School Committee candidates talk about their vision of local education

Published in the October 27, 2017 edition

This week we focus on the Nov. 7 race for three seats on the School Committee. The candidates are Hawley Road’s John C. Obremski, Jennifer M. McAndrew of Sears Avenue, Jennifer Razi-Thomas of Walton Park, West Wyoming Avenue’s Christian J. Hashem and Crescent Avenue’s Peter I. Navarra.

Navarra did not return answers.

You have a certain vision for the city’s public schools. What is it?

 Christian Hashem: I want a public school system that is as hot as the rest of the city. The city. as a whole, may be one of the top municipalities in the country, but our school system needs to catch up to the rest Melrose. We need to recruit the best teachers and faculty. This means we need to give our educators the pay they deserve. We need a school system operated the way students and parents want it to be, not the way the the state’s school committee association says it should be run. We need a comfortable environment for all students to learn and all educators to teach. We needs to find creative ways to foster student success, while saving the district money at the same time. This includes increasing the use of technology in the classroom and at home. We need a school system that appeals to parents who send their children to schools outside of Melrose public school system. My vision is a vision of the future, because It is All About the Future!

Jennifer McAndrew: I believe in the power of the public school experience. Together we can build and sustain a school system that educates all students, prepares them for success in college and careers, and empowers them to serve and contribute to their community. Here are five priorities:

1. Melrose High School (MHS) is the flagship school of our district. We must continue our investment in the growth and innovation of MHS, for our current students and with an eye to rising enrollments.2. We must provide an inclusive, high-quality education to every student at every grade level. This includes closing some persistent gaps and maintaining a strong focus on all aspects of learning, including social-emotional health and stress management, with students at the center.3. Throughout the district, I would like to see continuous professional development opportunities for our teachers, regular assessments of our own educational programs, and a focus on project-based learning. 4. At a time of high political polarization and eroding public discourse, I believe all students must be prepared to contribute as informed and engaged citizens. This includes learning the skills of democracy: civic engagement, service, dialogue and civil debate, and media and news literacy. 5. Finally, I believe we can continue to find ways to improve communication between the school district, city government, our educators, our students, and all Melrose residents, as we work together for the greater good.

John Obremski: I believe as a community we need to create a realistic, positive, focused vision encouraging all children to engage and love learning. After years of working in the public schools I believe that stress continues to be an issue for children and parents, I will champion creative solutions to reduce student stress, and focus on the well being of the whole child. Testing to proficiency is not the end all be all for our children, and I will support innovative teaching, increased engagement, and active student growth. I will listen and work collaboratively with parents, taxpayers, committee members, and staff of the Melrose Public Schools to support exemplary teaching and focus on the support of student learning. Ultimately we have to work together using all of our resources as one Melrose community to continue to move forward for our schools and our children. 

Jennifer Razi-Thomas:  Other than one’s family, school influences a child’s life most profoundly. Given this important role, early education, elementary, middle and high school experiences must be outstanding so they help to shape young people into productive and healthy adults. I am passionate about both short and long-term visions for the Melrose district.

In the short-run, we should strive to meet all of our learner’s needs within the district. This means that only in very rare cases, would a student be placed in a special education school outside the district. All students are entitled to the least restrictive setting and should feel a part of their home community. In the longer term, developing more specialized programming to service student’s needs within our schools would eventually save money (after initial start up costs) and would demonstrate that we are living the values found in Melrose’s tag line: One Community Open to All.

Our schools should provide the training necessary for our youngsters to do well in the 21st Century economy. Our curriculum needs to keep evolving to anticipate what jobs will be emerging and growing as scholars finish up high school. For instance, over time, developing science lab tracks in high school prepares learners to head into college with advanced credits completed as well as some certifications or immediately into tech jobs with livable wages.

Our district is already moving towards a competency-based education model so our scholars in training can set their own pace of learning and have more choice over how they demonstrate their academic skills. Competency-based education (CBE) encourages mastery of skills instead of focusing on grades. With this model in the longer run, we can maintain high standards while being creative about how students learn through project-based learning, internships/externships and get away from rigid expectations around the number of hours a student needs to be in a seat within a school. CBE recognizes that learning can and should happen anytime and anywhere.

Lastly, our schools should strive to be “beloved communities” today and over time. This is a phrase found in the forward of John Lewis’ autobiography. What this means to me, is our schools care for the whole child. We would work towards teaching our scholars how to manage conflict with grace, how to stop bullying when they see or hear it, how to be kind and inclusive, how to develop effective coping skills and how to advocate for themselves as well as how to work well in a team. These social-emotional skills can be taught and not just at the kindergarten level, they need to be the focus of teaching and learning pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and are needed now more than ever in our democracy. 

What in your background and in your qualifications will help Melrose schools move forward?

Jennifer Razi-Thomas: My two children are at the Roosevelt Elementary School so this gives me much personal incentive to support the schools in being the best they can be.

As a clinical social worker/school adjustment counselor for over 20 years, I am prepared to meet any crisis or problem with calm and creative “battle tested” problem solving skills. My career has trained me to have excellent listening skills as well as strong analytical skills. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many groups of strong-minded, smart adults. It is fascinating to debate issues in a manner that leads to best outcomes and a clear vision. If elected, I promise to bring lots of humor and an open mind as well as large doses of respect for vigorous dialogue to the school committee.

For the last 6 years, I have been the Coordinator of Counseling Services at New Liberty Innovation School and also serve on the leadership team. Some of my work has included developing social emotional curriculum. This work experience gives me great insight into public education processes as well as how a competency based education model functions. This would guide me well in helping to move Melrose schools forward in becoming a competency-based education district that incorporates social emotional learning through the curriculum.

John Obremski: I have worked in public education for over twenty years as a teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and director. My involvement in the community is as a basketball, soccer, and T-ball coach. I was a member of the Horace Mann School Council. I am experienced at understanding school facilities and communicating with the Massachusetts and U.S. Department of Education. I have secured millions of dollars in grant funding building after school programs, heath and wellness programs, and arts integration programs for children. My experience with school budgets, grant writing, as well as my work on and with school building commissions gives me the ability to find creative solutions to complex space and fiscal concerns. My wife Jennifer who is a grade one teacher, and I have dedicated our lives to supporting and advocating for children in the public schools. Were proud of our two children who both attend the Melrose schools and have a deep understanding of what the schools have to offer.

Jennifer McAndrew: My husband, Dave, and I have lived in Melrose for 11 years. We have three great kids in the school district: two at the Roosevelt and one at MVMMS. I am an active volunteer in the schools and community initiatives, like efforts to rebuild several parks and playgrounds. I am the president of the Melrose Education Foundation, which provides grants and learning opportunities across the school district, allowing me the chance to work with many teachers, principals and students. During my career, I have worked at three federal agencies, the U.S. House of Representatives, the State House, and currently at Tufts University. My combined professional experience and civic engagement demonstrate a knowledge base in education policy issues, budgeting, and planning, as well as a comprehensive perspective on the Melrose Public Schools. I come to this work with an open mind and a commitment to listen and discuss. Please reach out to me at or follow me on Instagram @Mc4Melrose or Twitter @jenmcandrew.

Christian Hashem: I’m the only candidate to have gone through Melrose Schools and to have received a 21st century education. As a recent MHS graduate (2016) and current college student, I’m the only candidate to truly understand what Melrose students go through. As the VP of the Class of 2016, I connected with the student body and developed relationships with faculty. I know the interests and needs of the students, and we can use my unique perspective to foster student success.