Kathleen "Katie" Avalos

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Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey the Wednesday Journal sent out to all D90 candidates running in this year's elections. Candidates full, unedited responses are printed. 

Age: 41

Previous elected experience: none

Previous community experience:  Since having children, my community service experiences have focused on supporting our schools through my work on the Lincoln and Roosevelt PTOs. For the past three years, I served as co-chair for Roosevelt's Fall Fun Fest helping to raise close to $30,000 to support our teachers and students. I was a member of Lincoln's PTO Auction committee from 2016-2018, co-chair of Heartworks, Lincoln's fourth grade service club, for the current school year and the 2015-2016 school year and have served as the PTO Board Liaison since 2015. I am a regular class room volunteer and serve fun lunch at Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Separate from the volunteer work I have done with our schools, I have been a Girl Scout leader for the past five years for Lincoln's fourth grade troop and for the past three years for Lincoln's second grade troop. I was a member of Sarah's Inn Stand Tall event committee (2015-2017) and a member of Aspire's Beautiful Children Fashion Show event committee (2010-2012). As a family, we regularly participate in single day volunteer opportunities with a variety of organizations including: Cradles to Crayons, Des Plaines River Clean Up, and OPRF Food Pantry.

Occupation: For the past eight years I have been the Administrative Manager for the Community of Congregations, a local inter-faith organization that oversees the Holiday Food & Gift Basket Program, the Celebrating Seniors Coalition, and engages in community building within Oak Park, River Forest, and Austin. Following college, I worked on political campaigns to elect women to the House, Senate, and governorships across the country, and, together with my husband, started a non-profit to increase voter participation in Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. While my husband was in law school, I worked in the development department at Developmental Services Center, a Champaign-based non-profit that supports individuals with developmental disabilities.

Education: I graduated from Boston College with a B.A. in political science

1)      Why are you running?

I believe in D90's mission to instill a love of learning and ensure educational excellence for all children. People move to River Forest because of our great schools. By supporting excellence for all children, keeping up with best practices in education, and working to prepare our children for their future versus our past, we will ensure high a high-quality education, continued academic achievement, and maintain our outstanding reputation as a destination community for families, thus ensuring high property values and protecting all of our investments.

We want our schools to be good when we are sending our kids there so they get a great education and we want our schools to be good when our kids are grown so we are able to sell our homes. I believe the way we keep River Forest schools great is by evolving and looking for ways we can better. We cannot rest on our laurels and we cannot be stagnant. I am running for D90's Board of Education because I am passionate about continually working to provide a high-quality education for all our kids and ensuring our community's reputation as a wonderful place to raise a family.

For the past four years I have served as the PTO Board of Education Liaison and have attended meetings on a monthly basis which allows me insight into the decision-making process behind current initiatives, how they align with our districts' mission and goals, and how they are being implemented in a thoughtful and purposeful manner with opportunity for teacher feedback and professional development. We have great schools but there are always ways we can be better. I want to be a part of the process as we continue to improve.

While I have this foundational knowledge and understanding of what is working and where we can be better, I chose to run because voters needed an alternative and a new viewpoint. I offer a fresh perspective based on my experiences as a parent of three children with varying academic needs. I have a child who has learning disabilities and receives special education services, a child who is a high achiever, and a child who is a hands-on learner with more average academic outcomes. Raising children with three different learning profiles allows me to understand the experiences of a range of children and families within the district and brings a new viewpoint to D90's Board of Education.

2)      River Forest District 90 schools have adopted several equity initiatives over the past few years. What do you think of this work?

The work of the Equity Committee and the Inclusivity Advisory Board align with our district's mission to inspire a love of learning and ensure educational excellence for all children. I fully support the work as an important step to make sure we are meeting the needs of all our kids, creating a welcoming and safe environment, and keeping up with best practices in education, thus helping to maintain River Forest's reputation for excellent schools with high academic achievement which will continue to attract families to the district and ensure that our property values remain high and protect all of our investments.

Examples of the work relating to equity and inclusivity are the implicit bias training relating to race that teachers received, the gender inclusivity training from Lurie Children's Hospital that teachers received, the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee for Gender Inclusivity, and the listening session with Roosevelt students to hear about their experiences and the school culture. Although the issues related to the achievement gap are important, equity and inclusivity work must also consider all marginalized groups, including but not limited to students with disabilities, differing socioeconomic classes, immigration status, and LGBTQ.

