Community feature: School board candidate Erin Upchurch talks disparities in district

Erica Thompson
Erin Upchurch

Erin Upchurch is a clinical director at a mental health facility, a community lecturer at the Ohio State University College of Social Work and a candidate for the Columbus Board of Education. She is also a parent of two —Jeremiah, 15, and Alex, 13 — doing her best to navigate a school system that doesn't always have the proper resources.

“My son has a learning disability and he has ADHD,” Upchurch said in a late-October interview at a coffee shop in Northwest Columbus, where her children attend school. “It's just been awful. Every year we've had to fight for him to get his needs met. And it's not because of the teachers' lack of trying. … What I see is a lack of capacity to meet the needs of all students [and] a lack of access.”

Upchurch admitted it's difficult for teachers to sufficiently address children who learn differently when contending with large class sizes, standardized test requirements and other kids affected by poverty and trauma. “Our kids are coming in the door with a lot of stuff. Our teachers are having to be nurses, social workers … and surrogate parents,” she said.

Inspired to effect change politically, Upchurch, of the Yes We Can subset of Democrats, will vie for one of three open spots on the school board in the general election on Tuesday, Nov.7. The three incumbents of the current, all-Democrat board — which received a vote of no-confidence from the Columbus Education Association in September — have been endorsed by the Franklin County Democratic Party. All Republican candidates were eliminated in the primary election.

“We've got a race of all Democrats, which I think is pretty cool if you're into partisan politics,” said Upchurch, who was the only newcomer endorsed by theDispatch. “Being a Democrat is great, but if you're just going to adhere to the status quo … it doesn't really matter what letter is next to your name.”

Upchurch said that as a Yes We Can candidate she doesn't have to “sugarcoat” the challenges in the school district. “We know that our city is segregated. … We have Columbus, which, on one hand, is super vibrant and thriving and I'm proud to live [here],” she said. “[But] they don't use the same language to describe our school district.”

“We're the largest [school] district in Ohio … and unfortunately, depending on what side of town you're on, you're going to see something pretty different,” Upchurch said, citing the “inequity and inequality” in how resources are distributed among communities that differ by socioeconomic status and race.

Should she win a seat on the board, Upchurch wants to be an “unapologetic advocate for all students,” whether that's organizing around state funding for the district or working to get more “trauma-informed” education models in schools. She also wants to look for innovative partnerships with businesses, particularly those owned by minorities so students of color in the district can “see people who look like them,” she said.

“Too many times I've seen people on the school board use it as a platform for personal gain, as a jumping-off point for political careers,” said Tina Cegala, who has instructed both of Upchurch's kids in her art class at Ridgeview Middle School. “That's not at all why Erin is [running]. ... She wants to make positive, productive change for students, teachers and for our schools. Instead of complaining and wishing and hoping … she's taking action, which I think is very commendable.”

Upchurch's passion for education was informed by her own fortunate upbringing in Hilliard, where she didn't have to worry about getting basic needs met. “It was never … ‘Are there going to be enough books to take home? And what do our facilities look like?'” she said, acknowledging the lack of diversity in Hilliard that led her to enroll her own children in Columbus City Schools. “I was blessed to have educational privilege in my life.”

Upchurch went on to earn a bachelor's degree in social work at Eastern Michigan University and a master's degree in social administration from Case Western Reserve University. From there, she has served families via social work and mental health positions, and worked on political campaigns. In 2015, Mayor Michael B. Coleman appointed her to the Community Relations Commission, which she still serves on under Mayor Andrew Ginther.

“Social justice has always been a big thing for me, and I think education is a social justice issue,” Upchurch said. “I think a great way to serve our community is through the school board. … It's an opportunity to truly invest in our families and our students and in our community. … And so it feels like the next step of service for me.”