WJCC School Board Berkeley District Q&A: John ‘Rio’ Riofrio

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John Riofrio (Courtesy John Riofrio)
John Riofrio (Courtesy John Riofrio)

WYDaily sent an identical questionnaire to each candidate running for the Berkeley District seat on the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.

John “Rio” Riofrio faces Sandra Young, both newcomers, in this race. Riofrio’s answers are unedited and presented below.

The election takes place Nov. 3.

Read a completed questionnaire from Young here.

1. What do you feel are the three major issues facing the school district right now? What are your ideas on how to address those issues?

Test anxiety, busses and quality of life for students.  Numbers one and three are closely related.  I believe we need to take a step back and look at what we expect students to do.  They get by with very little recess, they have PE once a week (in Elementary School), their lunch times are often so short that they don’t finish eating their lunch, they are often in their seats for long periods of time.  These things absolutely should change.  We should not be cutting recess and we should push hard to figure out how the bus situation contributes to these problems.  For example: my elementary-aged kids start school at 9:10 because the buses are in use before then.  What if all schools started at 8:30?  In the case of my kids, the extra 40 minutes could be used to give them a short morning recess, a longer more relaxed lunch (time to just hang out and chat with friends) and coul even offer a short block of time for remediation work, or to get some of their homework done before going home.  I’m not convinced that we’ve handled the bus system effectively.

2. Population data suggests that WJCC will need a fourth middle school to accommodate students in the coming years. What do you think of the school division’s plan to build a new middle school on the campus of James Blair Middle School? Would you support the project’s progress in future budgets?

I think it’s an acceptable solution to a very complicated problem.  It is not a perfect solution but my understanding is that the county has not done a good job of buying land for the use of schools which has resulted in our county being forced to put schools in where we happen to have some land rather than thinking ahead proactively.  I believe that the process that has taken place so far was done with the input of the community and was done in good faith.  To go back now on the middle school plan seems to me a very bad idea.  The numbers clearly show the need for another school and delaying it another four or five years means that we’ll pay even more money.  Furthermore, I think the idea to simply expand existing schools by using our classrooms more efficiently (as Petra Nadal suggested) does not solve the problem.  It’s possible that you could fit extra students into the supposedly empty or half-filled classroom but what about common spaces like the library, the auditorium or the cafeteria?  Students already eat at ridiculous times because there’s not enough space in the cafeteria (my 6th grade daughter eat lunch at 10:30am.  If we add more students to her school does that mean some will have to eat at 10:00?

3. The WJCC school division budget for FY 2016 was $4 million short of the amount it requested from the City of Williamsburg and James City County. What budget items would you want to ensure are fully funded and not cut back if WJCC schools faces a similar budget situation in FY 2017?

I believe we need to fully fund our Arts programs and our support staff.  As we cut necessary positions like special needs instructors, reading specialists, or school counselors we end up essentially “passing the buck” to the classroom teachers who are left trying to be everything to all students.  We need to take the focus off our obsession with testing and test results and ensure that kids are able to take the classes that bring them joy (PE, Art, Music etc).

4. The WJCC school board has discussed starting the school day later for middle and high school students. Do you support later start times for these students? Why or why not?

I absolutely support later start times for both middle and high school.  All of the most current researcher suggests that middle and high school students do better when they sleep in, that they are in better cognitive shape.  I’d like for us to figure out what we can do with the bus situation to make something like later start times a reality.

5. Which school improvement projects do you think need to be priority items for the school division? Why?

I see two main areas: the first has to do with the physical maintenance of buildings.  We need to continue to ensure that we are not cutting corners on our buildings so that repairs and expenses don’t become more of an issue.  The second one, however, is more transcendent.  I believe that we should think about teacher support as an “improvement” project.  Administrators, rather than being free to mentor teachers are often absorbed by disciplinary issues.  Teachers are finding themselves overwhelmed and riddled with anxiety over the burden of testing.  I’d like us to talk closely to teachers to figure out what they need to be more successful.  Do they need support staff that can handle remedial learners?  Do they need support to work with students with special needs?  Do they need funding to pursue lessons that will enrich and inspire their students?  Put more broadly, I believe we need to pay more attention to what teachers need in order to do their jobs better.

6. Talk about the achievement gap in WJCC Schools. Are the current strategies to close the gap working? Why or why not? What are your ideas to help progress in this area? 

The achievement gap here in the county is not an isolated problem.  It is a national problem, one that has multiple sources.  We need to look closely at who is teaching our most needy students.  Are these students, our struggling students, getting the attention of our best teachers?  Are our disciplinary policies hurting or helping them overcome their obstacles.  One small example of this would be to ask whether the use of out-of-school suspension are useful or if they are making an academic problem worse.  We also, however, need to look beyond the classroom.  Has our school system done enough to work with the parents of struggling students?  Have we figured out what these parents need to feel supported and also hopeful?  Success is often a subtle thing, our outlook on life and our ability to cope with adversity are often products of deep and complicated issues: our race, our gender, our family history.  To make a serious effort to close the achievement gap we have to be willing to ask tough questions of ourselves as parents, as educators, as administrators and as a school system, and we have to ask ourselves if we have, in fact, been making a full commitment to closing that gap.  I believe we need to spend much more time and attention supporting the parents of struggling students but also their teachers.

7. How would you describe the working relationship between the school board and the Board of Supervisors? What can the school board do to improve or enhance this relationship?

I think that, in general, there is a solid working relationship. However, I am concerned about the Board of Supervisor’s reticence to fully fund the school district the last several budget cycles.  Without having been involved in the discussions, this leads me to believe that the Board of Supervisors is, perhaps, not understanding the enormous role that the school system plays in the economic well-being of our county.  I believe that constant dialog is important and that both boards need to be willing to listen to each other carefully, but beyond that, I think the school board needs to do a better job of making its case for the ways in which it contributes to the county’s overall well-being.

8. How well do you feel the school board members work together? What do you feel you can bring to the school board’s dynamic?

Everything I have seen suggests that, up until now, the school board has managed to set aside partisan ideologies to work together effectively to set policy and to work through the budget proposal.  I believe that my ability to work well with folks with whom I disagree, my ability as a careful, critical listener, my life-long experience in all levels of education will all be assets as I seek to make our school system stronger.