By Rebecca Gaunt
Dr. Catherine Pozniak announced her run for Cobb County School Board Post 4 Thursday.
Pozniak is a graduate of Sprayberry High School. She earned first-class honors from the University of Sydney, a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge and a doctorate in educational leadership from Harvard University. She is a certified K-8 teacher and holds a superintendent endorsement.
She started her teaching career on the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and served as executive director of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Pozniak went on to become the assistant superintendent of fiscal operations and federal support at the Louisiana Department of Education, where she managed the finances of six state agencies with a total annual budget of $5.5 billion.
She returned to her home near Sprayberry in 2020, and currently works for Watershed Advisors as an advisor in curriculum, assessment, college and career pathways, and accountability.
Pozniak is running as a Democrat, but said, “above all, I’m running to offer an alternative to our current failed Board leadership, as someone ready to put a plan in place that moves all our students forward, regardless of how their parents vote. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in red states, blue states, and purple states.”
Board Chairman David Chastain currently holds the Post 4 seat, which includes Sprayberry and Kell High Schools.
The primary election is on May 24. For more information on Cobb elections, click here.
Pozniak spoke with the Courier by phone.
Why are you running for Post 4?
“I have a background in education and education finance in particular. I continue to work with states and districts on strategic finance…and make sure they can execute their academic plans. Because of that interest, I wanted to get to know more about what was happening locally with our schools here in Cobb County. I was pretty shocked to see what has been going on, particularly with our board,” she said.
Pozniak said it’s a critical time, and the focus needs to be on what it will take to help students recover academically from all the disruption to education caused by the pandemic. The district also needs to focus on leveraging federal dollars to get teaching and learning back on track.
“I just wasn’t seeing that…happening in my own backyard,” she said.
What will you bring from your experience in Louisiana to Cobb?
“Before I was in Louisiana, I taught in South Dakota, so I come at my work with a background in teaching and as an educator. But my work and my experience is really about linking ‘what is the plan for learning’ and then ‘what is the plan for spending that is aligned to that plan for learning,’” she said.
“How do you move the resources that you have and the funding that you have to match that? How do we make sure there is high-quality curriculum? How do you make sure that teachers are trained in the things they need to be trained in? How do you make sure that students are getting the services that they deserve?”
Pozniak said she has spoken to people in schools who are relying on school foundations to fund training and staff. While she thinks foundations are great resources for schools, she questioned whether federal dollars are being utilized in the best manner.
“There are unique investments that need to be made because of the pandemic and making sure we have a healthy and safe learning environment for students, but when I take a look at the scant documents that are available in terms of how this district is applying over $250 million of federal aid that has come through to Cobb County alone. It doesn’t add up to a coherent plan. It’s not really clear from that, what is going to be true for students, what’s going to be happening with teaching and learning, what is the training that teachers are getting,” she said.
She also said it has not been clear where community input has been considered with regard to these investments.
“You have these hand rinsing sinks that cost $14,000 apiece, meanwhile, I talked to someone at a school who is putting together a proposal for their school foundation to pay $28,000 for teacher training in reading foundation. That seems really disconnected,” Pozniak said.
“This whole process has been rather opaque. The board has really suppressed public comment and public discussion, so I think that contributes to the sense of distrust about how decisions are being made and how these dollars are being spent.”
At the time Pozniak was teaching in a classroom, the whole language approach to literacy instruction was in favor, but support for a return to a phonics-based approach is surging.
“The role of the district and the board is to take a look at a system level what is our philosophy or approach to learning, drawing from the latest and best research out there about this. We know what works. It’s a high-quality curriculum, explicit through teaching in the reading foundations around decoding. Also, making sure teachers have the training that they need in order to support students,” she said.
Cobb County School District underwent a special review by its accrediting agency in 2021. It was given one year to make changes. Despite requests to put it on the agenda for discussion by Democratic members, who comprise a minority of the board, it has not had enough support from the Republican majority to be added.
“I think it’s unfortunate the way the board leadership has approached this, which is to not talk about it at all. These are not unfixable problems and issues, and while they are avoiding the topic, they are also not coming to a solution, which is also contributing to this district not having a clear plan for teaching and learning,” she said.
“This board hasn’t had a plan since the 2018-2019 school year, before the pandemic. That is astounding to me.”
Addressing learning loss from the pandemic
“We need to know where kids are at,” Pozniak said. “When you think about how third grade is a really critical milestone year, particularly in reading for students. If you are not reading fluently by third grade, it’s much harder to get there…also…if you’re not reading fluently, it starts to impede on your other subjects because you’re needing to read in order to learn.”
Kids who will be third graders this fall “were Kindergartners when this pandemic started. The whole of their educational experience has been disrupted by this pandemic. We need to know, not just for third graders, we need to know where every kid in the system is. We need to have really good diagnostics of understanding where are kids on these reading foundations?”
“Is Cobb going to have one set of curriculum or let that happen at the school level? These are worthy discussions for the board to have,” she said.
Pozniak also stressed the importance of having a strategic plan for learning loss. For example, not just providing tutoring and summer school, but a coordinated effort to train staff and make sure those efforts support classroom learning.
How can the Board/district address discipline data that shows Black and disabled students are disproportionately referred for exclusionary discipline and law enforcement?
“There needs to be strong practices around transparency and accountability. The first step to that is there needs to be discussion of the data – what is it that we know, and only then can we start to get to what are the root causes of that, what are the trends that we see, is that concentrated in certain schools, do we need to do targeted training and practice, is it something that is true across the district…I think it’s hard to say what exactly the remedy is going to be if we’re not having an honest conversation about what the current state is,” Pozniak said.
What did you think of the district’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic?
“I think the frustration is that it wasn’t clear to people what the plan was. These were hard calls all over the place. I was leading at the state level at the beginning. I continued to work with states and districts across the country and trying to figure out what the best move was. There were no easy answers, but it starts with a discussion. I think, in watching things unfold here, the frustration was, people didn’t know what the plan was. It was confusing to people that they were asked to take a [COVID testing] survey and then never heard anything about the results,” she said.
“You’re not always going to get everyone in consensus, but there is always the possibility of having people understand what the plan is, even if they don’t agree with it. It was the absence of understanding what was going on and people not getting any information that I think heightened the controversy. I would say that’s across the board on a number of fronts, whether it’s finances, learning, some of these purchases, or COVID stuff.”
How can the Board support teachers and staff?
Pozniak said it’s important to get the most out of the time teachers spend attending meetings and training, by making sure the training is aligned to the curriculum.
“The board’s responsibility is to ensure there is coherence across the system,” she said.
She also stressed the importance of listening to teachers.
“When I am talking with educators in these schools, they have opinions, they see the stuff in front of them, and they see what’s going on, and they don’t feel like they have a place to necessarily take it…I think that we could be pleasantly surprised that there are simple things we can do to make the experiences of teachers a lot better, but we have to hear from them first.”
You can learn more about Dr. Pozniak on her website www.catherinepozniak.com/.