Jennifer Steben is one of six candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot seeking one of the two seats on the Saline Board of Education. The terms are six years long. The other candidates are Susan Estep, Brian Woodruff, Richard Conn, Thomas Frederick and incumbent Scott Hummel.
Here's our Q&A with Jennifer Steben.
Family: I am married to Tyler Steben who is a Director of Product for IBM Watson Health. I’m the proud Mom of twins Sydney and Ryan in 4th grade at Heritage and stepson Cole who is a senior in high school. We also have two furry family members, our rescue dogs Buddy & Fiona.
We have lived in Saline 13 years, but my family has been here for almost 100 years. It’s hard to believe my Great Grandpa used to be pastor at the First United Methodist Church which is now Salt Springs Brewery! We knew what a special place this was to raise a family and are happily settled here for the long haul. I am excited for the possibility to further serve the Saline Area Schools and community.
I have 20 years experience in educational technology and a deep, active commitment for community engagement.
I am the Vice President for Global Sales at Gutenberg Technology, an educational technology/software company. I work with the world’s biggest publishers on innovative curriculum products. I have also been a trustee on an international non-profit board, Executive MBA Council, an organization that is the global advocate for degreed executive education. I would love to bring back best practices in education from my job and share them here in Saline. I believe in lifelong learning and innovation.
My bachelors degree is from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and I have done executive education at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Working in academia, each year I also participate in conferences and seminars to continue growing. If elected to the Board, I would also plan to take courses via Michigan Association of School Boards to keep my skills relevant and useful.
Relevant experience (other related boards or government experience):
In addition to my career, I have a deep understanding of Saline Area Schools’ programs, buildings and initiatives. I have spent years being involved, leading positive change and supporting all of our students.
I served as the President of the PTA at Pleasant Ridge Elementary for two years raising over $100k to be used by students and staff. Our focus was mainly on safety, enrichment, staff grants, technology, literacy and field trips. I spent two years on District Parents Council coordinating with other buildings and administration on issues affecting the schools like class size, funding, safety, the bond, student emotional health and more.
I am also a Girls on the Run Site Leader & Coach, Junior Achievement Teacher, travel soccer manager, fundraiser for the Foundation for Saline Area Schools, and Sponsorship Chair for The ChadTough Foundation, which fights pediatric brain tumors. If elected, I plan to donate my salary to the Foundation for Saline Area Schools so it can further support staff grants that help our students.
I care deeply about all of Saline’s kids and giving back.
What's your motivation for running?
I think my community engagement and professional experience make me uniquely poised to contribute even more to Saline. I want Saline kids to have the best foundation for their lives they can possibly have.
With my twins now 9 and me spending less time in the classroom and on the PTA Board, I’m ready to take it to the next level and help the whole district more.
Because of my work experience in education, and my volunteerism in the community and schools, I know I can make even more of a positive impact.
What do you think your service would provide the board, schools and district citizens?
Through years of school and community involvement, I know a lot of families, business owners and staff in the district. I work collaboratively with all entities to ensure the best outcome for our kids and community. I am able to see things strategically, but am also able to manage small, numerous, critical details. I have a growth-mindset and hunger for excellence, as well as a deeply rooted sense of inclusion for every student and family. I can motivate a team, get people involved and accomplish objectives. I do not shy away from advocating for what needs to get done.
What are Saline Area Schools best strengths to build on? What areas most need improvement?
I want to add my passion, professional experience and advocacy to the Board to support, strengthen and grow the district and do so in a way that is financially viable and achievable.
Saline Schools are an incredible resource. Many, many things are strong. If I had to pick one I would say our staff. They are the backbone of this district and the heart. They also operate close to 86% of the budget as well. So coordination with this team is critical to continued success on many levels. I also think we are strong in the diversity of programs available to our kids, at every level. Whether it is community ed for the little ones, athletics, or computer integrated manufacturing in high school, each student interest and passion is served. Serving the whole child is important- inside and outside of the classroom.
The areas I’d like to work on with the district would be inclusion, communication, and safety.
Inclusion. Just this week, there was an incident involving hate speech at one of the buildings. This is not acceptable. I thank the principal and superintendent for their response, and there is more to be done. I am aware of local resources for staff around strengthening learning on issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, culture and diversity. I would support Saline having this learning opportunity and would like to understand more. I would also support community conversations around inclusion, diversity in recruiting/hiring, and old-fashioned kindness/acceptance. We are a small, strong community, and we are our best when working together. Every student has the right to learn and feel safe school.
Communication. I would like to see additional involvement with students, staff and parents. I agree with the student-led and future-focused growth mindset in the district. Student involvement at the Board level can only benefit all of us. I am so impressed by the young minds in all grades and their eloquence in positioning when coming to authority and requesting support, change or funding. I would seek out input from all levels of our student body and use this feedback to inform decision-making and create projects and initiatives. To this same end, I would lean on the very talented staff to help educate the Board on topics and listen to them on what they need on the front lines. I would also like to collaborate with families. I’d love to hear from them and infuse any Board decisions with community feelings and opinions. Each stakeholder having a voice in the Board is a goal.
