Election 2016: Father of three wants to guide Brentwood in next phase for Williamson schools

Election 2016: Father of three wants to guide Brentwood in next phase for Williamson schools

Full-time dad Christopher Richards wants to help smooth out growing pains in Williamson County Schools in addition to creating more options for honors students.

Full-time dad Christopher Richards said he would like to become more involved in the education process his children experience while finding ways to better manage Brentwood’s school campuses and giving more opportunities to students. Therefore, he is running for the Williamson County Board of Education District 7 position.

The father of twin sixth-grade daughters and one eighth-grade son, Richards said he wanted to do more than participate in a PTO or school events, so he is throwing his name in the ring for a seat on the school board. His children currently attend Brentwood Middle School and previously went to Lipscomb Elementary School.

When his daughters were born, Richards decided to stay at home with his children. He worked with the music industry in the tech field before becoming a full-time dad. Richards, 48, said above all, he would like to become an advocate for other parents like himself.

He will be on the Aug. 4 ballot. Early voting runs July 15 to July 30. He will face incumbent Robert Hullett and stay-at-home mom Jennifer Luteran.

Rezoning is one of the first issues the new board will deal with together as the Nolensville schools open and Thompson’s Station on the horizon. What’s your philosophy on school rezoning, grandfathering and the anticipation of future growth for rezoning?

Pretty soon Brentwood will be out of buildable lots. I know about 10 years ago they said we had seven years left before that happened.

I have been fortunate that in the 12 years we have been in the school system our household has not been rezoned. However, I can very much understand the anxiety that this issue causes families. With one third of our schools over capacity, it’s an issue that we may need to deal with several times over the next 4 years. I think we need to manage expectations and communicate early and often with students and families affected by rezoning.

It’s painful, and you need to keep everyone informed. All the meetings should be open, which is already done right now. But someone will feel the pain at the end of the day. With the amount of growth in Williamson, it’s impossible to avoid someone being upset. I would be upset if I were rezoned. Ultimately at the end of the day someone could move, but rezoning isn’t ideal either.

We are faced with two solutions to school over-crowding: build the current school bigger or build a new school and rezone. A lot of our schools can be built larger so I think we should take that option whenever feasible.

I support the current method that WCS uses to grandfather rezoned students because it allows for continuity of student experiences within a family while still achieving the rezoning objectives.

I have built relationships with members of the Brentwood Planning Commission. I would work to keep communication channels open with planning commissioners at the city and county level in order to help WCSS anticipate future growth and be pro-active about where school expansion, additions and rezoning might need to take place.

What is your position on standardized testing – is there too much, too little?

I think there is much too focus on standardized testing in Williamson County Schools. I understand the need to have have benchmarks to ensure that the students are progressing but I think most parents would agree with me that the pressure put on our students, especially in the elementary grades, is too much. In addition the standardized tests are often not a good indicator of what a child has learned.

I know from a parent’s perspective, I have become concerned with how much pressure is placed on these kids right before the tests are administered. The kids are told in one breath that testing is no big deal, but with many words and actions to the contrary, the clear message from the school system is that these tests are very important and poor performance on a test in third grade can adversely affect a student’s educational path throughout middle and high school years.

They do well, but they don’t like the test. When my son was in third grade in the hyping of the TCAP, we told him don’t worry about it – it means nothing. He did very well in math school-wise, and he blew off the test. But we battled to get him into a more challenging math class. But the school system said because of his score, that’s the gospel truth. Clearly with him, it was not. We told him he can’t just blow it off anymore. And now, he usually just gets a perfect score on the test. I feel the pain of parents who may have smart kids, but don’t have kids that are good test takers.

What is your position on Common Core and do you agree with the state phasing it out?

There has been a lot of confusion and inconsistency with the way that Common Core was introduced to Tennessee. Like most parents, I initially adopted a “wait and see” approach to the transition to Common Core curriculum. However, I found the materials introduced to elementary schools were undermining the flexibility and creativity in classroom teaching techniques. Instead of “teaching to the test” as was the original criticism that resulted in the introduction of Common Core, educators were simply handing out worksheets to students. From my perspective as a parent, Common Core teaches to the lowest common denominator and leaves the majority of high achieving students in a holding pattern waiting for their classmates to catch up. I appreciate the latest approach that Gov. Haslam is taking with allowing public review and feedback of state education standards and hope Common Core (by any name) does not make a return here to Tennessee.

I experienced it as a parent and didn’t enjoy it. I saw the handouts and the tests. We ran into questions where there wasn’t a clear correct answer. We struggled with our kids. We immediately started disliking it. That’s when my daughters were in fourth grade, and they started backing away after that. Most parents saw that pretty quickly.

What do you think of current state education standards?

