Chastity Santana, who is serving in her first year as a member of the Union Township Board of Education in Union County, has been attending board meetings since 2012.
As the mother of seven children, she became interested in board service when two of her younger children were diagnosed with special needs — and suddenly she discovered they needed an advocate.
In this latest School Board Member spotlight, Santana shares what she’s learned on her school board member journey as well as some of her hopes for the future.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve worked in call centers since 1999 and have Bachelor of Science degree in business from Saint Peter’s College, a Master of Business Administration from St. Peter’s University and I completed a year of law school at Seton Hall University. I love languages and have studied French, Italian and Latin. I speak Spanish fluently.
My journey to the Township of Union Public Schools board started years ago when my children were diagnosed with special needs. I had no idea how the school system worked and who the key players were.
I have two older children and five smaller ones. When the smaller ones started kindergarten and going to the public school system, I thought the experience would be similar to my older children. But one of my sons was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and my other son had a lot of challenges — and I started learning about individualized education programs.
I thought they would just tell you, “This is what we are going to do,” but I learned it was so much not like that. You really have to advocate for the services your children need based on what they are diagnosed with. I did that by being present at PTA meetings, I did every book fair, holiday fair, etc. I served on a special education advisory panel in our district, serving as co-chair. I also started attending a lot of board meetings, asking questions, wondering why things are done a certain way. I’ve been going to meetings since 2012.
This has been a long journey advocating for all children. This is my first year on the board.
Why did you decide to serve on your local board of education?
I knew early on that I could make a difference in helping to set policy and make our district the model district I know it can become.
You have to really want this — you have to know how to advocate for what you believe in and stand for something. I remember when I was campaigning, at some point someone asked me where I stood on the mask mandate. I told them I support Gov. Phil Murphy and what he has put in front of us, and the lady told me I had just lost her vote. I said, “I respect that, but I support Gov. Murphy and his mandate” — and I support him now that he has lifted the mandate.
One of my many goals in serving on the board is to say it’s OK to disagree — it’s OK to come to the table with different goals as long as there is no animosity. I always say, as board members we don’t have to go to Christmas dinner together — we just have to be able to sit down and express our views together.
Can you tell us a little about your district?
I would say it is an urban district in the suburbs. We are very diverse, and we love our children. I love living here. I believe in working with the township to grow the district. When new developments come in, we should have an opinion as they will be going to our schools. We should be growing together — the district and the town shouldn’t be growing separately.
We are a pre-K to 12 district, and we currently have seven elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. We serve around 7,500 students.
What has surprised you about being a member of your local board of education?
What I don’t know! I have immersed myself in learning about the process and the role of a board member. I have taken every course allowed since I started serving on the board – and I know I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. There is so much to learn and apply to serve and vote with informed knowledge.
How has your school board responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We are pivoting every day. The information we are being given can change in seconds. The way we did it two seconds ago can completely change because of this pandemic. This means that we have to foster open communication and learn how to pivot gracefully.
How does the New Jersey School Boards Association help you carry out your duties as a school board member?
Through the endless resources and support it offers. I have already sat in on two trainings and registered for over four more within my first few months on the board. At every turn, I hear congratulations and am met with welcoming arms of support.
Santana noted that the views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of her board.
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