The issue at the center of the candidates forum held at the Oak Park Public Library on Martin Luther King Day was what you would expect. How, likely voters collectively wondered, will Oak Park school board hopefuls work to eliminate a reality that still haunts the village a half-century after the civil rights leader's assassination — the reality that race continues to be the single biggest predictor of student outcomes and student experiences in the schools.
All 11 candidates seeking election to seats on the elementary District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 boards attended the event, hosted by the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance and moderated by its founder, OPRF teacher and activist Anthony Clark.
For non-incumbents, the forum was a way to introduce themselves and their ideas to the public while incumbents worked to persuade voters of the progress their respective districts have made on the racial equity front.
D97 board President Holly Spurlock, the only incumbent running for re-election, shared the stage with challengers Jung Kim, Cheree Moore, Gavin Kearney and Barika Grant, who are running to secure one of four open seats on the D97 board.
Current D200 board members Sara Dixon Spivy and Fred Arkin sat alongside challengers Victor Guarino, Gina Harris, Ralph Martire and Amanda J. Massie.
The candidates, most of whom expressed support for the implementation of racial equity policies at both districts, were given one minute each to answer a range of questions like the one they fielded at the start of the event — one that framed much of the conversation that took place afterward.
How would they work to hear the perspectives of marginalized families, and include those families in a range of initiatives, such as environmental sustainability efforts at D97 that are currently driven by only the most involved parents?
Spivy said OPRF has a parent coordinator "who works hard with lower income families to make sure their voices are heard," and the district has implemented a range of technology initiatives, such as giving students laptops and ensuring that all students at the high school have internet access.
Nonetheless, she said, the district "can do better and we need to do better," adding that outreach "is something we've constantly struggled with."
Massie said that, if she's elected to the D200 board, she'll push "to have all board of education meetings taped and put up on the website within 48 hours. That way, those of you who cannot show up at the meetings can watch the meetings whenever you want, so you can see what's going on."
If the village of Oak Park can do this, Massie said, "there is no reason" OPRF can't do it.
Martire, current president of the River Forest District 90 school board, said his district's greatest challenge has been trying to get single parents involved in school affairs.
"To try to get more involvement at D90, we've moved four board meetings a year to be town hall forums, so they are not the traditional, stand up, state your name and that's it; but it's more communicative, back-and-forth," he said.
Harris emphasized the importance of the district cultivating relationships with families in the community. She added that the district should get creative and "think outside of the box" in order to reach families in meaningful ways.
"We have a lot of ways of identifying [parents] and there are programs that have been successful, but the key is how do we further develop those relationships?" Harris said, adding that the district should "reach parents where they are."
Guarino, board president of the Park District of Oak Park, said the best way to identify and communicate with parents is to reach out to them in a wide variety of ways.
"We have to have meetings at times that are convenient for parents and provide support as needed," he said. "Have meals, babysitting, and make sure there is support for families, as needed, so there are no barriers for them to attend meetings."
Arkin said his biggest concern in how the high school communicates with families is the students' voice and that voice is included in the district's ongoing equity work.
"When we're dealing with teenagers, we need to hear from them and what's on their mind," he said. "I'm liaison for what we call our Student Leadership and Advisory Committee, which combines a good majority of the student groups. ... Because they're teenagers, they're a little more self-sufficient. We need to include them in the work that we do."
Grant said that, as a D97 parent who also serves on a diversity committee, she's experienced firsthand "parents who are not being represented, are not in the fold," and who find it difficult to navigate D97's cultural terrain.
"One of the things we've discussed is having an interpersonal relationship with people," Grant said.
Kearney advocated for "meaningful community involvement," which entails ensuring that "the most impacted populations are at the table." Kim, a PTO member in D97, said "there tends to be an overreliance on parents in D97 in certain ways," before advocating for more systemic opportunities for working parents to get involved.
"One of the things we have to capture is how to work with parents who want to be involved in meaningful ways to help their children feel connected in schools and get them in schools," she said.
Moore, a member of the village's Community Relations Committee and a D97 diversity committee, said she thinks "there is an overburden on parents" in the district while there isn't a robust enough effort to include perspectives of community members.
"I want to focus on getting the community involved," she said. "There are people who are retired or don't have kids in the district who are just as talented and knowledgeable about things going on in the village. [We should] reach out to those people."
Spurlock said the district has an opportunity to cultivate student voices into the curriculum, particularly when it comes to issues like environmental education and climate change.
"We have a really big opportunity with reading and writing units of study," she said. "This is the curriculum we are now using and it allows students to do units like nonfiction or science and embed that into reading and writing."
Later in the discussion, after several candidates mentioned the necessity of a strong equity policy at both districts, Spurlock explained that D97 will talk about its proposed policy at a board meeting on Jan. 29.
Answer Book 2019
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.
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