The difference that a good learning environment can make to a child is a lesson Karen Perez says she learned when her family moved to Tampa from Brooklyn, NY, so she could attend a safer high school (King High, on N. 56th St. in Tampa).
As one of two candidates in the run-off for the Hillsborough County School Board District 6 county-wide race, the Pebble Creek resident, who has been endorsed by previous HCSB District 6 seat holder April Griffin, says that ensuring today’s students have that same opportunity to get a good education without distractions, such as school violence, is what she wants to achieve as a School Board member.
“I was able to go to high school here in Tampa and I was able to focus on my education and not have to worry about the crime. What is ironic is, what I experienced at 16 in New York, is now something that students nationwide are experiencing.”
What also has changed, according to Perez, is the nature of some problems, like bullying, that have been around for decades, but which have taken on new meaning in the Digital Age, where rumors and gossip can spread far and wide very quickly.
“Before, it was between you and the bully,” Perez says. “But now, because of social media, it’s cyberbullying.”
Perez adds that signs of the need for mental health support in schools include that fact that more and younger children are committing suicide, rather than dealing with the challenges that life presents to them.
“The mental health piece in these children’s lives is at a critical point,” she says. “We need to address this with our children.”
Perez has insight to issues related to mental health. She followed up her graduation from King High by earning her Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees from the University of South Florida and building her private Tampa practice, the Embracing Changes Center for Mental Wellness.
She also is a primary social worker at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital.
Perez says her 17 years of experience as a mental health professional will bring a new and much-needed perspective to the School Board, which is responsible for ensuring the success and safety of more than 200,000 students in 250-plus schools in the eighth-largest school district in the U.S., while dealing with issues ranging from broken air conditioners to finding enough bus drivers.
“When you have an education board that has members on it with the same mindset, everybody’s looking through the same lens and everybody’s coming toward a problem with the same tools, everybody’s going to come up with the same conclusion,” Perez says. “When you have someone that’s thinking outside the box…you get a different viewpoint.”
Another way Perez, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the School Board in 2006, wants to bring diverse perspectives to the school district’s operations and possibly stretch resources, is by working with people and businesses who want to be involved in helping to educate the community’s children.
“There is so much collaboration we could be doing,” says Perez, who has lived in New Tampa for 18 years and has raised two daughters and a son, all of whom are now either working in or pursuing professions of their own.
After nearly two decades living in the local community, Perez has become known to her neighbors, like Ann Green, who says Perez is accessible and committed to supporting others in achieving their goals.
“Karen is a great listener,” Green says. “Her ears and heart are always turning to help people and when she says she’s willing to do something, she’ll do it no matter what.”
Opposing Perez in the General Election on Tuesday is Henry “Shake” Washington, a retired Hillsborough School District educator who touts his 42 years of experience with the school district.
Washington began his career with the district as an instructional assistant and came up through the system to work as a teacher, principal and area superintendent for Hillsborough County schools.
Among the positions Washington’s campaign promotes on its website (ShakeforSchoolBoard.com) are strong oversight and accountability of the School District’s finances and putting more emphasis on learning skills and course content in the classroom, instead of standardized test preparation. The District 6 at-large seat is currently held by April Griffin, who decided not to run for reelection. Griffin has endorsed Perez to succeed her.
Perez ran for State House in 2006, winning her primary with 62 percent of the vote before falling in the General election to Ed Homan.