Olivia Shaffett, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
Today’s Public Administrators asks administrators working in the public sector about their experience implementing and shaping policy on the ground. This segment talks with MPA candidate, Gunnar Haberl, who currently sits on the Iroquois Central School District’s Board of Education. Starting his term immediately after graduation at 18 years old, Gunnar became the youngest elected member of the Iroquois School Board. His first initiative focused on working with fellow board members to create and implement effective mental health programs for public schools in his district. Read the interview below to learn more about Gunnar’s thoughts on the significance of comprehensive mental health programs and the future of education policy.
Q: What motivated you to run for a seat on the school board directly after graduation?
A: I was involved with student government throughout high school, and then I chose to attend a local college for my undergrad at the University of Buffalo. While in school, I was commuting back and forth from home and found myself interested in running for some form of position, whether it was with local government or a seat on the school board. Coincidentally, a seat on the school board opened up, and I felt drawn to that position.
Q: How has your age been a challenge or a benefit to seeking public office?
A: I think the primary challenge that I’ve had to overcome with my age is the perception of youth and how some people may not respect me as an equal member of the school board. Thankfully, my colleagues on the board have always accepted me as one of their own. However, the issue has come up many times from members of the community and other school board members around the state. There’s this pressure of always having to prove one’s self in a way that other board members do not, and it stems from being young and the perception that comes with that. Most people assume that with age comes knowledge or wisdom, which may be true, but they are not taking into account that while my experiences may differ from theirs, they’re still just as important. Another challenge for me was facing the public eye at a young age. I had to be careful in how I presented myself to the public, and this entailed watching my social media and making careful decisions during my undergrad experience.
On the other hand, where my age has benefitted me has been in providing that first-hand experience during school board meetings. When discussing common core and state-based testing, I’m able to emphasize how I personally encountered these problems. I think my ability to share my observations and experiences is important when considering how best to solve these issues.
Q: Do you believe that your age allows you to better understand the challenges and concerns that students in your district face?
A: When I was first elected, I still had that connection to the students, so I could offer a first-hand experience of what was going on in the classroom. I became the person on the board that other board members and the superintendent could go to acquire more information concerning the students’ experiences in the classroom, whether that’s socially or academically.
Q: Much of your platform has focused on expanding and refining mental health services in the public school system. What was the state of mental health services available to students prior to your election?
A: After I was elected, I met with all of the principals in the buildings and asked their opinion on the main issue we needed to address. Various issues were discussed, but every single principal emphasized that our school district was not meeting the mental health needs of our students. When we actually looked at the data of student referrals, our middle school had a significant number of referrals of students that were constantly meeting with counselors and a psychologist, but as these kids moved to high school, that number started to decrease. For me, that sparked the conversation of what is happening in our primary buildings when this is so prevalent at the middle school level?
At the time, each of our primary principals was serving the role of school counselor, which is not conducive to their role as the school disciplinarian and administrator. This attempt to meet a counseling need took up the majority of their time during the school day, so we determined that we could address that problem by adding a full-time counselor to each of those primary buildings and by creating a guidance plan for the district because one did not exist at the time. There was no written strategic plan that defined our goals for strategic intervention and the outcomes we needed to ensure that students are getting the assistance they need in order to succeed. As a student, when you’re in the classroom and other issues are preventing you from focusing on the academic portion of school, then you’re not going to be successful in those classes. We were seeing in our district a lot of our elementary students coming in with severe mental health challenges at 5, 6, 7, 8 years old, and not having the appropriate outlet of someone to talk to and build a sense of trust and rapport with.
Q: Can you describe the mental health initiative that you proposed in your district?
A: Now, each of our primary buildings has a full-time counselor. Every single student in the district K-12 is required to meet with their counselor at least once one-on-one for a 30-minute meeting, and on top of that, the district now has a strategic plan that focuses on interventions, referrals, and assessments. I think for me, mental health is something you continuously talk about as an individual. It’s never fully resolved. The goal was never to say that these students starting counseling in kindergarten will no longer have mental health challenges by twelfth grade. That’s not what I view as success. What I view as success is that by twelfth grade, do these kids know how to manage their mental health? Are they able to leave the district and know how to seek help when needed?
