Interview With Omarh Rajah: Part 3

Today, we conclude our three part interview with Chesterfield County School Board member Omarh Rajah, the first teacher elected from that county's Motoaca District, and the first African-American ever elected to that school board. An unabashed conservative in his first run for public office, he defeated the incumbent chairman in a year that saw many conservatives lose in Virginia. Part one can be found here and part two here. In this last part, Mr. Rajah discusses what he thinks of the VEA from his perspective as a teacher, candidate and school board member; what it takes to begin the needed road to reform in public education, student behavior and the role of parents, among other things. We think a high profile local official's views is a fresh take for a blog which deals primarily with state issues, so we hope you enjoy this series and let us know your thoughts. Who or what is the biggest roadblock to education reform in Virginia at the state and local levels?

Omarh Rajah: It's hard to pinpoint the biggest obstacle to reform, but, if I had to boil it down to one thing, I would have to say it's really trying to break the mindset people get into when they're totally used to doing things one way, and become naturally resistant to change. That takes a lot of communication and reaching out. Some see the Virginia Education Association as a roadblock and not a partner in providing needed reforms. What is your experience with the teachers union and how have they reacted to your proposals?

Omarh Rajah: To be honest, the VEA's Chesterfield affiliate endorsed my opponent in last year's election. That actually surprised and disappointed me, since I was running to become the first teacher ever elected to the School Board from the Matoaca District. Since the election, however, they've mostly been quiet on the issues we've dealt with. In spite of their endorsement of my opponent, I got a lot of support during the campaign from teachers who knew I would always be there to support them in terms of making sure they're paid what they deserve and get the health, retirement, and benefits packages they're entitled to. I suppose, when the next election comes along, we'll find out what their leadership thinks of the progress we've made and the reforms we're implemented. School districts feel compelled to define dress codes now. Is there a general need to bring decorum back to schools, whether it's dress codes or basic deportment?

Omarh Rajah: I don't feel dress codes are a contentious issue in Chesterfield right now. At least, based on the questions I get from constituents about different issues, that's just not an issue that comes up very often. I've not seen a need to change the dress code policies in our schools, but, yes, I do believe that a need does exist to bring the basic deportment you're talking about back to our schools, in terms of how people interact with each other. For example, one thing I want to do is make sure our schools start using consistent standards in identifying and reporting incidents of bullying against students, so that we'll be able to fully crack down on this kind of behavior, and I believe school administrators need to enforce demands that our teachers be treated with respect by students and by parents, and, most of all, parents need to enforce demands that their children behave appropriately at school towards teachers and towards other students. What is the role of parents in a child's education, from homework to behavior? How do we get parents more involved and consistently involved? Are parents not allowed to be involved? In some cases, school districts don't even notify parents of certain clubs and activities their children participate in.

Omarh Rajah: Parents are the most important people in a child's education. I think most of us grew up in families where we were expected to put forth the maximum effort possible in our school work, and to behave appropriately at school, and where that expectation was enforced when necessary. The problem is not that parents are not allowed to be involved, it's that a lot of parents don't know how to become involved. That's why I've held more community meetings in my first six months in office than my predecessor had during his entire four year term — I want parents, and everyone, to be involved. Even parents who work outside the home and can't necessarily be involved in PTA or who can't volunteer at their child's school during the day have an important role to play, just by checking their child's homework, talking to them about their behavior at school and enforcing what behavior is acceptable and what isn't, and going to back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences. As to your last point, it seems to me that it's basic common sense that parents have a right to know from the school what extracurricular activities are offered and which ones their child is participating in. One reform that's interesting in urban areas is separating boys and girls. Should more districts pursue this option as part of offering more choice?

Omarh Rajah: I currently don't see any need to pursue that option in Chesterfield. However, in other school systems where there is good reason to believe that would be productive in terms of improving the academic performance and/or behavior of some students, it's an option they should definitely pursue, and I don't believe the state government should try to stand in the way. Mr. Rajah, thanks for sparing some moments from your valuable time and for your thoughtful answers. We hope you'll come back and visit with us again. Best of continued success with the Chesterfield School Board.