NEW BEDFORD - The New Bedford Educators Association held a debate featuring the four candidates for school committee on Tuesday night.

Inside the Whaling Museum auditorium, incumbent school committee member Josh Amaral joined candidates Colleen Dawicki, John Oliveira, and Richard Porter to discuss topics related to New Bedford Public Schools, including the achievement gap, high-stakes testing, and disciplinary measures for disruptive students.

When asked about her thoughts on the achievement gap, and what she would do to minimize the gap if elected, candidate Colleen Dawicki argued that it should be called the “opportunity gap”, because of what she says is a lack of opportunity for financially restricted city youth.

“What I think of as the achievement gap is actually an 'opportunity gap',” Dawicki said. “I think about the fact that in New Bedford many of our kids don't have the same opportunities afforded to most kids in Massachusetts and that's why we end up with what's considered an achievement gap in test scores.”

Candidate John Oliveira took a shot at Dawicki's stance, saying “opportunity gap, achievement gap, it's all crap! It is,” to begin his response.

Oliveira argues that parents in the district don't understand nor care about the achievement gap anyways. He also says the parents aren't concerned with “throwing political terms around."

“They're concerned about education, flat and simple,” Oliveira explained. “Let's not throw all these nice political terms around. It's about educating our kids.”

The topic of school discipline and the zero-tolerance policy made for some discussion as well. Candidate Richard Porter and incumbent school committee member Josh Amaral shared different approaches to effectively discipline students in the school system.

"We have to have schools safe, that's the very first plank in any successful school district, and we have work to do," said Josh Amaral. “We've got to increase our opportunities for students to get into alternative programs where they may be a better fit and less disruptive than in normal classrooms.”

While Amaral's approach is to hold the school system accountable with creating opportunities for disruptive students in an effort to minimize bad behavior, Richard Porter argues for a proactive and reactive solution.

"I don't believe we should be treating our children equally, I think we should be treating them fairly," Richard Porter said. "I do believe in an approach to discipline that is both proactive and reactive, I think we need to teach behavioral expectations and on the other end we need to be consistent with our consequences. Children need to be held accountable when they have broken the rules," he said.

The candidates also debated on other topics related to New Bedford Public Schools, such as the teacher retention rate, working with a constrained school budget, high-stakes testing and more.

Final elections are scheduled for November 7th at City Hall. Voters are asked to cast three votes for school committee.

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