Stephanie Ybarra Korteweg, 38, a former teacher who heads Antioch Community Church’s mentoring program for local students, is running to represent Place 2 on the Waco school board, a post that represents much of East Waco. In an interview with the Trib editorial board, she discusses her perspective as a professional educator and what that could offer Waco ISD; how Antioch seeks to encourage students in reading; and the importance of collaboration in Prosper Waco’s mission battling poverty. The election is May 9.
Q Why are you running for the school board?
A I’m running because we have momentum in this city. There is a collaboration that has been unprecedented up till now. I would love to be a part of that. I know with all the renovations and restorations and economic growth downtown, what we need is to see that our schools are revitalized also. I would love to jump in and serve. They really are a key piece in economic growth.
Q What skills do you bring to the job?
A I was a teacher for 12 years. I was in there with the kids. I’ve been a director of a mentoring organization for three years, so I have 15 years total, including serving Waco Independent School District. I’ve been a teacher in three different campuses for K-12. I was at Viking Hills, Provident Heights and West Avenue — a pretty broad base of campuses.
Q As a teacher working in three different areas of town with different demographics and poverty levels, did you gain any special insights?
A Kids are kids across the board. Kids are in a developmental stage where they want to learn. There are complexities to problems and situations, but they’re also very resilient.
Q Then why is Waco ISD having hard times with some of its campuses? When you’re in the hallway with other teachers, is there a consensus that the parents could do more or the state or the local school board?
A It’s all very complex. You’re going to have a comment from one teacher and a comment from another, and they may differ. But the one thing is we have great teachers in this school district. There are teachers who are in it not just for the salary but because they have a great team of teachers they enjoy working with and they have great kids.
Q Well, you obviously feel strongly about the teaching profession, so what prompted you to then jump ship?
A To jump ship? Actually, that’s a great question. I had been teaching for 12 years and I had a classroom of 25 kids and they would come into my classroom and ask me about my kids. And I would tell them, “No, I’m not married and I don’t have any children, but then I do have children and this year I’ve got 25 kids.” And they’d look around and say, “Oh, us!” So I would teach a group of 20 kids one year, 20 kids the next year and 20 kids the next year. And I finally wondered if there was some way I could expend this much energy but impact even more children. And then the position of director of this mentoring project became available.
Q Tell us about that.
A It’s a mentoring organization through Antioch Community Church and it’s been in existence for about 10 years. And I came on board three years ago. It was a hard decision not to teach, but I saw the effects of mentoring as a teacher and I can see them now as director of a mentoring organization. At Antioch, we have developed from my teaching experience a model called “book clubs.” We go in during students’ lunch time, have a volunteer come in and sit with about two or three kids and talk and develop a relationship and then read a book together. The kids are homogeneously grouped in terms of reading ability. We get them books that are on their grade level rather than risk a frustration level, and we have an adult with them. This gives them support from their peers, support from their mentors, and it’s a win-win in their book.
Q Former educator Alex Williams, who represented Place 2 on the school board for many years, constantly emphasized the importance of racial balance and full acknowledgement of racial diversity. Incumbent Colbert Murphy has emphasized the importance of parents and where they are in the process. What is your emphasis?
A Education is no longer solely education. We’re dealing with poverty, hunger and a myriad of issues that are very complex. We need to leverage local assets such as nonprofits and find people out there who can help undergird some of the complexity. My take would be community collaboration.
Q Well, let’s look at that closely. Earlier this year, Prosper Waco was formally launched with three massive brainstorming sessions. Did you go to that?
A Yes. I love different perspectives. If we can get the community involved and hear their perspective on different things — there were comments that were made that I don’t think had necessarily been touched upon in some of the Prosper Waco goals and initiatives, which is fine. That’s why they have these community forums and collaborations and try to get these different perspectives. So (the Prosper Waco) brainstorming session helped broaden my perspective of ways to impact campuses, ways to impact schools, ways to get parents involved. There’s definitely a myriad of ideas and opportunities, and that’s again the collaboration component.
Q Well, what were some of these thoughts you heard that helped broaden your perspective?
A They were talking in particular about parental engagement. They were talking about some of the language barriers and other hindrances that have to be overcome and that are not insurmountable, they’re not impossible. Like when there are language barriers, it keeps the teachers at times from engaging the parents and the parents from in turn engaging the schools. Every parent who sends a kid to school is sending his or her best, and that is their pride and joy.
Q Good luck. I suggest that perhaps they’re sending their very best to the schools, but I wonder if they even bother to get engaged. This has been a problem, at least for some teachers. Sometimes the children have single parents and they’ve got jobs and shifts that fully consume them, if not two or three jobs. Other times parents don’t care. It runs the gamut.
A I think parents engage as much as they can. They will engage.
Q You’re one of two people from Antioch in local elections this spring, the other being Dillon Meek. Is this an outreach by Antioch? I mean, it’s a little different from other churches, and its mission statement has included transforming Waco.
A Outreach? (Laughter.) I had no idea about (Waco City Council candidate Dillon Meek running) till he filed.
Q Some argue that public education is under vigorous attack by the Texas Legislature. Some public educators locally do not see our state lawmakers as working on behalf of public schools. Examples: the rating of public school districts on a letter grade, A-F, or the idea of dropping the number of years a poor-performing school can operate before parents can mandate a management change. Have you been following all this?
A Some of it. Testing is not going to go away. And while the process of testing feels cumbersome and burdensome, I think teachers enjoy some of the data because it can guide their instruction. We need to take a look at what’s happening in Austin and then strategize on how we can build great schools, how we can empower our administrators and teachers and how we can utilize those human resources that we do have.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.
Editor’s note: A third candidate in the Waco Independent School District Place 2 election twice failed to show up for interviews with the Waco Tribune-Herald editorial board.