that occurred due to virtual learning. Social and emotional learning should be emphasized in K-12 to increase academic achievement, improve attitudes and behaviors, and lessen anxiety among our students. All students should be taught to evaluate other points of view critically, respectfully and constructively.

At RHS, our guidance counselors need to be fully supported and given extra resources to meet the needs of their caseloads to ensure that every student has a path after graduation.

Sarah Dunn:

We have made great strides in the past few years at RHS to improve the learning environment.  We started the Extended Learning Program, a free after-school tutoring program to provide our students academic assistance from Radnor teachers.  We changed school start times to allow adolescents a healthy start for the day.  We’re in the middle of the Accessibility and Wellness Project to update our infrastructure and athletic facilities.  We’ve added to our mental health supports and last school year we heeded a student suggestion to have an emotional support dog in the library.  

We need to continue improving our counseling supports to ensure that our students understand their full range of options in high school and when they leave Radnor.  Also, we need to continue our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative to ensure that everyone feels welcome – in all our schools.  

Most importantly, we are open to feedback from RHS students who are in the best position to tell us what improvements are needed!

Dave Falcone: 

Learning environments evolve over time and things are no different here in Radnor.  In my mind, the most critical component of a learning environment, in Radnor or anywhere, is that it be safe.  Aside from the need to be physically safe, a learning environment must be emotionally safe – safe for open and honest discussion; safe for opposing points of view; safe for freedom of thought and expression.  I am a believer in healthy debate.  I believe that our differences ultimately make us stronger and bring us closer.  Providing environments for our students to express their individuality is essential.

Laura Foran: 

Radnor needs to be better for our students who are simply “hiding in plain sight”.  Students that seem to not draw attention to themselves……those kids need us more than ever and we just have to do better to meet them where they are.  Peer to Peer mentoring and supports should be in place so that EVERY STUDENT can walk into our buildings and feel welcome and part of a community.  We have to do better with that.

Lydia Solomon:

Although Radnor is ranked as the best school district in PA according to some polls, there are always ways to improve a school’s learning environment.  I would like to see a renewed emphasis on making each student feel special and valued for the unique individual they are.  It takes a special teacher to recognize each student’s individual strengths, while still performing all the necessary academic demands.  It is also important to strengthen and encourage post high school career paths, such as trade school or community college, so that every student can find success after graduation.  It is most important to continue to focus on the goal of producing educated, caring, and involved citizens for the future of our community.

Susan Stern:

One of the things we have learned over the past 18 months is that flexibility in the learning environment is very important.  It might benefit the high school and the students for us to continue to be flexible in how we “attend” class.  Perhaps we have a student who is quarantining, or we have a group of students attending a conference (such as Model UN or the yearly Band Trip.)  It would be great if those students could tune in remotely, or watch a taped lecture, rather than miss a class. 

Bob Whitehead:

I’d love to see an expansion of mentorship programs. By “mentor” I don’t mean “advisor”, I mean building relationships with people who can provide life experience and big-picture direction.  This can (and should) be done outside of school as well, but it’s a difficult process to start and I feel we could facilitate that when desired.  

What freedom should high school teachers have to discuss distressing or controversial current events?

Andrew Babson: 

This is a big question! I hold myself to a pedagogical standard which, I expect, many other public school teachers do as well: train students to think for themselves and develop their own opinions, based on facts, however uncomfortable those facts may be. Holding to this standard is much easier said than done, though, because it can introduce a tension between intellectual freedom and moral responsibility. Arguably, private school teachers have an advantage in dealing with this tension, because they are part of institutions which are freer to establish their own explicit norms and values, which families voluntarily adhere to; this is even more the case in a religious school. In public schools, however, pluralism is a guiding principle, and there is an imperative toward moral inclusivity, and so, recourse to what could be called a vaguer and less-defined minimal moral framework, encoded in civic norms and, at the limit, our legal system. As a result, when educating about morally complex issues, public school teachers generally have a more precarious task than private school teachers. They may have broader pedagogical freedom, but they also carry a larger responsibility to be more flexible and generous in dialogues among stakeholders when problems do arise. I’m a little biased obviously, but I think our district teachers do a fantastic job at this.

