NJ Pen 2019 Election Coverage: Meet the Candidates for Collingswood School Board


We invited the candidates for the borough board of education to tell voters a little about themselves ahead of Election Day. Here’s how they responded.

By Matt Skoufalos | November 1, 2019

On November 5, voters in Collingswood will choose from among two balloted candidates for three seats on borough school board.

Incumbent Clinton Connor and challenger Siria Rivera are the only balloted candidates for the seats. In the absence of a third balloted candidate, Sarah Mello is also seeking election as a write-in candidate.

We invited everyone to reply to the same set of prompts, telling voters about themselves, their priorities, and their views of the current state of the community. Here’s how they responded. Answers were edited for clarity and length.


Siria Rivera. Credit: Siria Rivera.

Siria Rivera, 33 (Challenger)

Siria Rivera is executive director of Providence Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that takes a multi-generational approach to social services.

Her interests include health and wellness, closing the opportunity divide, and parent empowerment.






What is your philosophy of education?

Education is complex, as every child absorbs, processes and relays information differently. I do not believe in the one-size-fits-all approach. As a high-school dropout, I know first-hand how important it is to have alternative pathways and wraparound services.

To fully meet the needs of our youth and begin to close the education gap, educators must focus on more than equality and access to education. We need to offer effective resources that ensure that all children have the skills set they need to take full advantage of the opportunity given to them.

Why would you like to serve on the board of education?

I’ve lived in Collingswood more than five years now, and have grown to love this town more and more each year. I want to give back to it, and what better way to do so then by tapping into both my personal and professional experiences to support the school district where my son has attended for the majority of his life. It is a natural fit. I also want to be proactive about making sure our school district better represents all of the residents of Collingswood.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

One of the challenges our district faces is the lack of representation of its students among its faculty. Our children need to see themselves in these roles. A lack of diversity of staff leads to cultural disconnects and mistrust, among other things. I believe this is a contributing factor as to why we have disparities amongst our graduation between minority and non-minority students.

What are its biggest strengths?

I see so much passion in our schools. Passion and creativity I’d say are extremely big strengths within our schools. We are fortunate to see this type of drive and commitment to our children. Additionally, our school culture is welcoming and community-oriented. Lastly, there is an array of out-of-school time extracurricular activities for our youth, many of which are at no cost to parents.

Name three key issues on which you would focus if elected.

I would work hard to ensure that the minority communities in Collingswood are represented at the table where decisions are made. I would also keep the conversation regarding the need to evolve how we communicate with families due to both generational and cultural differences on the forefront.

Finally, I would hopefully inspire other minority community members to join the board in years to come to make certain that these conversations continue to happen. Our community here in Collingswood will continue to evolve, and it is important that both our schools and board of education represent everyone it serves.


Sarah Mello. Credit: Sarah Mello.

Sarah Mello, 54 (Write-In)

Psychotherapist and yoga instructor Sarah Mello is seeking a seat on the borough school board as a write-in candidate.

A 30-year educator, Mello is mother to a school-aged child and volunteers with Odyssey of the Mind.









What is your philosophy of education?

I have worked in the field of extended education for over 30 years. By that I mean I have been researching and providing educational opportunities that extend past the school day via high-quality after-school programs, recreational and arts-based programs, and community-based learning programs such as Odyssey of the Mind and other STEAM programs.

When I first started my child in this district, I remember Dr. Oswald telling families that the district is charged with providing training and skills for careers that don’t even exist yet. That kind of education can’t rely solely on standard curriculum and antiquated “teacher-as-expert” teaching methodologies.

I believe our schools need to offer a solid foundation in core skills like reading, math and science, but equally, if not more importantly, should stress critical thinking skills, and applied learning opportunities over memorization and test performance. Our students need to be exposed to diverse cultures and ideas that will prepare them to be global citizens and our curriculum and teaching staff should reflect this approach.

As a mental health provider, I see many students struggling under expectations that they “get things right,” so much so that they are afraid to try anything that they are unfamiliar with and at which they won’t immediately excel. Most of my most powerful learning has happened after I’ve gotten things “wrong.” I hope for a system that encourages students to experiment and rewards new insights gained over correct facts retained.

Why would you like to serve on the board of education?

I have had a child in the district for 12 years, and have seen the effort and care that is given at the elementary, middle, and high-school level to our children’s education. Serving on the board feels like a chance to give back.

I feel I have a unique point of view to offer the board because of my work in mental health with children and families. I know that all the best capital improvement, curricula, and even personnel won’t make a difference if students don’t feel safe, supported, and cared for when at school.

These needs can sometimes get overlooked in times of budget crisis or in the face of critical operational issues. If I am elected, I hope to keep the well-being of children and their families at the forefront of all Board decisions and work.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

I don’t know that the problems Collingswood schools face are much different from school districts around the country. Schools are consistently called on to do more with less. Time for hands-on, student-driven exploration of content gets eaten up by standardized testing schedules.

Children arrive in our schools with a host of emotional, physical, economic, AND educational needs, and funding for programming and staff to meet these needs is one of the first items on state funding chopping blocks.

Schools depend on family and community involvement and support, yet families are feeling stretched financially and with limited time to give. And the schools don’t always think creatively about how to reach and involve all families. Communication out to the community at large has been a focus recently, and needs to continue.

What are its biggest strengths?

We are a small community that seems to believe in education as evidenced by the success on levies passed and attendance at the many school fundraising events. Many of our graduates remain in the community, or return to it to raise their own children.

Leadership in our schools remains relatively consistent. There is a strong focus on relationship-building between students and staff that I’d like to see built upon and extended out to the larger community.

Name three key issues on which you would focus if elected.

My primary interest is in supporting mental health for our students. It is an extremely stressful time to be a young person right now, and many of us adults find ourselves struggling to know how best to support our children in all of this uncertainty.

The Collingswood Strong Initiative is a step in the right direction towards building a base of social-emotional wellness, starting in our youngest students and providing a more coordinated system to make counseling services more accessible to students and their families.

As the initial pilot will focus on the elementary level, I would like to look at low-cost ways of extending mental health resources to the middle- and high-school grades now.

As I am writing these responses, the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to rule on decisions that would impact the rights and safety of the LGBTQ+ community. Collingswood Schools’ policy on transgender students offers a framework for providing a safe and welcoming environment for students, but teachers, staff, and families all need more training and support for meeting the needs of these students. I would like to continue Dr. Oswald’s approach of working directly with students to understand the challenges they face and what they feel is critical for the schools to address.

Collingwood has so many talented people who I believe would be eager to share their expertise with our students. I would like to see more avenues for community members to be meaningfully engaged with students through volunteer reading buddy programs at the elementary level, community service project opportunities for middle- and high-school students, and internship learning programs for high-school students.

I hope voters will remember to write me in as a candidate when they head to the polls in November. And if you see me in town, be sure to stop me and talk to me about our schools.

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