School Committee Candidate Profiles

Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Three newcomers are breaking into this year’s School Committee race. Emily Ackman and Kenneth Salvato will vy for the Ward 1 seat, left open by Steven Roix, and Susan McDonald-Nionakis is looking to oust Ward 2 School Committee member Dan Futrell.

Election Day is Nov. 7, and the last day to register to vote is Oct. 18. You can find your voting location here and check your ward and precinct here.

Meet your School Committee candidates:

Ward 1 — Emily Ackman

What should we know about you? 
I am a former elementary school teacher, who left teaching to pursue a Ph.D. in education policy. My professional experience ranges from being a classroom teacher, to being a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, to working on grants and budgets at the district level, to my current role studying effective ways of combating summer learning loss. I grew up attending Cambridge public schools and I am married to my senior prom date, who graduated with me from Rindge & Latin. We have two small children who are two and one, and we plan to send them to our neighborhood school, the East Somerville Community School, when they are old enough.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?  What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?
1) Universal pre-kindergarten
Strong, public pre-kindergarten offers children a great start in life. It should be full-day and be available to all families in Somerville.
2) Better transparency in kindergarten selection
As soon as I declared that I was running for office, multiple parents reached out to me to ask if I could offer them advice on how to figure out which school they should send their kid to for kindergarten. Looking into it, I was surprised at how difficult it is to find information on Somerville’s school choice policy. This is a process that hundreds of families go through each year, we should be able to offer them some sort of guide.
3) Revising homework policies
Current research indicates that the most effective homework for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade is reading. If we are asking students to do additional work outside school hours, we should ensure that it is enhancing what they are learning during the school day.

What sets you apart from other candidates?
I have significant professional experience in crafting and implementing thoughtful, research-based education policies to improve the lives of students and families.

Give us a fun fact about you.
I dance with a ladystepper group called The Boston Hoohahs. Look for us in this year’s HONK! parade dressed in costumes inspired by Rosie The Riveter.

 

Ward 1 — Kenneth Salvato

What should we know about you?
I am a lifelong resident of Somerville, attended the Somerville public schools. Both my parents were employees for the City of Somerville for numerous years. I did not just wake up one day and decide to get involved with politics. I began my election journey back in 1991 with different goals in mind. The outcome was not what I expected, but it did not define me. It pushed me forward, creating a new path, influenced me to gain strength and knowledge which has since instilled the desire to continue my standing in the upcoming election for Ward 1 School Committee. I am a familiar face, a reckoned voice, and a friend.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?
My top three priorities are the top three priorities of the PARENTS and TEACHERS of Ward 1.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?
I have had great results with my teen workshop by helping kids obtain jobs with our local retail stores. I also took part in providing teenagers with a safe environment and a place to obtain professional help using my anti-tobacco drug program. I am continuously working with children and parents discussing bullying in our schools and playgrounds. It is a very concerning topic and I am eager to help children develop a better understanding of being a buddy, not a bully. I would like to build upon our programs we have now and develop new programs as needed. I invite the parents and the teachers to join me. I am looking forward to working together as a community.

What sets you apart from other candidates?
What sets me apart from the other candidates is my longevity for the community of Ward 1 and for the City of Somerville. I’m not going away! I’m not your basic politician. I am determined, eager and ready to make a difference. I look forward to being part of Ward 1 School Committee. Our children, our teachers, and our community need me!

Give us a fun fact about you.
A fun fact about me….. WHERE DO I BEGIN!!! I have to say, I have been told I do a GREAT Michael Jackson impersonation.

 

Ward 2 — Dan Futrell (incumbent)

What should we know about you?

I’ve represented Ward 2 on the School Committee for the last four years, and I’m asking to continue for two more years because the work I came here for isn’t finished yet. I serve as president of the Board for the Community Action Agency of Somerville, where I’ve helped facilitate a partnership between Head Start and Somerville Public Schools. Outside of these roles, I work for a national nonprofit, based in Boston, focused on affordable housing where I serve as the vice president of operations.