Safety and well-being. The physical and emotional well-being of our students and staff is paramount. Through the recent bond two years ago, we were able to rebuild safe entries to our schools. But physical safety is something we need to stay on top of and always be learning about. I recently attended active shooter training, something that our kids go through each school year, even the littlest Hornets. How does this affect them? Is it effective? How do we constantly improve that and other areas of physical safety like transportation or after school activities? But it’s also the whole child that I am interested in. It’s about instilling emotional intelligence in our learners, teaching teamwork, critical thinking skills and a global mindset. And doing all of this in a positive, empathetic and collaborative manner. Being safe, and teaching these important skills are very important. But let’s face it. Growing up is hard. The kids in this district have so many options and possibilities available to them. How do you allow them to have the best experience and allow them each to find their own path? This is important and should be top of mind in our decisions.
Describe the ways you've stayed apprised of issues in education and Saline Area Schools.
Over my years in Saline, I have been very active in the classroom being a room parent now for the 4th time, leading the PTA, being on the District Parents Council, working with the Foundation for Saline Area Schools, teaching Junior Achievement and Girls on the Run and understanding how to best convey their curriculums on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, confidence and health.
I have met with special education teachers, the former director of special education and parents to understand how we best support those kids from 0-26 (a law in the State of Michigan). I have met with the principal of the high school to understand what programs are offered to students of all types, whether they are bound for 2 year schools, 4 year schools, vocational programs or service. I have met with the principal of the middle school to learn about new programs like Summit Learning, how to create a positive, energetic culture at this hard age, and see the beginning of choices for students in their educational careers like yearbook, woodshop and drama. I have met with the principal at Heritage to understand the key transition years from elementary to middle. I have met with the head of HR for the district to ask questions around hiring, diversity, and upcoming contract negotiations. And I have met with the Asst. Superintendent for Finance to go over the budget line by line.
Every day, I learn more about the schools and how to best ensure their continued success. For the past four years, I have been actively involved in goings on at the schools every single week.
When you serve on the board, who do you see yourself representing and working for?
I think this a very good and interesting question. First and foremost, I would serve the students of Saline Area Schools. Every decision would be made with their well-being in mind. I would seek to involve them in research on topics brought before the Board and would continue to be in the buildings to see how they are affected at all ages.
I would also see myself as both an extension of the community and of the staff of the schools. I would be a collaborative and supporting partner to make sure all voices are heard.
What's your opinion of the district's move away from the traditional classroom, and how would you assess requests to fundamentally change the way Saline students learn in school?
I fully support non-traditional seating arrangements in the classroom and in areas students gather like the Hot Spot at the Middle School. Collaboration and creativity are two of the “4 C’s” in the district compass. Through using alternative seating arrangements, students can do this more easily. In fact, this “non-traditional” model is now the norm and not the exception in our buildings.
If you look at the Learning Pyramid, at the top quadrant, students in lecture only retain 5% of what they are listening to (e.g. a traditional classroom and lecture). But as you move down the pyramid, your learning retention increases as you demo (30%), practice doing (75%) and teach others (90%). Non-traditional classrooms, makerspace, project-based learning… it all supports this increased learning retention.
It’s important to meet students where they are at to learn more easily. Students and their generations are always evolving. If there are new requests for different approaches, I would look forward to hearing from subject matter experts in the district like our administration and teaching staff, as well as national or globally recognized influencers, some of which I encounter in my career.
What are your thoughts on the way the district teaches students life skills and provides opportunities for students who might thrive in vocational programs?
I think life skills and vocational programs/alternative paths to college are two separate topics.
As a mother, I am all for more life skills being taught in the schools. When I teach Junior Achievement it is to first graders. We talk about money, running or working at a business and community. They get excited. When I look at my son Cole who will leave high school in the Spring, does he understand finances and will he be able to do them on his own? Can he think critically, be compassionate, deal with failure? So I fully support clubs, programs or curriculums that can be a great tool for what lies ahead.
On the alternative path question, I went to Principal Raft at the high school to understand options for our kids. I was so impressed to find many choices and programs that were beyond my expectations. An auto shop where they had an electric car to build and repair, welding, computer integrated manufacturing, video production, and an incredible culinary arts program. That building is full of opportunity and I’d love to highlight them and share with the community.
What's your position on teacher pay and benefits - given that the district's purse strings are controlled by the state.
I think that teacher pay is a much greater question than the district, or even the state. I come from a family of public school educators and next year our son will enter college to become an elementary teacher. He is doing it because he is passionate about it, not because he thinks he will get rich. I think that is probably true of Saline teachers too. The service that teachers give, and the salary they are given, are not proportionate. Entry-level teachers in the district come in just over $39k/year in salary. That is lower than many colleges charge for just one year of schooling.
