Q&A with Dr. Vickie Benson, Democratic candidate for Cobb Board of Education Post 1

Dr. Vickie BensonDr. VIckie Benson (photo courtesy of Dr. VIckie Benson)

The Courier sent a list of questions to Dr. Vickie Benson, the Democratic candidate for Cobb County Board of Education Post 1.

Benson is running against Republican incumbent Randy Scamihorn, who has held his seat since 2016.

The responses were sent via email.

Can you talk about your background? Who are you?

Benson: My name is Dr. Vickie Benson. I am a candidate for the Cobb County School Board Post 1.

The Cobb County School District is in dire need for consistent leadership. I am a voice for students, an advocate, and supporter for faculty and staff. I am a poised and polished professional educator, entrepreneur, and an author with diverse experience in teaching and school leadership roles for over 24-years. I have taught science in various school settings and am currently teaching STEM to 7th and 8th graders.

I am a mom, grandmother, and a wife and have lived in Georgia for 8 years. Even before moving to Georgia, I traveled here to visit my family and attended church in Smyrna quite often. I have inherited a great foundation from a legacy of family members who are educators. I am a native of Tuskegee, Alabama and now reside in Acworth, GA.

My love for education comes from a family of educators who supports the well-being and excellence of children. My passion for education is being a transformational leader by demonstration and implementation. I am a trendsetter for helping students reach academic performance achievement, college, and career goals, coaching, and mentoring teachers through professional training.

With gained and intuitive experiences, I feel that Cobb School District should be able to provide a supportive wellness program for teachers and staff that is designto enrich their physical, mental, emotional, and occupational well-being. At the same time, we must provide the same support system for our students.

I have a dual professional education certification in Biology Education and Education Leadership in two states. I graduated from Alabama State University where I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees; Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Education in Biology Education, Master of Education in Educational Administration P-12 and an Education Specialist in Educational Administration P-12. I received my doctorate from Argosy University Atlanta in Educational Leadership K-12. I am also a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham where I received academic training and a certificate in Medical Assistants (Clinical and Office Administration).

What political issues are most important to you in this day and age regarding Cobb County schools?

There are several concerns that are important to me regarding Cobb County Schools.

But the lack of equity is a major concern. I believe it is important to support an internal audit and data analysis to understand the disparities in certain areas of the school district. The data must be true and accurate that will lead to a variety of metrics that measures successful outcomes.

In addition, there must be provided support for equity initiative programs internally and externally including much needed support that will equip students with ready accessible resources such as technology, academic support, prevention and intervention programs, and increased student achievement.

What issues of transparency are there in Cobb schools and how would you fix those issues?

Open forum is one of the purest forms of public participation. It is an opportunity for citizens to hear how their elected officials make decisions about the school district business. Public comment is important because it ensures transparency between the board and the community, builds relationships and trustworthiness, provides clarity for misconceptions and misunderstanding. In addition, public comment allows for feedback and suggestions. However, public comments should be only articulated to address school business concerns and not complaints about staff members during public comment time.

We must be transparent with our communication and be passion about it because we are dealing with the lives of our school children and their families, our teachers and their families. We must be open to address and know the concerns. We must put ourselves in the shoes of others and know that everyone’s circumstance is different. However, we must be able to find a solution without creating a problem that amounts to nothing.

There was no true accountability or transparency when we examine how virtual learning and the reopening of the schools did not have a protocol or proper procedures for reassurance.

Parents consistently asked questions and had major concerns about a transition plan that ensured the safety for our children, teachers, and staff. The ultimate plan should have started with an end in mind.

There should have been a focus on our most vulnerable to ensure adequate services were provided to support teachers and staff. There should have been multiple town hall meetings, with students, parents, teachers, and administrators, as well as conducting 2-3 surveys to make data-driven decisions.

A school-wide planning committee to address safety would have been ideal. This could have consisted of at least one employee from each school department, local businesses, health organizations stakeholders. Unfortunately, everyone was not notified about the district’s plan and at some point, board members did not know until they met virtually.

Why did you and some of your colleagues write a statement condemning racism?