Although there has been some confusion, the adoption of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is not just an equity measure. It is an instructional model that has been around for 30 years and recognizes that all students benefit from individualized instruction. It dovetails with the districts' focus on instilling a growth mindset among our children and is aligned with the notion of preparing our kids for their future rather than our past. The purpose of UDL is to remove barriers to learning and increase access and opportunity for all students by allowing for a variety of methods of representation, expression, and engagement. In short, it allows kids to access curriculum in different ways and allows for more flexibility in how they show what they know. It also moves away from a singular focus on standardized tests as a measure of students' success.

UDL represents current best practices in education and in addition to focusing on academic outcomes it allows for increased opportunity for critical thinking and development of problem-solving skills. It is not intended as a pathway to eliminate higher level classes at Roosevelt and has not been shown to adversely affect high achievers in other schools where it has been implemented. I am excited about UDL as a way to better support excellence for all our children and appreciate the purposeful and thoughtful approach to its implementation. Despite confusion, it has not been a rushed process but has been researched by our district over the course of many years with administrators visiting other schools that utilize UDL, receiving training and professional development, and reporting about progress at board meetings. It is currently being piloted in 30 classrooms across district and will expand over the next few years as more teachers are trained.

3)      How would you describe D90's relationship to the community? What does the board currently do to engage residents and what more, if anything, do you believe should be done?

Our schools are the pride of our community and the reason why many of us moved to River Forest. More than just a place where our children are being educated, our schools are a cornerstone in our community; offering opportunities for children, parents, and families to engage with each other. By supporting excellence for all children, keeping up with best practices in education, and working to prepare our children for their future versus our past, we will ensure high academic achievement and maintain our outstanding reputation as a destination community for families.

Improved communication is a key component of my campaign. A main function of the board is to connect with the community by participating in a two-way conversation to hear the community desire's and inform the community of district plans and performance. We must provide more options for community engagement. The board should explore live streaming the meetings, videotaping and sharing key presentations, holding drop in hours to allow constituents to have conversations with board members, offering childcare at the meetings, modernizing district communication including redesigning the website to make it more useful, and continuing the community learning and listening sessions that began earlier this year. Elected officials are accountable to their constituents and must be willing to have transparent conversations that allow for stakeholders to voice their support as well as concerns. As a candidate, I have willingly engaged in conversations in various platforms, including social media, and would continue this practice. As the PTO Board of Education liaison, I attended board meetings, summarized the information, and reported back to the PTO and shared information with other community members. I would continue this practice as a board member.

Currently the board holds two meetings per month that are open to the public and publicized in advance as part of the Open Meetings Act. Audio recordings, meeting minutes, and key power point presentations are available on the website. This past year the Board opted to include quarterly community meetings as part of the schedule. The purpose of these meetings is to allow for more engagement beyond the formal meetings and encourage dialogue between the community and the Board. Community members also participate in a variety of committees including hiring committees for administrators, the Inclusivity Advisory Committee, the Equity Committee, and the Strategic Planning committee, among others.

4)      Staff at Roosevelt Middle School are tweaking a block schedule that's current iteration would add math minutes, at the expense of foreign language time for students. What do you think of this measure?

As of the Board meeting on February 19th, the Board requested additional information with details on professional development and a timeline for the implementation of the block schedule at Roosevelt to ensure that teachers feel more prepared for this transition. At this point, it appears that implementation will be shifted to fall 2020. While the administration and Board are working to address the community's concerns, there is still more work to be done.

I think foreign language is an important part of our children's education. Because of that, I think we must also look at ways to include foreign language in our elementary schools. FLIP is an amazing program and should continue but as a district we should also consider ways to include foreign language as part of our kids' instructional day in the elementary schools.

Regarding the block schedule, I think it is worth revisiting the current proposal in the next year to see if there are other options that might work. Including looking at blocks that are shorter than 80 minutes, offering foreign language at lunch in addition to instructional minutes, offering increased art and music options at lunch in addition to instructional minutes, and considering if there is flexibility to offer P.E. on a rotation rather than every day, and considering extending the day as part of the renegotiation of the teachers' contract.

For background on the changes, the proposal to add math minutes to the schedule was driven by teacher feedback. A few years ago, Illinois Learning Standards for math became more rigorous. To better prepare our kids to meet those standards, D90 adopted a new curriculum that was teacher vetted and piloted within our classrooms before adoption. The new curriculum is designed to be taught in eight units and in the current schedule our teachers are only getting through six units. Within the current schedule, the course moves at a quick pace, in particular in fifth grade, and many students were seeking extra help before and after school as well as during lunch. Additionally, there is a risk of our children not being fully prepared for higher level math at the high school. Because they are not receiving the full coursework, there are potential gaps in their foundational mathematical knowledge.

