Sabina Taj

Sabina Taj
  • Non-Partisan
  • Age: 44
  • Residence: Ellicott City

About Sabina Taj

Education

Georgetown University, Washington, DC M.A. in Philosophy of Psychology California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks B.A in Psychology B.A in Sociology Minor in Art History

Background

As a long-time advisor to a foundation that supports groundbreaking initiatives in K-12 education, I have a history of identifying successful programs in general education, curriculum development, and teacher retention. As an adjunct professor at Howard Community College (HCC), I’ve been cultivating the next generation of educators by teaching arts integration to future schoolteachers. As an appointed member of the Board of Education’s Operating Budget Review Committee (OBRC), I’ve been gaining a deeper understanding of the school system’s operations and how budget decisions can have an outsized impact on student success. As a volunteer parent, I’ve seen first hand the workings of my daughters’ schools and the importance of inviting all stakeholders into the process. Over the past year, I’ve also been serving on the executive board of the PTA at my daughter’s elementary school as chair of a newly formed diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. I’ve long been active in the Howard County community. I served as program officer at the Howard County Community Foundation and I’m a proud graduate of Leadership Howard County. I also serve on the board of the Little Patuxent Review, a local literary magazine with deep roots in the community, and on the advisory committee of the Columbia Housing Center.

Questionnaire

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1
School safety
With rising concern over school safety, should county police officers or sheriff's deputies be assigned to all public schools, along with additional screening methods, such as metal detectors, student pat-downs and clear backpacks?
Taj: When faced with a tragedy like Parkland, we are shaken to the core. The public understandably seeks quick, visible measures such as the ones mentioned above. Unfortunately, the data does not point to the efficacy of these solutions. Instead, we should take a measured approach rooted in research to implement solutions that actually create safer schools, rather than feel-good measures that leave the community with a false sense of security. Soon after Parkland, experts gathered to outline recommendations for increasing school safety. Recommended responses included the following: 1) make it harder to acquire guns by implementing universal background checks, banning assault-style weapons, and adopting sensible gun-control measures; 2) invest in efforts to provide social and emotional services for students; 3) focus on a relationship-based model where students are encouraged to report concerns to an adult. (A staggering one-in-four middle and high school kids report seeing a weapon at least once a year, and in a majority of cases a shooter will communicate their intentions in some form to a peer;) 4) address the racial biases in disciplinary action so as to reduce suspensions through staff and student training; and 5) have a clear plan in place for assessing a situation when a student is identified as having a weapon or making threatening remarks. “Triage” teams should include key administrators, a trained psychologist, and an adequately trained school resource officer (SRO), where appropriate.
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2
Crowding
Is the county school system's program to reduce crowded schools through redistricting an effective method given projected shifts in population growth, housing development plans?
Taj: Yes. Redistricting to alleviate overcrowded schools seems like a necessary course of action. Though Dr. Martirano has taken temporary steps to alleviate overcrowding, a long-term solution is needed and redistricting will likely be part of it. Noting this, the most effective, least disruptive way to address overcrowding is to build more schools. Now that high school #13 has been chosen, the Board should set its sights on getting the school built while expediting the selection of high school #14. Simultaneously, the Board should seek to learn about efforts that have worked in other parts of the country to address overcrowding. For example, me might consider developing specialized academies in schools with excess capacity—e.g., around STEM, the arts, or coding—to draw interested students from overcrowded schools. I would also advocate for the Board to conduct a community-wide survey of parents to assess the extent to which solutions identified by the Board are likely to be embraced by the community.
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3
Budget
Superintendent Michael Martirano has shifted budget priorities and is proposing to eliminate a world language program that's in place at eight (of 41) Howard County elementary schools and his budget might require increasing class sizes, by one student, in several middle and high schools. He would like to increase the number of social workers — at a pace of three per year — to help students struggling with mental health issues. Are these prudent choices?
Taj: Given the increased rates of mental illness in student populations and the benefits to be gained from building a relationship-based model for school safety, the addition of social workers will pay dividends on a number of fronts. I would like to see this happen at a faster pace but recognize the budgetary constraints that make this challenging. I am not in favor of increasing class sizes as research overwhelming suggests that small-class size is arguably the best method for improving student academic achievement and increasing teacher retention. This is particularly relevant given the need to close the achievement gap for the system’s most vulnerable students. I believe Dr. Martirano and the county should do more to protect class size. I was particularly disheartened when Dr. Altwerger’s proposal to exempt Title 1 schools from the class size increase was voted down; it seemed to me a short-sighted decision whose effects will largely fall on the backs of those most in need of additional attention. When the world language program was being implemented at some of our more vulnerable schools, the community was supportive of the program for the value it provided in building relationships. A cohort of teachers strongly advocated for the continuation of the program and in my view made a case for its value. Rather than drop the program as an expedient budget-saving measure, I would have recommended first assessing the benefits in relation to the cost.
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4