It was something that needed to be done without fueling and smothering the smoke without addressing that racism exists. For the mere fact that my opponent could not write a resolution that included Black Lives Matter is a major issue of concern. Especially when there is so much diverse in Cobb. It is unbelievable that one could not see that there is systemic racism that exists in Cobb County School District not only in the school district but in communities in Cobb.

I have partaken in writing a statement of this magnitude because as a nation we must not continue to be separated but come together and live peacefully. We all should be reaching to build a multicultural community.

No one must ever feel unaccepted because of the color of their skin. The impact of racism has caused inequity in education and because of these inequities, Black and Brown children face extreme opposition to academic success.

We want the Cobb County School District and the community to hear from us, the candidates who have written a resolution that defines justice and cause that Black Lives Matter, and denounce racism primarily which minimizes systemic problems that Black and Brown children face.

There should not be a debate about proposing a resolution or should there be a disagreement especially with the uncivil rest that has taken place within our country.

It is imperative to know we are in a different era, and the inequities should not exist in a learning institution where children should be the center of focus. It is time to set the bar at high expectations when it comes to leadership in the largest school district in Georgia.

Demographics has changed in Cobb with 61% of the school district been remarkably diverse. Everyone should be represented from staff, teachers, administrators, school board members, and stakeholders. We should be able to assess data more frequently on the level of intervention as well as establish goals that employees/stakeholders must meet as we embrace and change our mindset on how we view others.

Your website says you’re a professional educator, entrepreneur, and an author. How has this experience prepared you to become a BOE member?

Working as a teacher has prepared me to become an effective BOE member. I have had many opportunities to work in many facets in education while teaching from middle school to college. Majority of my years I have spent teaching in a high school setting.

I started my teaching career as a Vocational Education Teacher (AKA) Career Technical Education/Science teacher for 3 years moved into the high school setting where I have been teaching Science for 24 years.

I have taught medical professional students in nursing, physical therapy, and medical assistants, at three junior colleges.

During the summer months at Tuskegee University (TU) I taught in the Vet Step program with 9th-12th graders from across the country who were interested in becoming veterinarians, assisted college students in the Chemistry department at TU during the Summer also.

My experience has brought me to Georgia where I taught at a Christian School, Fulton County Schools where I was elected as a School Governance Council Member, and Cobb County School District where I not only taught science, but I coached the JV cheerleading team, assisted with Varsity Coaching, and volunteered as an advisor and reader for senior projects. I have been instrumental in increasing overall test scores for struggling learners by 15% by researching and implementing well-rated professional development workshops that focused on teaching at-risk students nowhere what school district I have taught in.

As far as I know I have always been a strong leader. My desire now is to be a leader for the Cobb County School District. Cobb School District really needs someone who is very transparent and accountable to address their concerns and make equitable decisions. As a former Science Department Chair, I lead a team of 5 science teachers at a high school in Alabama for 7 years. We worked remarkably close together as a team and results for test scores and student performance was outstanding. In fact, my supervisor now was one of my team members then. We had not worked together for 15 years until now. He has been so supportive of my campaign and I am grateful that he values my leadership.

Being in education has increased my leadership skills and my tenacity to be effective and efficient. As a Director Coordinator of Schools Activities, I organized school events such as drug awareness week, Community Health and Science Fairs. Spirit/Motivational, Prom, Educational Week, Teacher Week, and other school activities; assisted the school counselor during the Summer with master scheduling, chaired school improvement teams where I have led the school into academic gains and received recognition as well as rewarded to a previous school where I was employed $5,000 to purchases resources for the student.

I served for 3-years as State Teacher Leader (Teacher Leader Network, TLN) at the District Level for school-wide improvement, where I was able to provide professional development with faculty and staff at a previous school district, presented data interpretation for classroom instruction and student mastery, developed a yearly school-wide improvement, action research and mentoring plan for beginning teachers, and peer coaching for veteran teachers and wrote with team collaboration yearly school improvement plans.

Effectively led school committees as chair or co-chair and advised several student organizations and clubs for 17 years at various schools. Led as school chair for SACS accreditation team where our school was successfully accredited. I worked as an Education Consultant while supporting teachers in the classroom to improve performance for both educators and students. Utilizing professional enhancement tools and data-driven action plans, reviewing lesson plans, observing with the TKES standards, mentoring and coaching through group meetings, professional development, and monthly summary reporting.