In the last audited year (2016-17), Saline teachers’ salaries were just over $31m of the budget and benefits were just over $19m. Those numbers equate to 85.98% of the whole budget of SAS. Last year, there was a $331k increase in benefit costs. But how much of that increase went towards end-user benefits?
It is true that much of the funding comes from the state, much on per pupil allocations and taxes. When meeting with the Asst. Superintendent for Finance, we reviewed the revenue and expenditures of the district. She highlighted items that were outside of the control of the district vs. items that the district had control over. Closely going over these numbers together is one idea. I believe in our teachers and would work hard to retain and attract talent.
Under what, if any, conditions would you consider privatizing support staff?
From what I understand, some staff is privatized now. That includes some in food services management, coaches and substitutes. I also know that several years ago this was a key area of debate in Saline when the Saline Education Support Personnel Union spoke out against privatization. This support staff mostly includes office workers, bus drivers and custodians.
I am more in favor of preserving the Saline Area Schools family by keeping these workers as district employees. I agree with arguments that all staff are key to the success in running our buildings and providing an excellent experience for our kids and it is easier if they are local employees. This is also the belief of the Saline Education Association and the National Education Association.
How important is diversity in staff and administration?
Diversity overall is important and should be valued. We should also continue to employ a very talented and invested staff. I think this is not only a question of hiring and retaining, but it is a question of recruiting diversely and also making everyone feel welcome in the Saline community. If we do not recruit and welcome, then we will not have the opportunity to hire.
Does the district do enough to protect students from bullying? If not, what would you like to see done.
We can always do more. More as parents, more as a community and more as a district. My goal is to have students that are happy, inquisitive learners and that they all feel safe.
I talked a little about inclusion already and that is one piece of it. I’d like to be part of the committee to review policy on this and discrimination overall. And then work with staff to ensure proper support, and discipline, stem from that policy.
Regarding pay to play, should the schools spend more or less to subsidize student athletics and extracurricular activities?
Currently athletics is just over $1.2m of budget and houses nearly 200 sub-accounts in the student activities fund. Of the 30+ teams at the high school, several are pay to play. Some wholly, and some are subsidized. I understand that this is a topic that will quickly come before the Board.
Before making a decision on more or less, I would continue conversations with Athletic Director Parrish and talk with parents on teams with both subsidy and full support. As we know, there is only so much money to be had in public education, but I think sports and extracurricular activities of all sorts are a key part of a child’s education, skill-building (teamwork, competitiveness, understanding, losing and winning) and memories.
How do you see online/digital learning opportunities fitting into Saline Area Schools?
With my background in technology, I have seen globally how education and technology is an equalizer. Any learner from any background, circumstance or location benefits. At Pleasant Ridge, we identified the need, raised funds and purchased iPads and ChromeBooks for every students’ use. But it is about more than the hardware. It is about the choices our teachers make with apps and programs to use that hardware (I am so impressed with the collaboration between teachers, frequent conference attendance and their continued learning on what is out there and working in other districts). We also had the district’s first makerspace classroom where students could construct their own ideas and ways of expression and sharing. This is not “online or digital” per se, but is innovative. Innovation is something that I support. Hands on learning and fun is so valuable! As the kids age, more project-based learning is important to investigate and solve problems. At every grade level, bringing unique ways of learning is important to me.
A big part of the board's responsibility is budgeting and policy making. Describe your experience and/or skills in these fields?
As part of corporation, of I have managed multi-million dollar budgets and have also significantly increased revenues (and in my fundraising volunteering as well). Budget is a serious and important function of the Board of Education. With last year reporting a $359k budget deficit (after transfer from the capital projects fund) for the first time in a several years, it is something to be examined frequently and closely.
As part of an academic Board of Trustees, and as a PTA President ruled by bylaws and state rules, I am familiar with policy making. I also know that Saline Area Schools consults with two organizations, Neola and Michigan School Business Officials, to help Trustees model policies out.
The move to an early start of the school year prompted discussion about year-round school. What are your thoughts on year-round school?
As we saw with the district wanting to move the school year up one week, there was a lot of public opinion on both sides. So something as large as year-round school would certainly require a lot of input from both parents and staff. It could affect contracts, pay, transportation, culture and more. I actually was a part of 45/15 year-round school at one time as a student.
I am open to reviewing any options, but it could not be at the expense of the student and it should not be done solely to improve test scores or combat “summer slide.” Rest, relaxation and other experiences of summer are important in childhood as well and should be considered.
A lot of the most contentious issues the district has seen recently are offshoots of the so-called "culture war," whether it's Planned Parenthood's involvement with sex education curriculum, or including LGBTQ students in the district's bullying policy. How will your religious beliefs, or lack there of, inform and influence your policy making?
I understand and appreciate the various passions here, but I will always do what is in the best interest of the students. ALL students. There will be no personal religious beliefs informing decision-making. The only personal belief that will play a role is one that the district also supports... empathy and working together.