QV Strong Endorsement:
Region 3: Aleppo, Edgeworth, Glenfield, Haysville, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Heights, Sewickley Hills
Educational Expert Jessica Webster Will Help Connect Families and Schools in QV
Osborne mom and educator Jessica Webster is running for Quaker Valley School Board for a seat in Region 3. Before she appears on the ballot Nov. 7, we sat down with Jessica to get to know more abouther and what she offers our district.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Jessica Webster. I have three children in the QV School District – a junior in high school, a 12-year-old seventh grader, and a 9-year-old third grader at Osborne Elementary School. I live here with my husband and my three kids and our two dogs. I have 25 years of experience in education. I started out as a special education teacher. I've taught social studies education. I've been an inclusion specialist. I've been an administrator. And, I ran a school previously before starting my current role as a Senior Family Engagement Specialist for the Statewide Family Engagement Center, which is called CAFE.
Q: What is a Senior Family Engagement Specialist?
I am really an educational consultant. We work at the state level, with the State Department of Education; we work with school districts; and we do a lot of webinars and training. Our main goal is to create systems where families can be engaged in real, powerful partnerships to improve student performance. Academic, emotional, and behavioral. There's a lot of research around that and how to bring families in as true partners in the process and not just as in their traditional roles of volunteering. It’s important to really be true partners in designing our school systems for our kids.
Q: What brought you and your family to Quaker Valley?
We moved here about 13 years ago. We were living in the city with our daughter at the time, and we were really looking for a place that was small with a walkable community and a downtown business center. But, being an educator, it was even more important to me to be in a really good school district that had a strong art and music component to it. I believe educating the whole child is important. Academics are important, but I think those enriching activities are important too. I wanted to be someplace where my kids could be seen and known, and we could jump in and be part of a community.
Q: And how has your experience been with the QV District – especially now that you have kids in three buildings at each level (elementary, middle, and high school)?
I’d like to answer that with a story. When we first moved to the district, my daughter was in preschool. She was born in August, so has a late birthday and would be very young going into her grade level. Being in education, I was unsure of what to do. Do I send her to kindergarten, or do I wait a year? I remember sending an email to the principal of Osborne, which was Dr. Mellett at the time. And I said, ‘Listen, I don't know you, but we just moved into the district and my daughter's preschool is saying she's ready for kindergarten? I'm just not sure because of her birthday. Do you have advice for me? Would you be willing to meet with me?’
Her answer really encapsulated my experience with Quaker Valley. She immediately responded to me, and she said, ‘I can do better than a meeting with me. I think you should go visit the classrooms, spend some time in kindergarten, see what the kindergarten classroom looks like, and then we'll set aside time for you to meet with Mrs. Croft, who is serving as the kindergarten liaison. She can answer any questions you have, so that you can make the best decision possible.’
It was amazing. I don't know anybody else in any other school district that's had an experience like that. At most districts, you can't come into the school, you can't see the classroom, you can't do those things. That really set the stage for me to know – this is the right choice for us.
We're in a community where my kids are seen and heard. Throughout all our time here, that's the experience I've had. And that's the experience that I want to make sure all families continue to have in Quaker Valley.
I have seen a shift in that over the past couple years, and part of it is my kids getting older. And, the research really does show that engaging families at the middle and high school level is a more complex. I think we could do a better job with that. I think most districts could do a better job with it; it’s not a Quaker Valley issue. Especially since COVID, we've kind of gotten away from unique opportunities to bring families in to be part of that educational experience. I'd like to see us get back to that type of engagement.
Q: Being a member of the school board is a big commitment, requiring a lot of time and energy. Why run and why now?
A couple of reasons. Number one is that I really do love this district. And as a working parent, I've always
found it difficult to volunteer in the classroom. To me, this is an area where I have a level of expertise,
and I feel confident in my skill set. It feels like a really good way for me to give back in an authentic way.
I think people need to take turns in different ways and put their time in where they can and when they
can. So as my kids are getting older and I'm in a good place in my career where I can make that balance,
now's a good time for me.
You can really love something, but also be very critical of it at the same time, in a good way. We need to
know what our strengths are as a district. But, I'm also very aware of what I think our needs are. I'm
excited to possibility be a part of that continuous improvement for QV and moving us into the next
Q: More meaningful engagement of families is clearly one of your goals. What are your other hopes for the district and what are your fears? What are the things you’d like to build upon or improve upon?