Health care costs
The system's health fund has been in the red for several years — the deficit projected at $50 million by this summer — and Mr. Martirano has requested one-time funds from the county to start to pay down the deficit. But higher health insurance rates are also in the cards; this is one apparent sticking point in the ongoing union contract talks. How do you believe this problem should be addressed?
Taj: The education system is the bedrock of our community and serves as a key economic driver for the county. The county needs to fund it as such. The U.S. has a shortage of teachers as the country experienced a 35% reduction in the teacher pipeline from 2009 to 2014. Maryland is an “import state,” which means our need for teachers exceeds the number of teachers in the Maryland pipeline. In addition, we continue to have an 8% attrition rate annually. (For teachers of color these figures are even higher.) The county and state need to do more to keep teachers teaching and to find ways to incent individuals to join the educator ranks. Reducing educator benefits may reduce budget outlays in the short-term but end up costing the county in the long-term if the teacher shortage worsens. The county should also support HB1180/CH0140, which provides loan repayment assistance to teachers. As an active member of the OBRC and a firm believer in revenue-based budgeting, I’m keenly aware that the system is operating at a deficit and choices need to be made. HCPSS must do all in its power to create a responsible budget while trying to minimize the damage to student success. The board should continue to look for savings in non-personnel costs like purchasing, equipment, and supplies. Dr. Martirano and the Board are trying to do their part. Now it’s up to the county to do its part by fully funding the budget.
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5
Achievement gap
How would you evaluate HCPS' efforts to reduce achievement gaps between students of different races and backgrounds? Does more need to be done?
Taj: HCPSS has made progress in reducing the achievement gap but work remains. We know this gap leads to higher dropout rates, lower post-education wages, increased poverty, un-/under-employment, and social/emotional risks. A number of data-driven interventions with proven success could help break this cycle. These include: 1) Pre-K - based on 22 studies, children under five who participated in classroom-based early childhood education programs were less likely to be placed in special education, less likely to be held back a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school compared to peers who were not in such programs; 2) educator diversification - research shows that when students of color have a teacher of color, attendance, academic achievement, enrollment in GT courses, and lower disciplinary action result. Teachers of color also tend to stay longer in high-needs schools, which brings more stability to the school; 3) Implicit bias training - African American, Native American, Latinx, and special education children are disciplined at much higher rates than normal. Training will help correct these inequitable rates of suspension; 4) engaged, reflective curriculum - students do better when they are able to see themselves and their cultures in the curriculum. As a professor, I’ve seen firsthand how transformative this relatively simple effort can be in awakening a student’s curiosity, engagement, and academic success.
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6
Foose
Did the school board act appropriately in agreeing to pay former superintendent Renee Foose more than $1.6 million in salary and benefits to persuade her to resign?
Taj: Given that educator support for Superintendent Foose plummeted to 10% based on a 3,000 person survey administered by the Howard County Education Association; that nearly 900 people signed a petition to have her removed; and that the system’s legal bills were mounting, I believe it was a sound decision in order to move the community to a place of healing. The decision was made behind closed doors and thus I don’t have enough information to say whether this was a “good” or a “bad” decision but I believe it was right to take action. Going forward, the Board should set clear expectations and guidelines for its engagement with the superintendent so that the situation does not repeat itself in the future. The most successful relationship between a board and superintendent is one where you have a strong collaboration based on trust, transparency, and open communication. Such a relationship recognizes that student achievement is the primary goal. The superintendent is charged with oversight of the school district, the Board with representing the community, setting policies, and evaluating the success of the district’s operations. The Board can best be held accountable to the community by ensuring that the superintendent meets mutually agreed upon goals for the district. I encourage the Board and Dr. Martirano to have trust-building exercises incorporated into a formal written policy that outlines the responsibilities of both parties to each other and the community.
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7
Martirano
How would you grade Mr. Martirano's performance and his reorganization of the central office?
Taj: In my view, Dr. Martirano has done a solid job. I’ve enjoyed working with him as an advocate and would look forward to working with him on the Board. He came into a system that had experienced considerable turmoil and rolled up his sleeves to begin to right the ship. He has begun to rebuild trust by being open to community engagement and his approach seems rooted in transparency, honesty and open dialogue. He seems to care about the welfare of the student body, his staff, and the community. The changes he’s made to the central office thus far seem sensible. The costs associated with this office are not insignificant and thus it is critical that staff be properly deployed. I like that he has actively sought to diversify his leadership team, though I’d like to see more women join the team. I was pleased that he hired Dr. Kevin Gilbert and made this a position reporting directly to him. However, the jury for me is still out on: 1) whether he will make the hard but good decisions to position the school system for future success; 2) whether he will follow through on his stated desire to consult with the community before making key decisions; and 3) whether he will back his words around ensuring fairness and equity for all HCPSS students with sufficient resources to make this happen. Words only carry weight when they are supported with actions and resources.
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