I’m Nicki Vander Meulen, and one of the first life skills I learned was advocacy. As a person with disabilities, specifically Asperger’s syndrome and cerebral palsy, advocacy on my own behalf was a necessity to ensure that I received the support that I needed in school. But as I grew up, I realized that being an advocate was a skill that I shouldn’t just use to help myself — it was a skill that I ought to use to help others secure the same incredible opportunities that I received. That belief is what inspired me to become a juvenile rights attorney, and now a candidate for the Madison Metropolitan School Board.

As an attorney who represents juvenile clients, I have seen firsthand what happens when our education system does not adequately meet the needs of the students it is meant to serve. Currently, our school district has both a staggering achievement gap and a disturbingly high rate of suspensions and expulsions amongst students of color. These two problems are not isolated from one another, but are inextricably linked. Students who are removed from the classroom will naturally struggle keeping up with their peers academically. That is why the first step to reducing the achievement gap must be keeping students in class, rather than constantly punishing them.

There’s a lot of merit to small policy changes which will keep students in school. On the School Board, I will work to expand the restorative justice program, which is an effective alternative to placing students in the criminal justice system. I will also focus on improving the current Behavior Education Program by adding clear steps students can take to improve their behavior. Creating a more objective system, predicated on clear goals, will benefit all of our schools. Each of these policies is steps which will begin to ensure that discrimination against minority, low-income, and disabled students does not occur. These changes will help break the cycle of constant punishment, giving students the opportunity to succeed in the classroom.

It is also imperative that our School Board improves its relationship and communications with the Madison community as a whole. For example, our district loses 1,000 students per year to open enrollment. One of my top priorities on the board will be investigating this issue by hearing the concerns and critiques of parents and students. As an attorney who takes cases to trial, I know how important it is to diligently gather information and communicate it in a comprehensible, timely manner. As a member of the School Board, I look forward to continuing the free-flowing conversations I’ve had with so many members of the community during this campaign.

In the current political environment, both at the state and national levels, public education has come under attack. One of the primary concerns of the parents and teachers I talk to every day has been the expansion of voucher programs and charter schools. On the School Board, I will be fully committed to our existing public schools. I will bring a critical eye to our existing charter schools, and constantly fight for transparency in their lottery process. Moreover, I will take a stand against voucher programs, knowing that most refuse to admit students with disabilities altogether. As someone who’s benefited enormously from public education, I know that access to it must be universal and inclusive.

I have never been one to sit idly by and stomach inequalities and injustices. Right now our school district has tremendous potential — we’re lucky that we have great teachers, committed parents, and gifted students. On the board, I look forward to unleashing that potential by fighting to reduce the achievement gap, to keep students in our district, and to keep students in the classroom. As someone who has been an advocate their entire life, I look forward to using my skills to be a force for change on the Madison Metropolitan School Board.

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