I bring many personal and professional experiences to my work today. I was raised by a single dad who earned a GED and has worked in an insulation factory for over 40 years, after a brief stint in foster care. He raised me to value education above all else as a path out of poverty. I took that to heart and attended Gonzaga University on an Army ROTC scholarship, after which I served five years as an Infantry Officer where I held the leadership roles of Platoon Leader and Company Commander. After two long deployments to Iraq, I attended the Harvard Kennedy School, graduating with a masters in public policy.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?

My topmost priority if re-elected is to further our work on elevating social and emotional learning to an appropriate balance with math and english achievement on standardized tests.  There are two main efforts that I’ve supported that are currently in progress here: continued development of the Student Insights tool which helps educators better understand the needs of their students, and the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, a group of districts across the state gathered to rethink evaluation of things like character and school environment. I’m asking for your vote so that I can continue driving progress on these two initiatives.

Outside of these two, I want to ensure that SPS serves all students where they are, whether they are high achieving math students or new immigrants learning english for the first time. Tying together all of our programming—classroom time, clubs, AP courses, enrichment activities, after-school programming, music and arts—to serve these students in a comprehensive way is key to ensuring that our families stay in our district.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?

I want to see Somerville lead the MCIEA in developing a new way to talk about and measure success in Somerville schools. I want to be able to answer a question like “How much recess is the right amount?” and “How do we support our students as they try new things and sometimes fail?” Our ability to answer these questions will help us better balance our view of success alongside MCAS results.

Additionally, I want to see the district continue to invest in the Student Insights tool so that we can move beyond seeing indicators in real time and move toward a more predictive approach. If we can start to piece together the statistical signals that occur ahead of a student dropping out, for example, we’ll be better able to apply the right supports to prevent, rather than react to, an outcome that will have significant negative impact.

Lastly, I think we can do more to provide enrichment opportunities for kids who may be further ahead in some subjects. Thinking creatively, by tapping resources within our district or more broadly in companies and resources in our community, I believe we can keep students engaged in school and moving forward toward their potential.

What sets you apart from other candidates?

My four years’ experience on the committee has helped me to develop a vision for what this district can be, and I’ve enjoyed sharing that vision as I’ve knocked on doors and met new voters this summer and fall. My personal and professional experiences have always served me well, especially in my role as chair of the Finance Subcommittee, in seeing systemic solutions to what are ultimately human needs.

Give us a fun fact about you.

I’ve run seven marathons in my life with a personal record of 3:00:19. One of my life goals is to improve upon this for a sub 3-hour marathon. You may see me running around Somerville this winter preparing for next year’s marathons.

 

Ward 2 — Susan McDonald-Nionakis

What should we know about you?
I’ve spent the better part of the last 35 years involved in the Somerville and Cambridge school systems helping students achieve self-efficacy.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?
I would always take my School Committee post seriously and avail myself to students, parents and guardians alike so that they always feel that they have a consistent ear, and voice, to represent them. I would also focus mostly on making sure that the tremendous expenditure that Somerville spends per scholar begins to show itself in the yearly test scores of Somerville’s students. And finally, one of my personal agenda issues is bullying and the negative presence social media plays on children and interpersonal relationships. I am committed to ensuring that all students feel safe at school, especially amongst their peers, so that the educational process is not impeded.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?
I would like to make a significant change in the way public, private, and charter schools co-exist.  I believe all three of these schooling options have a place within our community and would work toward having a more cohesive system where they all co-exist without cannibalization of each other. I would also like to see some type of change within the yearly testing programs that are given to students, eg. MCAS, PARK, etc.  I believe there are other ways for educators to gauge learning without the added pressure for teachers, and scholars, of working purely toward meeting the requirements of these testing systems.

What sets you apart from other candidates?
What sets me apart from other candidates is that, save for six years of residence in Charlestown, Mass., I am a lifelong resident of Ward 2, I have a 5th grade student at the Albert F. Argenziano school, and I have been involved with Somerville Schools and Cambridge Schools for 35 years.  I am a parents within the system, I have served on the board of the Capuano PTA, and I have been a paraprofessional and substitute within each of these systems. I am invested, and vested, in both Ward 2 and the school system in a way that is second to none.
Give us a fun fact about you.
I am absolutely fearless.  I have run the Boston Marathon twice, in 2001 and 2003, have gone skydiving twice, and have traveled all over the world, including a safari to Kenya and Tanzania in 2001.

