By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Three Asian women are vying for your vote to two different seats on the School Board of Bellevue School District (BSD), in hopes of helping BSD fulfill its vision to affirm and inspire each and every student to learn and thrive as creators of their future world.
Jane Aras, Bellevue School Board District, Position #5
As a long-time Bellevue resident, Jane Aras has engaged in the community’s education sector for the past 19 years as a parent, advocate, and educator. A qualified special education teacher, she and her husband raised three children in the city.
“I’m an immigrant. At 8, I was adopted from South Korea and came to Washington state. English is my second language,” Aras said.
Having experienced education in Korea, she realized how much the system in the United States could motivate young children to thrive.
“I had a fantastic teacher in third grade who lit that fire in me,” Aras said. “It gave me the momentum to work hard.”
Now, Aras wants to give back.
“I did everything I could in the field of education because I wanted to be the teacher who could address the needs of every student I come in contact with.”
She engaged in Bellevue’s learning community as a volunteer. Armed with her special education background, she even sat at the back of a classroom. Her excitement for the field was fueled when she became a parent.
“You see things from a different perspective.”
Why she is running
Aras’s daughter egged her on especially due to tensions in BSD after January 2021.
She acknowledges the work that incumbent Francine Wiest has done. But Aras feels a lot of trust was lost.
“We need to rebuild that trust. It is fundamental in education to be able to lean on all stakeholders—parents and teachers must come together and work as a unit.
“There was a lot we could have done better,” Aras admits, but adds a lot of bad decisions were taken, from top-down, beginning with the governor.
As a leader, it is important to take ownership of mistakes, Aras said, and to move forward and do what’s best to support students.
“Our primary focus is our kids; we have to ensure they thrive.”
Aras feels a year and a half of seclusion and no real peer interaction during the pandemic has traumatized many children.
She wants to address the mental health emergency, prioritize social and emotional development, and foster academic excellence through inspiration and empowerment while guaranteeing equitable access to high quality education for all students.
“We could capture world-class academic content and structure, but if we don’t address the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students, it is worthless.”
Aras said BSD is considered to be one of the best school districts in the nation—attracting people from all over—and that can be a double-edged sword. Over the last 25 years, Aras said she has seen the number of kids with high anxiety and mental health issues increase.
“The public only hears about kids who successfully commit suicide, but for every one of those children, there are many who have attempted suicide or are on anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication.”
Aras will strive to create balance—world-class education without sending kids over the edge.
Aras is thrilled with the equity policy that BSD passed two years ago and aims to look through that lens.
Aras wants to hear all the voices, especially the quiet ones that aren’t often heard, and those of immigrants who may not be able to vote.
“I volunteered to speak to some Korean first-generation immigrant parents who don’t understand our system. They want to do what’s best for their kids, but culturally, Koreans respect educators and don’t challenge them in the way we do here.”
Equity also means having teachers that represent the large percentage of diverse students at BSD.
“As a student, having someone who looks like you is huge… When you don’t see people who look like you, it’s hard to feel connected.”
Joyce Shui and Faye Yang, Bellevue School District, Position #3
Both Joyce Shui and Faye Yang are on the ballot for this position.
Shui grew up in an all-white community until the 7th grade. She attended public school and, in the 5th grade, a teacher named Mr. Hibbard changed her perspective. “He asked us to write anything that was on our minds.”
Shui wrote to him in the language of a 10-year-old about feeling like an outsider, who didn’t belong. What followed was a series of letters and discussions.
“Mr. Hibbard told me if you are feeling left out, there are likely other kids feeling left out, too. So, look around and you may notice another child alone on the playground,” Shui said.
Till this day, she looks around to find others who are not included.
Shui, a Harvard and NYU Law graduate, is mother to four who attend public school. She taught English to Southeast Asian refugees as a student at Harvard, and later in Taiwan and Japan. She volunteered to teach Spanish and Japanese in her kids’ grades, too.
As an attorney for over 20 years, Shui has worked for tech companies and big corporations. She currently works for SAP.
A first-generation Asian immigrant, Yang grew up in China and moved to Minnesota 21 years ago. She has a master’s in nutrition, is a registered dietician, and is a director at a healthcare facility.
Six years ago, her family moved to Washington and their daughter began studying in BSD when Yang noticed a concerning problem.
“Students weren’t given enough time to sit down and eat. I later learned this was a district and statewide problem,” Yang said.
It took two years of working with the district, leading a campaign ‘Recess Before Lunch,’ which eventually led to the passing of the School Lunch Bill at the Washington state assembly. The achievement earned her the nickname School Lunch Mom.
