For the first time since its first meeting in 1915, the Beachwood Board of Education is all female.
With the swearing-in of new members Kim Allamby, Dr. Josephine Chan and Wendy Leatherberry in January of this year, the district made history not only because all five board members are women, but also because Allamby and Chan are the first African American and Asian American women to serve on the board.
“We really have a shared set of values–the five of us,” Leatherberry said.
Leatherberry emphasized that even though they come from different backgrounds and have different viewpoints on certain topics, they share the same goals.
“We [prioritize] how vital public education is and the importance of equity and inclusion in terms of making sure that any child who shows up in our district is getting what they need,” she said.
Board President Megan Walsh appointed Allamby as liaison to report back to the school board and community about student achievement in the district. She also plans to attend the Ohio School Boards Association Capital Conference and Trade Show from Nov. 13-15, where other school districts will share successful strategies that worked for them.
Superintendent Dr. Bob Hardis praises the diversity of the current board, which he believes is vital to drive inclusivity.
The board has two meetings per month on Monday evenings. They usually begin with a presentation from the administration, a department or staff member, and later in the meeting they address the agenda, which includes resolutions or contracts where a vote is required.
Throughout the meetings, there are two opportunities for public comment, one at the beginning and the other at the end. In some cases they adjourn to executive session for the last part of the meeting, where members meet in private to discuss confidential information.
Currently the board has been working on multiple issues, including reforming the dress code policies, reviewing the mask policy, reviewing the plans for the marketing club’s Hope Soars project while also approving the science olympiad team to attend out of state competition and enabling the indoor track team to attend their state and national meets.
The school board supports the district’s ongoing efforts to make the community more inclusive of different cultures, including raising multicultural awareness by implementing diverse curriculum as well as displaying banners of renowned people from different backgrounds on school campus banners. Board members believe this is a project that needs to be ongoing, as you can never stop trying to make the community more inclusive.
“It was disturbing to see some of the debates on diversity [last year], [but] education and discussions about diversity is something that needs to be included more, especially in a community like Beachwood,” Allamby said. “Our world is becoming more diverse and interconnected, so our kids need to be prepared.”
Collectively, the board hopes to increase the engagement in school. Walsh assigned each board member to a building that her own children do not attend. Each member will then work to become acclimated to the environment of the school in order to support the students, communicate with administrators and attend school events.
“We want to be visible in the schools and make sure that students, families and community members can approach us with any concerns they have,” Leatherberry said.
Building off the work of the previous administration, the current board is making an effort to hold conversations with the community. At the end of February, they held their first Bison Talk, where residents had the opportunity to speak with school district leadership.
Two board members and two administrators attend these meetings where they listen, talk and collaborate with community members to address concerns. There are two more planned this year on April 7 at 8:30 a.m. and June 22 at 7:00 p.m. Two more are also scheduled for next fall.
Walsh wants to remain open to community input.
“We really want to be engaged with the community and understand what people’s experiences are, what they need from the schools, what’s working well and what’s not,” she said.
Leatherberry also hopes to keep the community more informed about what the board is doing.
“I think we need to do a better job of sharing information, which is always challenging,” she said. “We oftentimes get so caught up in doing the work that we don’t necessarily remember to tell the story of the work.”
In the wake of the pandemic, board members hope to help students transition back to a more “normal” school experience.
“We need to truly assess all the hidden impacts and develop the proper response to the childrens’ health, nutrition, education, learning, well-being, and their families,” Board Member Dr. Josephine Chan pointed out. “How did the pandemic affect the families? If it affects the family, then it affects the children.”
Moreover, board members have expressed their desire to revisit the plan to combine grades K-5 into a single building. Compared to the Middle School and High School, the elementary schools are in disrepair.
Board Members Leatherberry, Allamby and Chan recognize that 1,998 Beachwood residents voted in favor of the 2018 operating levy that would have consolidated Fairmount, Bryden and Hilltop students in a new elementary building.
“We need to revisit the elementary school facility plan,” Chan said. “We need to reopen those discussions [and] engage with the community on this issue.”
Additionally, Treasurer Michelle Mills, who has been working for Beachwood for 30 years, will be retiring on July 31, 2023, and the board will have the difficult task of appointing her replacement.
Walsh also hopes to get new board members effectively trained to understand their role on the school board. Currently, new members participate in training sessions and use the Ohio School Boards Association website for more information.
When Walsh was elected to fill a vacancy in 2019, she never attended any training sessions. However, she now hopes to make sure that each new board member feels comfortable with the operations of the board.
“As president this year, I’m very focused on making sure that our three new members are onboarded, receive training, and have everything they need,” she said.
A personal goal of Allamby’s is to address the achievement gaps. During her term, she hopes to personally be involved in reducing barriers to success.
“I think we also need to be aware of the achievement gaps [including those associated with] race, socioeconomic statuses, and transfer students versus students who stayed in Beachwood their entire lives,” Allamby said. “The problem is, this issue isn’t only one field, but there are so many factors that play into these gaps.”
Hardis and the board members agree that Beachwood’s strength is in its community and its willingness to prioritize education above all else.
“Those of us that work in Beachwood are really fortunate because this community always puts kids first,” Dr. Hardis pointed out.
He recognizes this devotion demonstrated in all sorts of ways in the operations of schools where the community supports the schools financially and cares about the safety and well-being of students.
“It’s self-fulfilling because the more families that are here [for the education], the more families that want to move here because they want to be in a community that holds this value as number one,” he said
Ultimately, each board member chose to run for their own reasons and hope to achieve their goals during their terms. Each is passionate about Beachwood Schools and is committed to making it the best it can be.
In January 2019, there was a vacancy on the board, and Walsh immediately took the opportunity to run because of her love of Beachwood Schools and her motivation to ensure that everyone’s kids enjoyed the same memorable experiences her kids were receiving.
“[My kids] go to school every day feeling they are respected, valued and heard,” she said. “And I want that for all the students at Beachwood.”
After hearing about the equity and engagement committee initiative, Chan was inspired to fill the vacancy of Josh Mintz, who was elected to City Council.
“I’m a first generation Asian American [who] experienced barriers, and differences growing up,” she said. “As a minority, I want to use my past experiences to help families, [especially] those who are immigrants.”
Leatherberry formerly served on the Cleveland Heights Board of Education and ran for the Beachwood Board primarily because of her strong commitment to education.
“I really do feel that public education is the basis for democracy,” she said. “It’s one of the most important public goods we have that should be for everyone.”
Having lived in Beachwood for six years, Leatherberry has grown to love the schools and developed this urge to help her community on a local level.
“I know the impact of having strong public schools,” she said. “I’ve seen how our children are benefiting from them, [and] I wanted to be a part of what Beachwood was doing.”
Hardis recognizes the hard work and commitment of board members, and appreciates the difficult decisions they have to make.
“It can be very thankless as a job, and sometimes [the decisions they make] can cost themselves friendships, and it can lead them to a lot of unwanted attention,” he said. “I really respect their service and their motivation to serve, which I feel is one of the most noble things you can do.”