 

Ward 3 — Lee Erica Palmer (incumbent)

What should we know about you?
I am an educator, community organizer, and legal services attorney who has been an active and proud resident of Somerville’s Spring Hill neighborhood since 2004.

My son, Andrew, was born in Somerville and attends the the Unidos program at the East Somerville Community School, the city’s two-way English/Spanish language and cultural immersion program. 

In my role as an educator, I taught high school Spanish in the Boston Public Schools and I served as executive director of Kesher, a Somerville-based after-school and pre-school program.

Prior to serving on the School Committee, I consulted with the City of Somerville on projects that supported the work of the Somerville Promise Alliance (SomerPromise). This citywide campaign ensures that every child living in Somerville achieves his or her greatest potential, graduates from high school, and is prepared for college or the workforce. 

I currently work as an AmeriCorps Attorney at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services where I defend low-income families, many of whom are immigrants, against eviction, and assists clients with obtaining and preserving public benefits including food stamps, social security disability and cash welfare. 

What would your top three priorities be if elected?
My top priority is to see racial and social inequities addressed across the district, and that we close the opportunity gap in our schools. This includes the critical step of focusing on hiring and retaining diverse staff who reflect our student body.

In addition, I believe that a focus on health and wellness across the district for all students and staff creates an environment most conducive to learning. I serve as the School Committee representative on the District Wellness Committee where I am working in collaboration with district leaders to strengthen our Wellness Policy, expand overall programming, and focus on fresh and healthy school food.

Finally, I believe all students benefit from—and should have access to—high quality after school and vacation/summertime programming. We have already recently expanded the menu of options for families, but we must continue to work to ensure that our programs target those who need them the most, and that whatever we offer is low or no cost to families.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?
1) The creation of a public comment policy: I drafted a public comment policy that would permit members of the public to be heard at every School Committee meeting on ANY topic of concern to the community. Most districts offer this but for some reason Somerville has no existing policy ensuring this right to our residents (it’s been left to the discretion of the Chair). It is my hope we pass this policy very soon so we can begin hearing from the public at our meetings.

2) Improved School Committee communications with the public: I would like to see our committee establish clear communications protocols that more effectively share out the work we are doing with the public, and regularly obtain quality inputs from a diversity of parent/student/community voices.

3) Extended school day: I would like to see our school day extended to accommodate a longer recess so our students, particularly in the youngest grades, can get the physical activity and breaks we know their brains need in order to be joyful and active learners

What has your greatest accomplishment been so far? What have you not made as much progress on as you’d hoped?

I am very proud of our collective efforts across our community to help resoundingly defeat ballot question 2 last fall that would have expanded charter schools and further exacerbated the harmful effects of the state’s outdated school funding formula that leave our schools chronically underfunded. I successfully pushed our School Committee to pass a resolution opposing the expansion of charter schools in our state, attended press conferences to highlight the concerns, and hosted canvasses to train volunteers to speak with voters about the ballot question and the issues at stake.  

I actively supported the creation of a new position of language and leadership liaison, which we funded in our budget last year, to provide expanded language supports and services for our immigrant families. I would like to see our district continue to prioritize high quality interpretation and translation at all public events, meetings and via written communication, so all families can actively engage with our school community.  There is always plenty of room for growth in this area.

Give us a fun fact about you.

One of my favorite forms of self care is going on silent meditation retreats, and one time I spent 12 days in silence at a retreat in Western Massachusetts.

 

Ward 4 — Andre Green (incumbent)

What should we know about you? 

I’m a former fifth grade teacher and a professional advocate on education and anti-poverty issues. I bring over 15 years of experience in data analysis, operations management, and public policy to the school committee. I also bring a personal commitment to education based in my personal story. I’m the grandchild of sharecroppers and the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree. In fifth grade, thanks to public school teachers, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, and had to fight for the IEP and physical therapy I needed. I moved to Somerville upon graduating college at 19, and have spent my adult life trying to pay it forward and ensure quality education for every child. Education saved my life, and I want to see it save others.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?