Beth Connor:

Teachers should always follow the RTSD district guidelines for ratings when choosing material for the classroom. When discussing controversial issues, teachers should introduce topics in a productive and unbiased way that will encourage students to develop much needed critical thinking skills. Teachers should encourage respectful dialogue between students and create an environment for students to openly discuss their opinions where they can learn from each other.

Sarah Dunn:

RHS teachers understand adolescents and, in particular, their students. While it’s a good idea for a teacher to tell students that the topic of an upcoming class is potentially distressing or controversial, our children do not learn from avoiding difficult conversations.  It is important that our students have respectful dialogue on these issues and that our teachers facilitate these conversations in way that allows all voices to be heard.  Colleges and workplaces will expect our students to be critical thinkers and we have an obligation to teach them how to communicate their ideas.

Dave Falcone: 

 A school board’s job is make thoughtful and informed curriculum choices and to then provide our teachers with the best possible support and resources to implement that curriculum.  Radnor teachers are by and large superb educators and an important piece of what makes Radnor such an exceptional place to learn.  We have to trust them.  If we believe in our teachers enough to employ them, we should have faith that they can navigate difficult times and topics in their classrooms.  That said, a school board can’t turn its back on making sure that the overall curriculum in place for our teachers is fluid so that, as a District, we can be responsive to the needs of our students and the current events of the day.

Laura Foran: 

I understand the complexity of controversial issues but I want the teachers to help students question what is happening and reach their own conclusions.  I would like to see courageous conversations taking place where everyone has a chance to be heard without fear.   I do not believe that we should limit subjects in school but I would hope that the parents are able to have input before these topics are addressed.

Lydia Solomon:

Exploring and discussing complex and controversial topics is an important component of a well-rounded education.  I believe it is important for students to learn to think critically about controversial topics.  One of the best methods to formulate your own opinions about controversial or challenging current events is to study under the guidance of an informed, educated, and caring teacher.  Therefore, teachers should have a fair amount of freedom to explore these topics with their students.  I trust our professional educators to judge the appropriate level of information to present to various student groups at different ages. I expect our students to think independently for themselves in formulating their own opinions.  Students should be encouraged to ask questions and have differing opinions.  This will help foster a climate of tolerance in the schools and the wider community.

Susan Stern:

It’s important to recognize the opportunity and obligation that high school teachers have when leading discussions that may be distressing, or a controversial current event.  These conversations provide teachers with an opportunity to stretch our students’ critical thinking skills and model civil discourse.  But teachers also have an obligation to do so in a way that follows Board Policy.  Parents and guardians have a role to play in the process as well, first by being notified when a controversial topic or curriculum is to be discussed and then follow the procedure to voice concerns if they have them.    Our teachers are skilled professionals who bring their expertise to these challenging conversations and I believe they should be given the opportunity to lead those discussions.  But they have to follow the guidelines set forth by policy so that parents can be actively involved in voicing concerns, if they have them.

Bob Whitehead:

Fantastic question; I still struggle with this because, as a parent, I think its primarily our job to work with our kids to navigate these issues as a family.  That said, peer-led conversation (and even debate) is critical to developing a skillset that will carry through and become a life skill.   I actually think this is a lost art and plays a big part in the division we are facing today.  I would say it comes down to transparency and communication.  It’s absolutely a parent’s right to know what’s being discussed so they can decide if their child is equipped to navigate the topic, and they can also then continue the conversation at home.

How do you aim to heal the political divide in our community?

Andrew Babson: 

I think this is a matter that goes beyond the school district’s mission, if I’m honest. Expecting a school board to heal community divides strikes me as yet another example of expecting public education to solve social, cultural, moral, economic and political problems in our society which can be solved by other institutions. That said, one could argue school boards do have a special role in bridging local community divides, especially in places like Radnor where “knowledge and learning are good” really is one of the core values that unite us as a community. So, perhaps we can further unite the community by doubling down on our commitment to this core value. And there’s no reason that us board members shouldn’t want to be exemplars for how to get things done together, despite disagreement. And I believe that as a slate, as a board in general, we’ve done this, especially over the last 20 months. By the way, that core Radnor value, “knowledge and learning are good” is straight out of the Enlightenment, the social and cultural movement of the 1700’s that gave birth to our country’s founding ideals (not necessarily realities; ideals). Public education itself is a pure product of the Enlightenment. One could say that the current political divides in our country, which are inevitably playing out in Radnor, to a large extent come down to generally supporting Enlightenment ideals or rejecting them.