Why the bid?
What pushed Yang to join the race was the prolonged closure of schools during the pandemic.
“As a healthcare professional, I understand the closure, but it resulted in BSD coming in at the bottom of the state for in-person learning, causing a lot of students to suffer academic drops and emotional trauma.”
While Yang’s older daughter managed to keep up with school, her younger son has special needs.
“I saw him falling behind academically and the social isolation resulted in a lot of behavioral issues. It was very traumatic.”
Then in January 2021, she witnessed parents take to the streets to ask BSD to open schools. She feels it was a chance for the school to be socially responsible and show their commitment to the children.
However, that wasn’t the case.
“[The students] became a bargaining chip for the leadership of the teacher’s union who said that if they did not like what the school district did, they would switch to asynchronous classes, which meant students would have to learn through a video with no teachers.”
Many things converged to make Shui run, but most poignant was when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered.
“I was deeply impacted by his death as I have faced my share of verbal and physical assaults, too.”
Shui realized the reality of having two Americas. “We need to be attentive to more than one experience. It is very different and individualized depending on race, gender, and economics,” she said.
At BSD, Shui said some parents are struggling with having to work and balancing young children at home.
“They understandably feel their kids should be back in school in person.”
Then, you have teachers who are vulnerable because they have health issues or live with an older family member, and they are understandably frightened about physically going back to school.
Shui feels that a lot of people saw their perspective only.
“I saw many problems and felt if we work together, listen, and don’t demonize each other, we can come to multiple, better solutions.”
Shui’s campaign is based on three pillars—excellence, equity, and empathy.
Excellence: Shui feels BSD does a great job in academic excellence, but there is always room for improvement.
“For example, CTE is not limited to calculus, math, and sciences, though they are important. Trade classes are important, too, and we can continue to excel in those.”
“We have a 94% graduation rate, but let’s push for 100%, especially when you see disparities that are often demographic, and race based.”
Equity: Shui said that while there are programs available for those with intellectual disabilities, or different genders, there is resistance when it comes to race.
“My presence on the board will ensure we continue to include race in the equity discussion. BSD acknowledges it, but there is some pressure to just work on economics.”
Empathy: At BSD race town halls, despite the will to focus on healing and empathy, Shui saw some demonizing, inflammatory language.
“I urge everybody to take a deep breath and understand the other person,” she said. “I too have different views, but I want to understand… We can come to a solution if we can tone it down and understand that we are all people.”
Yang’s plan, if she is elected, revolves around three main principles—return, recover, and revitalize.
First, Yang wants the BSD kids to return to full-time, in-person school, which will happen in September 2021. “During the pandemic, we lost about 1,500 BSD students who either moved out of state or to private school.”
Yang claims this loss of about $20-30 million will impact the district’s budget.
“We need to enroll as many BSD students as we can to stabilize our budget.”
Yang herself transferred her son to a private school during the pandemic, but moved him back to BSD so he could receive the attention he needed.
Next, Yang believes BSD needs to work with all stakeholders to bring students back to where they should be.
“Washington ranked 47th in terms of coming back to in-person learning and BSD ranks at the bottom of Washington state. We’re at the bottom of the bottom,” Yang said.
Her solution is to increase teaching hours, have more tutoring, do more for children with special needs and kids who come from poverty as they have suffered the most.
Another priority for her is to appoint a national top superintendent with strong leadership.
“We love our teachers who work really hard, we love our interim superintendent, too. Many of the union decisions that were taken by the union leadership didn’t have all the teachers’ support.”
Despite her opinion, Yang says if elected, she will not fight the teacher’s union leadership. “I will sit down and work with them to discuss who we should prioritize.”
While there are two other Asian women running for the school board, Yang believes she is better able to connect with the substantial number of first-generation immigrants whose kids attend BSD and speak for them.
“The other two candidates have studied in the U.S., but English is truly my second language and because I finished my education in China and moved here only for my master’s degree,” Yang said.
“I think I can be the voice of the large immigrant parent population and work with them to give their kids the best education possible,” she added.
Shui’s parents are immigrants.
“I’m the first woman in my family to go to college and my parents didn’t know much about the college application process,” Shui said.
She figured her way around acronyms like the SATs and ACTs on her own.
“I happened to combine hard work with good luck, but there are so many children who don’t have that convergence of luck,” she said. “It shouldn’t be based on luck.”
BSD does a fairly good job at communicating in different languages, but Shui feels there are opportunities to improve the way it receives and responds to feedback by adapting to some of the most-spoken languages in the area.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.