Formally I served as an Evaluation Director for a non-profit organization Destiny Daughters of Promise, Inc., for 3 years. The accountability for this leadership position was mostly centered on evaluating programs using data analysis that would prepare young teen girls in the Cobb community. I recently attended several forums with the organization. Their mission for young teen girls is “to foster healthy relationships and to empower girls to live a life of bold success.” This ultimately leads to leadership, college preparation, and workforce.

The most recent experience was being elected as a board member for Cobb Community Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse (CCAPSA) where I serve in the capacity to help prevent substance abuse in Cobb County, GA. I see organizations like this as school-community-partnerships. It offers the schools and the communities support for families and children in many areas such as academics, social and emotional health. However, my service will be far and beyond as I prepare to share responsibilities in carrying out policies, finance support, and management. Currently, I co-chair in my science department and a member of my school’s leadership team.

I decided that entrepreneurship was another way to become an awesome leader and to create a business that was centered focus on educator’s wellness. Which I can say, I am an “Edupreneur.” Well, an “Eduprenuer” combined entrepreneur is defined and valued as one who lends their expertise to help others. Being healthy and working in education is more of a personal side of me. I have had my struggles with health issues, but I discovered that it should not be a struggle to balance job/career and live healthy. You must eat the right foods, pray, and meditate. And the exercise would be my hardest, but I focus on staying healthy.

I have written two published books “1014 Fit and Smoothie Cleanse: Unleashed the Empowerment to Change Your Lifestyle” and “21 Day Daniel Fast Recipes: Praying Your Way Through To Live Healthy” two unpublished books “Healthy Educators Are Effective Educators: Teaching Teachers How to Live Beyond the Classroom with An Optimal Health Support Action Plan,” and “Mind Blown: The Eduprenuer Mindset.” I am the founder/CEO of A Healthier w/Dr. Vickie Benson, LLC. I coach and support the well-being of educators and the community through my programs on how to detoxify and cleanse the body naturally for ultimate health. Therefore, I am so adamant on making sure our teachers, administrators and staff are working in a stress-free environment as well as maintaining a healthy socially, emotionally, and physical lifestyle.

Can you expand on your support for Vertical Equity Programs and No Barriers programs? Why do you emphasize support for students who may not want to attend college? How would you work to create an environment where teachers, staff, and administrative members are healthy socially, emotionally, and physically?

Closing the equity gap is the most effective way to have sustainable and self sufficient programs. These programs will provide students with an affordable, high quality education that enable them to acquire the skills that employers are seeking. The programs are adept for students who may not have an interest in going to college but want to be a productive citizen. The programs will serve as a dual purpose with opportunities to learn technical and business skills in a hands-on way. The program is based on programs such as “From High School to Career” and “Career Tech.” The advantage here is to choose a career plan that leads to a job or entrepreneurship after high school. Students can even enter the program as early as the 7th grade. The “learn by doing and earning” as we do in STEM programs will prepare the students for a remarkable and unique way to support their future success. They will even have business experience as self-employed entrepreneurs.

We are now living in the digital technological age and the global pandemic has pushed us in even further. Our district must have a better focus on “Vertical Equity Programs” for educational opportunities and to promote success. This will include access to technology at home for our disadvantage students who live in low-income homes or communities. Students deserve the equity for having access to technology at home, the same rights, opportunities, and resources for each school.

I foresee a “No Barriers” program where students will be provided with age appropriate tools for personal growth and development. With this program students will reach their full potential to make a positive impact globally. With school/communitypartnerships we can design projects purposefully to address challenges within our schools and communities in ways for building resilience in children, create a diverse and inclusive society.

Empowering to create and promote an environment where teachers are healthy socially, emotionally, and physically is essential. Working in a stress-free environment increases the chances for a longer life span, even after retirement. If teachers are to work effectively to help students to achieve academic success, they must be healthy first. The goal for the in-school wellness program makes the work environment supportive for positive behaviors. Preventing chronic illnesses, reduction in teacher absences, reduced medical cost, increase job performance, and job satisfaction. In addition, I will support teacher leadership where teachers will have an opportunity to advance in their educational career and have excellent teachers who pursue excellence in teams (e.g. curriculum writing, teacher recruitment, after school coordinator, mentoring, coaching, etc.) and are consistent with leadership qualities.