I think it is unfortunate that this change results in potentially less foreign language opportunities for our students. A commitment to foreign language and recognizing its value is important. The current proposal allows for students and parents to make choices that will work best for them. For seventh and eigth grade students they can either enroll in a half year of foreign language and take exploratory classes like art and music or opt for a full year of language instruction with no exploratory classes.

The D90 board voted to postpone implementation of a schedule change at a regular meeting on March 5. 

5)      What do you think about standardized (PARCC) test scores and academic performance at schools in District 90? What areas do you believe could be improved and what action can the school board take to help improve student achievement?

Standardized testing can be a useful tool in assessing student achievement but should be part of a larger process that considers classroom work, teacher input, and additional assessments such as MAPs testing. We must consider the whole child when discussing academic achievement. Standardized testing can be valuable in pinpointing areas of weakness within curriculum or teaching methods but they should not be used as the sole measure of academic achievement.

By working with teachers, the Board and administration researched and began thoughtful and purposeful implementation of two initiatives aimed at improving student achievement: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Standards Based Grading (SBG). Both programs are currently being piloted in classrooms across the district with opportunity for teacher and parent feedback.

UDL improves student achievement by removing barriers to learning and increasing access and opportunity for all our kids. Assessments within UDL and curriculum assessments will assist teachers in monitoring progress towards improved academic outcomes.  SBG allows for more detailed tracking on students' progress to Illinois Learning Standards as well as improved communication between teacher and student and teacher and parent.

As the PTO Board liaison, I have attended Board of Education meetings on a monthly basis for the past for years. I have listened to the board discuss both these and other initiatives in great detail; at times disagreeing extensively but always working towards consensus. We have great schools but must continue to look for ways to improve in order to maintain our levels of high academic achievement and our community's reputation as a wonderful place to raise a family. I want to bring my experience to the board and be a part of this process as someone who looks to ask questions, listen to answers, and look for solutions.

6)      What other issues are important to you as a school board candidate? How would you advocate for them as a board member?

By supporting excellence for all children, keeping up with best practices in education, and working to prepare our children for their future versus our past, we will ensure high academic achievement and maintain our outstanding reputation as a destination community for families.

To that end I have four initial priorities:

The first priority is ensuring the proper implementation of the various initiatives currently being introduces in the classroom, including Universal Design for Learning, standards-based grading, and the proposed block schedule at Roosevelt. It will be important to support our teachers during this process by offering professional development and opportunities to share best practices through collaborative team meetings as well as utilize assessments and teacher feedback to monitor how the changes are impacting our students and areas where we can continue to improve.

The second priority is the continued rise of anxiety and depression among our students, in particular at the middle school. In the most recent Illinois Youth Survey questionnaire, 28% of Roosevelt 8th graders said they felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities. We have dedicated and creative social workers and programs offered through Connect4Kids but we must look for more ways to address this issue, such as additional professional development for our classroom teachers. Struggles with mental health issues impact children's ability to learn and succeed. As a district that is dedicated to an excellent educational experience for all our kids, we have an obligation to better address this issue.

The third priority is continued fiscal responsibility and working to efficiently provide a high-quality education while recognizing the board's fiduciary responsibility to the tax payers. Because our district engages in long term financial planning, we anticipated the deficit spending and currently have a plan to continue deficit spending until we sell bonds in the near future once they are fully matured. A significant challenge to the budgeting process is the costs of salaries (with modest but competitive raises) and benefits increase year over year at a higher rate than our income increases via the tax levy. We also must consider our teachers' pensions. The state currently manages and pays teachers' pensions. This responsibility will likely be transferred to the district in the near future. Out of respect for our teachers we must set aside money to fully fund their pensions. Because of our fiscal responsibility and healthy reserves, the district can cover overages at this point but that is not a long-term solution and we need to continuously explore other options.

The fourth priority, is improved board and community engagement which I explained in more detail in question three. I would advocate for these priorities by engaging in robust and respectful conversations with fellow board members, community stake holders and the administration. Asking questions, listening to the answers, determining overlaps in priorities as a way to move forward with a shared vision for our school district recognizing that good relationships and robust civil discourse is the foundation of a functioning board.

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