Matt Heffner

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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:  47

Previous elected experience:  none

Previous community experience:

2016-2019  River Forest Youth Baseball and Softball: 

Board member, League Safety Officer, Girls Majors and Rookie Division Coordinator, head baseball and softball coach, and creator of Friday Night Lights for girls' softball.

2016-2019  Victories of the Heart, NFP

Board member, member of Executive, Fundraising, and Marketing Committees, Breakthrough Weekend staffer for personal growth/social and emotional learning retreats.

2001-2019  Pro bono legal services

Over my career, I have dedicated much time, effort, and resources to pro bono legal representation. The Northern District of Illinois recognized my work in one of those cases, Banks v. Elgin Mental Health Center, by awarding me the 2012 Award for Excellence in Pro Bono Service.

Occupation:           Attorney 

Education: University of Texas School of Law, J.D.—1997

                   Charles and Elizabeth Tigar Endowed Presidential Scholarship

                   Indiana University, B.A.—1994

                   Major:  philosophy; Minors: mathematics; physics

                   National Merit Scholar and Metz Scholar

1)    Why are you running?

I love the River Forest community, and I want D90 to be the premiere school district in Illinois. The current board could benefit from someone with legal experience, someone who runs their own business, and someone who is cautious about tinkering with River Forest's greatest asset—its schools.

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

Every child should feel welcomed at school, and training teachers about potential unconscious biases is an important step towards that goal.

Regarding the equity initiatives that focus on educational achievement, I'd like to see us widen our scope. For example, D90's boys severely underperform its girls per our 2018 Illinois School Report Card. Yet our equity initiatives have not examined this troubling trend, despite quite a bit of national attention about it (https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp18-13-v201806_0.pdf), and despite the fact that boys make up roughly 50% of our student body. I would advocate investigating the cause of this gap and whether any common-sense improvements in our system could close it.     

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?

I think D90's relationship to the community is strained at the moment due to poor communication. D90 parents want to be engaged with our board but don't know how to accomplish that. In the end, it is the board's responsibility to actively seek out engagement and meaningful input from the community, and maybe just as importantly, our teachers. I'm a big believer in early, frequent, and transparent face-to-face talks with stakeholders about any changes or initiatives being proposed. If elected, I will make engagement and transparent communication a priority of the board. 

There are also some easy, quick fixes that I'd champion. One is to live stream all board meetings, town hall forums, and committee meetings and provide residents (especially our parents at home taking care of their children in the evening) the ability to ask questions and comment via the web or conferencing system. Another is for board members to sit down and talk to people, face-to-face, about our schools and ideas for improvement. A third is to revamp our difficult-to-navigate and out-of-date website.  

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?

I share the administration's desire to provide more math instructional time and consider math proficiency a core educational goal. That said, I think there is probably a reasonable middle ground between 40-minute and 85-minute class lengths, a middle ground that would allow math sufficient time (I agree that 40 minutes is not sufficient) and yet save foreign language instruction.

If elected, one solution I would explore is lengthening the school day throughout D90 by just 30 minutes. That added time would provide Roosevelt the flexibility to add math minutes while saving other important subjects. And it would allow our elementary schools time to add an additional recess and teacher-planning time. That's important because research shows children benefit academically and socially from more recess time during the day and teachers need more time to meet and collaborate regarding all the changes being implemented in our schools right now. 

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?

Generally, our scores and academic performance are excellent. But we do have room for improvement.

For example, we need to improve our mathematics performance. According to outgoing Board President, Ralph Martire, our current math instruction at Roosevelt Middle School is not adequately preparing our students to excel in high school and is leaving gaps in their mathematics knowledge. We must solve this problem—immediately. At the very least, the board should inform parents on the curriculum gaps so that parents can prepare their children themselves, if need be. 

Also, as discussed above, I think D90 has a lot of room for improvement of boys' scores. Other school districts around the country have figured this out—see the Stanford CEPA study linked above—and we should be asking how they did it and if we can copy their model.

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

D90 needs to focus on early childhood development. Full-day kindergarten is an obvious starting point that would better prepare our children for their future. But beyond that, I recently had a conversation with a D90 resident who told me about the great work being done at a non-profit, Collaboration for Early Childhood. That organization has sought D90's support and collaboration, and it focuses on providing parent information and support, high quality preschool, and developmental screening for children under five years old. D90 should support this important work and disseminate more information to our residents regarding how to prepare children for school. Such efforts could only help those children when they reach D90, not to mention make our district even more attractive for young families.   

D90 also has potential physical-facilities and overcrowding issues. One of the reasons we do not offer a full-day kindergarten is because we do not currently have the classroom space needed. In addition, our heating system is in need of an upgrade and our district really does need to review and seriously consider adding air conditioning to our schools. The last five years have been the five hottest on record, globally. There is every reason to believe temperatures will continue to rise and our schools are already unbearable for most of August and some of September and June. In my discussions with teachers, air conditioning is the #1 issue raised.  

Finally, D90 needs to seriously address the rising anxiety and depression numbers here. In a recent survey, 28% of our 8th Graders self-reported that they had experienced the symptoms of depression within the last 12 months. (2018 Illinois Youth Survey.) That's more than 1 in 4. Increasing rates of adolescent anxiety and depression is a known national problem, but D90's number is much higher than the national average of about 12%. We need to investigate whether our school environment is a contributing factor. For a great discussion of the causes and effects of adolescent anxiety, I recommend The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. It is carefully reasoned, well researched, and eschews partisanship. 

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