1) Work to address systemic inequities in SPS and lower the opportunity gap for low income, ELL, Special Education,  and students of color. I would like to build on our beginning efforts to recruit, develop and retain a workforce that better represents the students we serve.

2) Reform homework policy in the lower grades — My hope/expectation is to vote on a homework policy for lower grades to take effect in the 18/19 School year that better reflects the research on it’s effectiveness (or lack thereof).

3) Create space for more recess and/or lunch time for students — The need to negotiate a new contract with the Somerville Teacher’s Union allows us an opportunity to explore issues like the length and timing of the school day as well as the calendar more broadly. One of the things I would like to explore is adding 15 minutes to the school day explicitly for lunch and/or recess, to provide space for the play that is so important to child development.

What has your greatest accomplishment been so far? What have you not made as much progress on as you’d hoped?

I think my greatest accomplishment so far has been working with the superintendent to bring a renewed focus on issues of the opportunity gap and providing necessary support for Somerville’s most vulnerable students. From being the first district in the Commonwealth to call on Congress to save DACA, strengthening our protections of the right to an education for all our students, to our work to surface and address achievement gaps throughout the district, I am proud of our work to make sure every child in Somerville benefits from our increased academic excellence.

Give us a fun fact about you.  

I’m a “Jeopardy” champion. Alex Trebek paid for a large chunk of my daughter’s first year of life.

 

Ward 5 — Laura Pitone (incumbent)

What should we know about you? 

My husband and I have lived in Somerville for 16 years and our son attends SHS and my daughter the Healey School. I have served on the Somerville School Committee for four years and am currently the chair. I became very involved in my kids’ elementary school—from volunteering in the classroom to co-chairing a non-profit for the school—and was excited by the opportunity to take what I had learned and my experience in business to benefit all the students of the Somerville Schools as a member of the School Committee.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?

Kids, kids and kids. Humor aside, closing the achievement gap is paramount which requires meeting not only the academic needs of our students but also providing the social and emotional support that are often barriers to success. I am very excited about the plans for our new high school and providing the support necessary to realize the vision of the innovative educational plan created by staff for SHS. I also look forward to exploring new ideas to enhance our middle school programming. As primarily a K-8 district (with one K-5), we reduce the number of transitions for our students and offer a long-term, connected community, but it is challenging to offer the variety programming possible with the larger population of centralized middle schools. I am excited to see the district address that challenge to provide our students the best of both worlds.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?

I want Somerville Schools to continue to strive to be the top choice for fantastic educators to work at—attracting and retaining the most creative, diverse, and effective educators in the Commonwealth—and look forward to the School Committee participating in realizing that vision. I want to see SPS continue to enrich the elementary experience of our students, which includes enhanced social-emotional programming, increased hands-on experiential learning, more student choice and unstructured play (that may include increased time for recess and lunch), and continuing to strengthen SPS’s innovative partnerships with local pre-kindergarten providers to prepare all students in Somerville. Lastly, I would like to continue to pursue innovation—from enhanced exposure to computer programming, exploring portfolios and other alternative student assessments, increasing cross-curricular experiences for our students, to additional creative and effective approaches to support our English language learners and students with special needs.

What has your greatest accomplishment been so far? What have you not made as much progress on as you’d hoped?

The greatest accomplishment of the School Committee since I began serving has been elevating our vision to educate the whole child—academics, social, emotional and physical—and as a result, attracting an extremely innovative and passionate superintendent, Mary Skipper, and collaboratively creating targeted and meaning district goals. Currently, the School Committee is working to increase our engagement with the community as well as reviewing our practice as a School Committee to be increasingly proactive and strategic in defining long term priorities. This work will take time, and I am excited to be part of a committee that is committed to make this happen.

Give us a fun fact about you.

I am one of two current School Committee members that have had the honor and privilege of serving as mascots for their alma matter (the Raider Bird at my high school). I encourage you to figure out who the other former mascot is on the School Committee (or maybe that is their fun fact too!).

 

Ward 6 — Paula O’Sullivan (incumbent)

What should we know about you?

