Callsen wants Board to focus on closing achievement gap

Callsen wants Board to focus on closing achievement gap

Jesse Case, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Tell us about your experience living in Charlottesville.

My dad’s family’s from Scottsville, so I have family in the area. I moved here in 2011 for law school. Before that I was teaching in Boston. I grew up on a military base, so I’m a military brat. I call Virginia home, and I moved so much.


What is your background in education?

I did Teach for America, I graduated from Yale, and I taught at a kids’ school outside of Boston. KIPP is a charter school. . . it’s very strict and it’s not necessarily an environment I agree with, but I really enjoyed my time there and they do do a lot of great things for students. There’s pluses and minuses to that charter model, but it was a great experience and a growing experience for me. I felt like I’d be a better legal advocate for children if I had a legal background, so I studied child advocacy in an educational role.

As a third year student, you have the opportunity to practice law if you have a supervising attorney. With child advocacy, we primarily focused on juvenile cases so we primarily represented kids in front of a school board for disciplinary hearings and then also working with juveniles who were in detention. A lot of it revolved around getting kids better educational opportunities because, even if they’re in detention or a juvenile center, you’re still trying to figure out  how they can get a good education and have good opportunities for when they get out.

Both my parents dropped out of high school. I grew up very low-income, and I know that all kids, regardless of their backgrounds, are capable of great things. I think we need as many people as possible who believe that and know it to be true to make great decisions.



Why did you decide to run for School Board?

We have a really big opportunity gap in our community. It’s one of the top ten in the nation in terms of how our students perform. We have great schools, we have really good schools, but there are whole pockets of the population that are not being served as well, in particular low-income students, and that’s a growing segment of our population. I want to make sure we are focusing our initiative on things that have a proven effect of boosting student outcomes and achievement. We try out a lot of things and we see how they work, and then we move on to next year and I just want us to be more targeted and focused on what we need to improve. I’m saying focus on all students. I’m not saying focus on one group to the exclusion of others, I just think it’s really important for our community in total to make sure every student . . . has some kind of opportunity after they graduate.

When I was looking at the data and really digging down into research about how our schools are doing, that’s when it [the idea to run] was really getting firmed up in my head. I was also attending meetings for the Rio-29 interchange and the order of likeliness to be at those meetings, I would say it’s. . . minority, young, female. . . that’s the least likely to be there.

I feel like we need to have more diversity, we need to have more participation, we need to have more young people, just have more people involved so why not run? But I didn’t want to just run for the sake of running, so I also met with my opponent and talked with her and saw if we were aligned on issues or if there was any real. . . I still felt like I wanted to run. She wasn’t saying the things I wanted to see happening.


Why do you feel that you are the best candidate for the position?

I work hard. I know the community. I’ve done a lot of volunteering. I’ve also taught, so I have experience in the classroom. I have experience in educational law which I think is a pretty unique combo. I’m also a mother of two boys who are about to be in the school system. Hard work and willing to listen is always the number one thing. That’s always what makes the best School Board representative. I’ve met with almost everyone who’s on the School Board at this point, and the people who are willing to work hard and are really invested in making a difference are the ones doing great things, the best ones.

Our current Rio District school representative has been there for 16 years. It’s very hard to unseat an incumbent and this opportunity, regardless, only comes up every four years so it was just good timing because my kids are about to start school and it’s an open seat so I was looking into this school because of my own children and, yeah, just good timing.


Overcrowding, especially at AHS, is an issue, what do you plan to do about it?

Overcrowding is a really big issue. I was just at the school board meeting last Thursday and they were talking about what we can do about it and they’re still very much in the initial stages because there’s not enough overcrowding at Albemarle to fill a new school, and there’s issues with the land we have for where we would build a new school.

It’s a nuanced issue, it’s more nuanced than you realize because developers [across 29] aren’t interested in having a school out there and because [a new northern high school] then becomes a suburban high school. It becomes equivalent to WAHS. It’s not as diverse and it’s a more homogeneous population if we were to build it up there because you have to think about how redistricting works. We would end up concentrating all of our economically disadvantaged students in Albemarle High School and building the equivalent of another Western up north.

That location is problematic and the School Board knows that. They’re thinking about all these alternatives and I cannot pretend to know enough about it to tell you, “oh this is what we need to do.” I can tell you the questions I want to ask. The things they were asking at the School Board meeting were very grand plans, ideas of these collaborative academies where we would have hubs in the middle of the city and we could just bus in students, kind of like an academy feeling. My question with that is always focused on student outcomes and equity. I’m focused on access, so if we build a hub school to relieve overcrowding, who are the students that are going to be able to attend that and what are they gonna get out of it? Those would be the questions I’d want to ask when presented with these options. . . I don’t have a solution, but yes we are going to have to do something about overcrowding at Albemarle and there’s overcrowding at Western, too.


How do you plan to erase the disparity between students of different backgrounds and identities in school? How can we ensure equality?

We need to have a lens toward equity, which I think the School Board and the school system is realizing because we have changing demographics, so we have a lot of issues that we didn’t have in the past. Over half the students in our elementary schools in the urban ranks of our district are low-income at this point.  It’s not a made-up portion of our population, it’s a big chunk and it’s going to be moving through the school system. I think when we’re making future decisions we have to be really cognizant of the fact that we have this population that isn’t as homogeneous as it was in the past. It’s going to be a problem down the line if we have another high school that’s 4% low-income students and then Albemarle High School has 90%. That’s not good for anybody.


Many students don’t pay attention to School Board elections, why do you think it is important for them to be informed?

You don’t pay attention to local politics as much, but I will say local politics technically have more control over your daily life than national politics. The person we pay attention to the most, the President, is not the one making those decisions that affect things. He may make decisions like whether or not we go to war, but he’s not making decisions that affect your everyday life like the roads, or what stores are around us, local laws, all these decisions that really do impact us.

It’s interesting because there’s very little interest and more people should be paying attention and they should be getting involved. Kate Acuff is running for  [the Jack Jouett District] School Board right now unopposed. She’s never had to run against anyone; she just got it. Kate Acuff’s great, but I would love to see more participation and people getting involved. It affects you more than you realize.


If you could give one piece of advice to an Albemarle County student, what would it be?

Aim high. Work hard, work hard, just keep working hard. I know a lot of times with myself I felt like I didn’t work hard enough, but if you just keep pushing yourself. . .