Beth Connor:

We need to take the focus off of politics and instead view each other as neighbors and partners working together for the betterment of our schools and community. We need to see each other as people, rather than what political party they affiliate with. Our school board leaders should set a respectful tone and example for the community by listening to all voices and opinions and responding in a thoughtful genuine way.

Sarah Dunn:

The past few years have been a challenging time for our community and our nation.  The school board is a non-partisan endeavor — we are unpaid volunteers who are elected to oversee public education in our community.  That said, we are elected leaders who serve as role models for our students.  

I think healing begins with respectful behavior.  I have noticed a tendency to see issues as having two sides, when in reality, our community’s politics span a full spectrum. We would all benefit from practicing active listening techniques: instead of trying to refute every point another person makes, we should listen and acknowledge another person’s point of view.  It would also help to look for common ground.  On the current school board, we try to “disagree without being disagreeable”.  When people resort to name-calling and refuse to engage in civil discourse, it is much more difficult to begin healing. 

Dave Falcone: 

 There is only one way to bridge any divide and that is to be a part of the actual bridge.  You have to be the change you want to see.  I believe that politics are more heated now than I can ever remember.  Lines are drawn more around what we are as opposed to who we are.  That’s a problem.  Sitting on a school board should be as far from “political” as you can get.  A school board’s decisions are inherently local.  If we keep that in mind and keep our focus on what is best for Radnor we will quickly see that we are much more alike than we are different.  Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent, in Radnor, you want what’s best for Radnor. Along those same lines, I think we need to embrace the fact that you can disagree with someone and not feel that you must dislike them.  Part of what makes Radnor great is that we are an informed and engaged community with strong opinions on a variety of topics.  We have to be open to hearing and learning from all sides.  I am certain I can be a part of the bridge that shows we can succeed not just in spite of our differences, but because of them.

Laura Foran: 

Healing the divide?  Unfortunately this happens in politics and I think that the best thing we can do, as a community is to help support and implement a new Primary where all candidates run as Independents.  Politics has no place in public education and it is important that the Radnor School Board operate in a non partisan way with all of their decision making.

Lydia Solomon:

The political divide in our community reflects the political situation in the entire country.  It, unfortunately. is not unique to Radnor. The strong division in the community is distressing to many.   In dealing with any disagreement or conflict, it is helpful to listen to the points of view of all stakeholders.  Carefully listening to the concerns and ideas of various community members can allow people to understand an issue from different perspectives.  Being able to see the other person’s perspective, even though you may not agree, allows you to begin to build bridges between different groups with conflicting viewpoints.  Hopefully, by better understanding other people opinions, the community can move forward towards a shared vision of what is best for Radnor. 

Susan Stern:

Well first by stating that, regardless of the election results, I wish only good things for our elected school board members.  I will continue to remember that at the heart of every board is a group of volunteers who are stepping forward to benefit the District and the community, even if we disagree on matters of policy.  But healing a divide is a process that requires the parties on both sides of an issue to come together with a willingness to move forward.  For my part, I will continue to treat every member of the public with respect, even if I don’t agree with them on a particular issue.  I have tried hard to do that for the past eight years and would, if re-elected, do my best to help move the community forward in this way.

Bob Whitehead:

These differences have always (and will always) exist.  We all have different experiences and perspectives, but (much like a Board) this is an asset not a liability. I think my answer above (lost art of debate) in addition to social media and the news cycle have exacerbated it.  I would argue that facing the differences head on and creating a format for discussion would begin the healing process. If elected, I would work to alter the School Board meeting format to promote more civil, two-way communication between Board members and community.  People deserve direct responses to their questions.