I am passionate about public education! I care deeply about social justice and believe our public education system is key to addressing systemic inequities. I am an active community member and have three children who attend Somerville schools (one at the Brown, two at Kennedy). My career has focused on public education, first as an elementary school teacher, later in various capacities at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and currently as an instructional coach in Arlington Public Schools. I have represented Ward 6 on the School Committee since January 2017.

What would your top three priorities be if elected?

I believe that every child deserves an excellent education, in every classroom, in every school. SPS has made a lot of progress over the last several years toward this vision, through a lot of hard work and focused dedication from our staff. Achievement and access gaps have been narrowing, but we still have a ways to go. We need to continue to both support our staff and have high expectations of them. We also need to continue to think carefully about priorities and resources, and to constantly monitor and assess the effectiveness of our programs, with input from all stakeholders including parents, students, and staff in order to improve outcomes for all of our kids.

What are three specific new programs or changes you would make if elected?

As School Committee members, we work in collaboration with each other to review changes to existing programs and proposals for new programs. If elected, I will continue to support the development of programming for middle school students, the review of the district homework policy, and the strides being made toward using data and information to inform policies and practices.

What has your greatest accomplishment been so far? What have you not made as much progress on as you’d hoped?

In this first year, I have met with a lot of constituents and have heard their input and concerns on a variety of topics. I have also learned an incredible amount about the district priorities and programs. I’ve successfully advocated for the Brown School outdoor space and for a coordinated city process for prioritizing improvements to school playgrounds. I have not made as much progress as I would have liked in getting out and visiting all of our city’s schools. I plan to do so in the future!

Give us a fun fact about you.

My mother was a teacher at the Lowe School (now closed) on Morrison Ave. in Somerville. I can see what was her classroom window out of the back window of my house!

 

Ward 7 — Carrie Normand (incumbent)

What should we know about you?

A 24 year Somerville resident, I have developed strong connections across the city. I have an eighth grader and junior in Somerville Public Schools. I know the district as a parent, literacy volunteer at two SPS schools, active member of our community, and Ward 7 School Committee member for the past four years. I use these different perspectives when considering what business to bring to School Committee and when deciding on policy and the budget.

When something goes wrong in my life, I am motivated to work hard so others don’t have the same experience. I grew up in New Haven, Conn., well below the poverty line. My school experience was chaotic and going to college was far from a given. I was fortunate to have a neighbor guide me through the college and scholarship application process; there was no one at home or school to fill that role. I earned my masters through the Harvard Extension School working there as a staff assistant. A student’s future shouldn’t depend on who their neighbor happens to be. I will continue to work to develop programming and policies to improve students’ experience while in the SPS and prepare them for success after.

What has your greatest accomplishment been so far?

When I was first elected, the middle grade was one of the district’s weakest areas. I’ve worked to improve the middle grades academics and athletics, strengthen the elementary/high school connection, and expand access to quality out of school experiences. I voted to support new partnerships with Breakthrough (which works with first generation college students with a teacher development component with a goal of diversifying teaching staff), Citizens Schools (equips students with real world experiences to succeed), and the Calculus Project (advanced math for students of color). I have voted to fund our award-winning music program including the All-City Middle Grade Orchestra, Chorus, and Band. Next steps include considering more variety in middle grade electives and languages.

What have you not made as much progress on as you’d hoped?

Early in my School Committee service, I voted to fund an independent evaluation of the Special Education Department. As a member of the Somerville Special Education Parent Advisory Council, I was very familiar with the many difficulties families experienced when trying to get their child evaluated and then develop an Individualized Education Plan. I have been a steady advocate for improved communication, the development of staff and programs, and closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities. But there is still more work to be done especially in the areas of in-district programming for languages based disabilities, transition planning for students on an IEP starting at age 14, and more professional and program development to better serve students.

One of my top priorities going forward is to increase dual enrollment between SPS and local colleges to address both academic and financial equity. It is critical for students, especially first generation college students, to be on college campuses to learn how to navigate higher education and to earn college credits without incurring debt.

Give us a fun fact about you.
I was named after Caroline Kennedy. My school was wall-to-wall Carolines and John-Johns. I started using the nickname “Carrie” to tell us apart.  

Editor’s note: Candidates’ answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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