First, I would say I have two fears, but they go together. One is that I'm deeply concerned about some of the discourse that's happening in our community post COVID. I feel like there's a fracturing of our community. I think there is a growing intolerance. We're not being as welcoming to different kids in our school as we used to be. I'm worried that we're losing space for kids with identities, ethnicities, religions or economic background. That's not a community, and I have become increasingly alarmed about that. Even just running for school board and hearing some of the rhetoric when we're calling our kids who are LGBTQ a distraction to the learning environment and talking about banning books and indoctrination. I feel very deeply about that. It makes me really upset. I think the message it sends to our kids is that you have to fall into one little category to be human. I think diversity and inclusion is super important. That also ties in with my second concern, which is the overall mental health of our community, our families, and kids. I'm glad to see that we're bringing in more mental health experts, and we're talking about it. We're doing a lot of social emotional learning, but I think there's other things we could do as well. There's a lot of research on making sure kids are moving and making sure that we're not tying our kids to screens all day and teaching them to socialize in different ways and do enriching activities. I think the arts are a great way for kids to have more positive mental health.
Those are areas where I think we, quite frankly, need to do better as a community and maybe have some tough conversations. But, I'm also excited because I think when there's conflict and times of tension, that's also an opportunity. It's an opportunity for us to get real clear about who we want to be and what our vision is for the next phase in QV. With the new high school, there are opportunities to do some strategic planning that involves the whole community and having a vision for how we can continuously improve.
When you talk to families about their hopes and dreams for their children, they really want a whole child. That’s why we came to Quaker Valley – for that whole child experience. I don't want to reduce our kids to a PSSA score. I think there's a lot of hope that we can build on what QV has done to engage families and serve the whole child. One of the other things I’d like to see improved upon is for the district to do a better job with recruiting and retaining teachers of color. That's a huge issue in our region, and I've been involved in that and have a track record of improvement.
Q: Can you tell us more about that involvement?
When I ran The Campus Laboratory School, we were connected to Carlow University. When I first got there, I didn't have a single teacher of color, but I had a pretty diverse student body. So I went to the university, which had a diverse student body, and asked, ‘What if I offered a first-round interview to every student who graduated from the Carlow School of Education?’ They agreed. Just from doing that one thing and getting people in the building for a first-round interview who might not have otherwise applied, I went from having zero teachers of color to four or five, and we only had 25 teachers. We also brought in some other diversity that way including more male teachers.
Building those partnerships is critical. I currently serve on the PEDC, which is the Pennsylvania Educators
Diversity Consortium. There’s a statewide effort and then Southwestern Pennsylvania has an effort as well. We meet once a month via zoom to discuss different ways to get involved, provide advocacy and solve problems. That's something that is really important to me.
Q: Can you tell us more about the skills you would bring to the school board?
I am involved in education at the state and national level, and I understand what good teaching and learning looks like, what best practices are in education, what the research is saying. I think that’s important. As I’ve gone through this journey, both professionally and just as a human, I’m also really clear on what my core values are. I think that’s critical to be a member of the board because the work is not easy and we’re not always going to agree with each other.
One of those values is the sense of building community, and a true sense of inclusion for all kids. All kids and all families need to be seen and heard and valued in our school system. I am a good listener. When people come to me with a problem, I try to listen and learn. I try to find commonality and bring people together, so we can solve problems and not just admire them.
I'm never satisfied with the status quo. It drives my kids crazy, because we celebrate them and then I'm like, ‘Okay, what's the next thing?’ But I'm also that way for my own professional growth. When I was a principal, it was always, ‘What went well, and what can we do better next time?’ You have to have people on the school board that are always asking those questions. How do we improve what we're doing, no matter what it is? I also have experience walking into messy situations where there's a lot of tension and people don't agree and facilitating strategic plans. I have brought fractured teams together to work better as a team. And, I bring a wider outlook on education – not just what's going on in Quaker valley, but what good practice looks like all around the country.
Q: Is there anything else that we haven't talked about, that you think people should know about you?
I'm not running on an agenda – unless that agenda is to make sure that we're doing the best thing for our kids and for education in general.