Q: In what ways do you think mental health policies can benefit both students and school administrators?
A: So, it’s interesting that what this prompted is a conversation about mental health not only for students but for our faculty, our administration, and the community at large. There’s this stigma with mental health, right? And we see it, unfortunately, a lot in our district where parents don’t want to discuss it. They don’t want their kids to be in counseling or involved in mental health conversations in general. However, I think the benefit is it gives students an outlet to share with someone they trust what is happening, how they’re feeling, and what is going on in their lives. A lot of times with students and just human beings in general, we want someone to listen to us and know that we’re being completely heard. So, I think the counseling for students allows them to revive their thoughts and re-enter the classroom with a clear mindset and the ability to learn the material being presented to them. As we know, administrators and teachers also deal with their own mental health. They have what I believe are some of the toughest jobs in the world, so this initiative has allowed them to not only navigate their students’ mental health needs but also to consider their own mental health needs and how their mental health state can positively or negatively affect what’s going on inside the classroom.
Q: A common argument today is that public officials cannot adequately surpass disagreements to solve problems. From your experience, is this a common issue in practice? Have you found a method of negotiation and diplomacy that works for you?
A: There’s no question that I disagree with some members of the board. We all have different issues that we are passionate about, and where we disagree is on the process of how to get to the final outcome. As long as the seven of us keep in mind that the final outcome is the best educational opportunity for the students, then we know that that’s where we’re headed. So how we get there is keeping that in mind, and for me, that’s what keeps the integrity of our board together. We’re able to have those disagreements in a respectful manner when making decisions. Once that decision is made, it’s our job to support that decision. At least in my role on the school board, I try to keep an open mind to everything when I’m passionate about something, I try my best not to let that passion cloud my judgment and I also try not to make a final decision until I’ve heard all points of view on the issue. Also, our school board is not partisan, so that helps with preventing conflict. We are never arguing on a partisan basis, and we aren’t aligned to a political party when making decisions.
Q: What are some other areas of concern that you see as pressing issues in the sphere of public education?
A: I think our biggest challenge today in public education is not educating our students for the jobs that will be there when they graduate. Our curriculum is not being updated across the board. Those who are teaching are not receiving the professional development that should exist so that they can continue their own education in order to prepare their students for what I call “2030 jobs.” We do not know what the job market will necessarily look like, but we do have an idea that there will be more technologically advanced jobs out there. The question for the students that are starting kindergarten today is, are we preparing them with the education they need to be able to walk into undergrad or the job market when they graduate high school?
I also think, in public education, a hurdle we need to overcome is viewing education in this traditional lens and only following precedents. The idea that “it’s always been done this way” is an issue, in my opinion. We need to bring more real-world experiences into the classroom, whether that’s embracing project-based learning where students are working collaboratively together on problem-solving or evaluating students in a form other than standardized testing. I think we need to look at public education and expand in a way that will allow for more innovation and flexibility for the teachers as well.
Q: What recommendations do you have for current students considering a career as a public official?
A: I think the important thing is to find your passion and determine how your passion can contribute to an overall cause. For me, that passion is public education, and the school board has provided me with an avenue to use my passion in a productive way. I think there always needs to be young people involved in public service, so for anyone in our program, I would encourage them to run or at least get involved in the conversation.
Q: Finally, what are your goals for Trachtenberg and for the future?
A: Within Trachtenberg, I want to concentrate in education policy through my MPA. My goals at Trachtenberg are really to have in-depth conversations on policy, particularly education policy, and how policy is evolving in our country. I want to do this by developing relationships with my fellow students. For me, what I find interesting is that all of my cohort comes from different parts of the country and the world. This diversity of perspectives has been really interesting.
As for my future career goals, I would like to remain in D.C. for a while. My term on the school board ends in May of 2021, so I plan to stay here after and work on the hill in education policy. However, I can see myself returning to New York state at some point and working on education policy at the state level back home.