What issues of bullying do you see within Cobb schools and how do you plan to fix these issues?

Talking with parents, teachers, and the community, the greatest long-term challenge facing the community are student bullying, racial bias, and disparities among our minority students. These challenges have been identified as a serious problem according to the recent lawsuit and complaints filed by parents and a community group. However, I do not see this as a long-term challenge. I see this as a short-term challenge that will be addressed and quickly resolved with open communication and dialogue.

Anti-bullying intervention and prevention revised policy is needed. Strong antibullying policies must provide a clear definition for bullying and laws must accompany the actions of those who violates the policy. The policy must include cyberbullying and school sanction for cyberbullying, which is not limited to verbal, written or physical harm. I will work to achieve results by establishing a safe zone for student comfort and affirmation with an anti-bullying program that will involve administration, faculty, parents, and students in the process for intervention and prevention. On the other hand, there must be mandate reporting and investigation in timely manner to a designated official, law enforcement official, and procedures for reporting bullying incidents.

How do you feel about the school board’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? Would you do anything differently about the pandemic response when elected?

The most significant challenges to quality public education in Cobb County School District is the lack of technology for our socioeconomic deprived students. COVID19 has allowed us to reimagine public education. There is more preparation sense we have been in this pandemic. It has given us a broader aspect as to what is to come in education. Funding is key to implement an initiative equity program efficiently and effectively. A planned budget to meet the needs for equity.

Due to COVID-19, it was noted that many students lack access to technology at home. The Cares Act Funding should have been budgeted to meet the needs of the children to have access to learning at home as they transitioned into the new norm. Instead the Cares Act Funding was used to upgrade Cobb Teaching and Learning System (CTLS). Disparities in the county is evidence based on numbers and these children did not have technology access and were deprived of their learning. Churches donated $75,000 for new Chromebooks to Cobb Schools to fill the demands for families who needed access to remote learning, but 8,000 more Chromebooks were needed to fill the gap for children who were still without access to technology. I have talked with many parents who still cannot access CTLS. Instructional time has been loss, and this pushes our children further behind. However,1.8 million dollars was received from the Cares Act to enhance CTLS, but unfortunately with this amount of money in the budget, technology was not Included.

I would have done a lot of things differently during this unforeseen crisis. The priorities for student learning, teacher and staff support, and safety could have been effectively communicated. Especially with our most vulnerable. The phase in of schools are probably working, but are we still being safe? A transition plan would have been most appropriate when re-opening schools was on the table during the Summer months. Townhall meetings, surveys, phone calls, texting, etc., to communicate concerns about re-opening of the schools should have been considered. The transition plan to re-opening schools should have been safe, just, and healthy. Science with accurate data, not politics should have been the driving data decision to re-open Cobb schools. Implementing more safety measures to protect the entire school community would have been most appropriate such as mandatory mask, social distancing, daily disinfecting and sanitizing, proper ventilation for classrooms, hygiene awareness, tracking (seating chart, temperature scan, COVID-19 alerts to families, teachers, and staff who may have come in contact with a potential infected person at school) weekly COVID-19 reports and data distribution.

As we continue to face these challenging times, educators, policymakers, parents, and the community must come together to ensure the budget supports and benefits the needs for our school district which also include our teachers and staff salaries. With technology we must be able to negotiate prices, write grants, provide each student with a Chromebook, and establish a partnership with internet providers so that our low-income students will have access. We must support our teachers and staff and allow them to have a voice to speak up when they see something is not working in their best interest. COVID-19 has not worked in the best interest of many of our educators, students, or our families.

How would you fix the gap in school resources between East and South Cobb schools? To elaborate, some students say that schools in certain parts of Cobb have outdated teaching equipment and some schools bathrooms’ don’t even have doors, whereas other schools in Cobb have recently received new buildings.

Here again equity is key, and budgeting is a must for students to have access to resources and up-dated learning facilities. The use of SPLOST is to help fund capital outlay projects including our schools for rebuilding, renovating, and updating. We must reexamine priorities and ensure all schools are provided with the same support across the Cobb County School district.