The social studies standard is currently under review, and open for public comment. I think this is a great opportunity for parents to speak out about what they feel is OK for their kids to be learning. If parents have a concern about religion being taught in the classroom now is the time for their voices to be heard by the Tennessee State Board of Education. In addition the science standard is currently in the second phase of public feedback. Recent legislation has allowed a more thorough review of the Tennessee educations standards so we do not implement another Common Core type standard.

To me it seems that the state standards, and Common Core, teaches to the lowest common denominator. There were a lot of smart kids at Lipscomb. You think you would be able to teach to a lot of kids who are smart. We wanted to get our kids more challenged. I don’t know how much that has to do with standards. My son was bored, and wanted more and more. We went outside of the school to find other ways to get him challenged.

Do you think world religions should be part of history or social studies curricula?

I am not a fan of any religion being taught in the public schools. Religion is a very personal subject and it is easy to misinterpret or offend without intending to. I understand that the current education standards for social studies are dictated by the state. I am happy to see Gov. Haslam and the education board actively soliciting feedback on social studies standards. I personally would like to see religion taught at higher grade levels (e.g. high school) and with a historical emphasis and not a value-based perspective.

I understand there are world events, clearly 9/11 is based on world religion. That part of mentioning religion – the crusades, the Catholics. My kids, two of them said they weren’t comfortable being taught them. My pastor had a concern if they were teaching Christianity correctly. Six and seventh grades are a little young.

What is your opinion of the current state of WCS and the current leadership?

The current incumbent of the District Seven seat has been combative and disagreeable with his fellow board members. His list of insults to fellow board members is long and, in my opinion as a resident of District Seven, his behavior while in office has been embarrassing. Last year, he called then-chairman of the school board, PJ Mezera “pathetic” and “spineless” because he did not think PJ was supporting Dr. Looney enough.

He has lashed out at fellow board members questioning their religious values, and stated that current residents of Williamson County should “pack up and leave” if they do not agree with his opinion on the subject of Islam. His behavior is not conducive to building bridges with other school board members or parents. In addition he has been disciplined for ethics code violations.

My approach to initiatives and proposals from other board members or parents is to be open to all viewpoints and to discuss issues until common ground can be reached. While we may have different approaches and solutions in mind, I think that all parents and school board members have the best interest of students and teachers at heart. I plan to work toward building relationships, and not shutting down discussion.

Dr. Looney has shown that he has the broad support of Williamson County residents. I believe there are a limited number of people who would like to see him replaced, but after the vote last July to continue his contract, it would be prohibitively expensive to oust Dr. Looney and begin the search for another superintendent. In addition to the monetary cost, the disruption to the school system would be unacceptable. I was impressed with how he handled the latest TNReady failure. I don’t support that and it’s expensive, and they are still advocating for that.

What is the best thing about WCS?

This answer is easy, the students. They are an inspiration. Recently while my daughter was rehearsing for the Brentwood Middle School play, I had a chance to sit in on the rehearsal. Watching these kids rehearse so professionally was inspiring to see. Of course, the real magic starts when they start to perform. It is amazing to see what confidence and skills that these kids have. Even more important is their academic performance and dedication to school. They are willing to go into school early and leave late in order to do some extra learning. The support that parents, teachers and counselors can provide will help, but it’s the students themselves who show their motivation and dedication to succeed.

I was already running for office when my daughter got the lead in the play. I hadn’t seen much of their performances. I went and sat in one of the rehearsals. There are just some fabulous singers and it really touched me, and this is what’s it all about. They are so mature, and the performance they did was really professional and that it was touching. Obviously, it made me more motivated to run for the school board and prevent political squabble.

What needs attention and what aspect of it could need adjustment?

Williamson County is lucky to have a lot of “high achieving” students, but these students are often left without a lot of resources at the elementary school level. I would like to solicit and implement new ideas to challenge these bright children so that they do not become disinterested and start to disengage from school.

Another concern I have seen is with high teacher turnover in some schools. I have spoken with quite a few teachers who are unhappy, and I know we have lost quite a few good teachers. We saw a lot of good teachers leave. Some of them came to the middle school. And I am guessing there are other schools like that, and I am not sure what the problem is. I would like to fix the issues that cause these teachers to leave.

Many parents have mentioned to me that they are concerned about school overcrowding. The Williamson County school system needs to find a way to get ahead of the massive growth that is happening in our neighborhoods. I think the administration and board members are starting to progress with first determining maximum school size, but much more needs to be done. Rezoning is a disruptive event for many families and I would like to minimize the number of rezoning events by being smart about anticipating growth within the school districts.

Emily West covers Franklin and Williamson County government and schools for Home Page Media Group. Contact her at emily@franklinhomepage.com. Follow her on Twitter via @emwest22.

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