The vulnerable student population must be supported with resources and services that work together for our school children, parents, faculty, and community. Servicing the most vulnerable and ensuring that they are receiving adequate resources depends on many factors. This include age, gender, low-income families, special education, lack of healthcare, Inadequate clothing, the homeless, lack of nutrition, disconnected families, and our transient students. However, increasing funding across schools must be clearly defined regardless of the conditions affecting the district finances. The most vulnerable population must be considered with higher needs and receive higher funding with access to resources.

Some activist groups have been calling for removing police officers from schools. How do you feel about removing police officers from schools? If you do or don’t support it, why? If you do support removing officers, what is the alternative?

Court referrals or first offenders and overuse of suspensions and expulsions from the school level comes from minorities; Hispanics and African Americans who are disciplined 3.5 times greater in schools in comparison to their Caucasian peers which results to a bias issue. Numerous studies have centered this around the school to prison pipeline. Other studies have indicated that high dropout rates and contacts with juvenile system consist of minority youth offenders.

School police officer’s visibility is more of a threat than a positive support for students and families. Our School Resource Officers (SRO’s) are to be present to support a safety and healthy school environment. The SRO’s duties must be redefined to bridge the gap with our schools and communities rather than viewed as police officers who arrest our students which create criminal backgrounds for them. Students want to go to college, and have decent careers or jobs, and we must interact appropriately to seek prevention and intervention measures to keep them safe and support them academically.

There should not be a communication gap when it comes to student misbehavior and SRO’s treating students as criminals must not be tolerated. SRO’s must seek bias and sensitive training, work alone with families, teachers, administrators, and the community to create a nurturing and positive environment that boost student achievement and success. As a school board member alone with my colleagues, we must redesign our discipline policies and practices, properly training staff, have more engagement with families and implement the use of local resources for students to develop their social and emotional skills: implement supportive procedures to allow students to talk about their issues as schools counselors and school-community-partners such as Cobb Community Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse to address their underlying causes of misbehavior; such as trauma, substance abuse, mental health issues academic deficiencies and poverty. I will push for a restorative justice curriculum that will empower our students to resolve conflicts in small groups that will enable them to talk out their problems. However, we must develop a comprehensive plan and seek an array of valuable resources that will help educators and SRO’s.

Although SRO’s are responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools, there is more work to be done. In the meantime, the SRO’s must work closely with administrators to create a safer environment, support the well-being and academics of students and families as well as structure to employ non-punitive techniques when interacting with students.

How do you think you differ best from your opponent besides the obvious political party difference? What do you want voters to know most about you and your campaign?

In many ways I am vastly different from my opponent. I am more of an educational advocate for students, teachers, and staff. They need the right people in place to make the right decisions. I am one of the 4 candidates who want to make things right for our educational system. This could not have come any easier in 2020 to put a prospective on increasing the value on education and educational careers.

Practically, I have worked in education my entire life. My involvement in education goes beyond the scope of teaching in a classroom. I am a transformation leader by demonstration and implementation. I am a trendsetter for helping students reach their academic performance achievement, college, and career goals, teacher coaching and mentoring through professional training, and leadership as well as helped to increase school-wide performance in several school districts. I want to continue doing this for the Cobb School District as a board member. I am a change agent who believes in data-driven results, equity, accountability, and transparency. I am still in the educational arena which allows forward-thinking and reimaging education in the 21st Century where students are learning, preparing, and thriving for a remarkable future in the Cobb County School District.

I intentionally stay up to date with trends and changes that will affect the outcome of our school children’s education and well-being, Not only that, but the long-term impact that teachers face with closing the academic achievement gap, their performance effectiveness to reach each child through best practices, and of course their well-being which is applicable to student learning, but must be essential to the overall health for our teacher wellness.

I am fighting to help balance Cobb County School District alone with my future board colleagues and stakeholders to focus more on “Building A Multicultural Community Through Education Diversity and Cultural Acceptance.” We know that Cobb is extremely diverse.

We must be able to build an equity framework through learning partnerships to connect with our students, teachers, administrators, and the community. The data we collect must be true and accurate that will lead to a variety of metrics that measures successful outcomes.

We must drive a force of equity that will support our Black and Brown Communities which we know has the highest rate of disparities. However, the pattern moving forward must be woven into a paradigm shift in Cobb County’s School Educational System and the change starts now with new leadership.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.