Steve Lefko

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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: This is my first election experience and I'm thoroughly enjoying making new friends and connecting on important issues.

Previous community experience: I've chaired multiple Lincoln Elementary PTO committees during each of the last seven years including: Science Expo, Bike Safety and the Pancake Breakfast. These committees have seen growth and impact because I enjoy working with people to identify needs and deliver results. With a few other volunteers, I organized the 'One Day' campaign in RF to fund a medical trust benefiting the previous principal of Lincoln Elementary. Retirement came earlier than expected in order to provide 24hr care for family at home. Donors were encouraged to fund 'One Day' so Pam could hire care and focus on being wife and mother. There was good help and great support from the community. I was a community representative on the hiring committee to replace Pam Hyde after her retirement. I'm proud to be associated with hiring the current fine fine Principal of River Forest's Lincoln Elementary. Participating in sports was a great way to volunteer and immerse ourselves in our new community. I've made many friends and met new families through years of coaching RF recreational tee ball, soccer and helping out with softball. I serve on Committee of Young Life, Morton. Young Life is a long standing and global youth ministry. Our committee connects with high schoolers attending Morton East and Morton West and is in its second year. I help on committee matters like fund raising, communication and events, but I most enjoy just being with, listening to and encouraging this great group of kids. I brought the school district and the village together to address escalating safety concerns for children going to and from school. Working with the Village and D90, I established a volunteer crossing guard program until permanent guards were installed at intersections on Oak months later. Just recently, the Village voted to approve a comprehensive upgrade in pedestrian safety measures that will benefit all D90 students.

Occupation: I grew up in, studied extensively and went to work in agriculture. I'm an applied scientist by training and worked in seeds where science and environmental policy meet. My work involved research and policy on extending the effectiveness of crop protection practices that replace chemical insecticides. The role evolved into working directly with the US EPA and similar agencies in South America, Europe, and South East Asia. Our move to River Forest included resigning from this full time work, being available for our girls and starting a couple entrepreneurial endeavors.

We started a small residential real estate business soon after moving to River Forest in 2010. I call it the 401K for the self-employed and enjoy the people side of property management very much. More recently we turned a family passion project into a small social impact toy business, Hope Houses Workshop, Inc. Research underscores the importance of open-ended play and imagination in childhood cognitive development. Like TOMS shoes, the purchase of a dollhouse sends a second one to children cared for by child and family service agency partners. We connect people to children served by agency partners caring for children after neglect or abuse, who are in foster care or waiting for adoption. We have a ways to go, but the whole family is involved learning all aspects of design, manufacturing, sales and marking and our favorite dinner time discussion…customer service.

Education: I hold a BS in Environmental Science and Forestry from The State of NY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, a MS in Applied Insect Ecology and a PhD in Host Plant Resistance, both from Iowa State University. I was successful in grant writing to fund both programs. My MS combined computer programming and the ecology of a common pest of US corn and resulting in georeferenced maps farmers used to direct management. PhD work involved deciphering a natural mechanisms of insect resistance in alfalfa, a feed crop for animals. I taught laboratory classes throughout graduate school and developed coursework for a new online curriculum. Informally today, I study early childhood development, play and project based learning and the connection between imagination and cognitive development in children.

1) Why are you running?

I believe the schools are the most important entity of any village. Great schools are at the center of great communities filled with great people. I want to be part of what helps River Forest kids go on to do great things. Also, the most effective boards are unique in experience, challenging in ideas, effective in execution and always focused on the community it serves. My skills, experience, commitment and interpersonal skills will improve the board. Last, great schools make a village attractive to young families. My service is aimed at continuing the tradition of excellence, increasing attractiveness of River Forest for young families through educational excellence. I want to give back to a community that has given so much to us.

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

We moved to River Forest to be part of a small and excellent school district that provides what each child needs to grow to their fullest potential. Reaching every child with what they need is how I interpret the word equity in this question.

Engagement is the predecessor of learning, and research supports the concept of increased engagement when children identify with their instructors. One initiative I think could bear fruit, even if it's not easily measurable, is increasing diversity in our district workforce. Qualified minority and male teachers especially could increase engagement, growth and maybe have a positive impact on reducing race and gender-based achievement gaps.

The district has begun implementing the Vision for Equity initiative which the board has described as a change in instructional philosophy. It involves changing what's being taught, how it's being taught, who's teaching it and when, and students will be evaluated using new, largely untested methods. This is an unprecedented scope and pace of change that administrators admit will test everyone involved. I think reaching every child with what they need is laudable and appropriate. However, I'm concerned the scope of change leaves no basis for identifying which elements worked or not, and the pace of change will challenge the professional development limits of teachers such that current students may not receive what they need. I'm for continuous improvement with time-tested initiatives one step at a time so we know what is and isn't working.

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?

Transparency and communication are critical between a school district and the community it serves – this is central to my D90 campaign, commitment and the values I live by at home and at work. I believe scope and pace of change in current board's priorities, coupled with muted communication around the new instructional philosophy explain a degree of confusion and unrest in the community. A board connected with the community is bound to have at least one dissenting vote and unfortunately this board has always voted unanimously. Getting better at transparency and communication is something I'm committed to as a board member.

I've been studying how other school districts maximize transparency of their boards and committees and reach the communities they serve through multiple sources of media. We have many opportunities to leverage technology for real-time engagement, awareness and archiving to bring D90 up to excellence that ensures board priorities reflect community priorities. It doesn't end here, excellence in transparency and communication involves a degree of vulnerability and some intentional measurement. Excellence will be achieved when the parties relentlessly pursue affirmation of transparency and effective communication.

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?

The District is considering introduction of block scheduling at Roosevelt to accommodate curriculum change across subjects. There seems to be consensus synergy will come from combining reading and writing. Math currently has forty minutes of instruction and the teachers describe needing sixty to meet standards, not the 85 minutes proposed. A consequence of the block schedule proposals to date are reduction or elimination of foreign language, music, art and STEM. Foreign language is important in an increasingly global economy and it's a connection to other cultures. The arts enrich the whole child. At and music is expression, and critical to social and emotional development that I believe is among our biggest challenges with youth. I believe there must be a way to gain 20 minutes of math instruction without reducing exposure to these important subjects. The teachers have spoken out against this and their voice is very important amidst all the change.

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?

Assessments are important to delivering rigor to every child. Rigor is where the challenge exceeds the current skill level and it's how growth happens regardless of ability. I'm eager to find an alternative for math to replace the flawed CogAT, and PARCC is being improved slowly. I think with the diversity of children in our classrooms and their different styles of engagement it's difficult to find assessments that serve all well. More assessments is not the answer. Part of the answer on achievement could come from the board by allocating more resources to teacher professional development. How to engage students and training up specialists for either end of the ability curve. Our teachers hold the best information on our student's progress and needs. If we serve them well with training and support, they may better serve students, produce higher achievement and keep River Forest attractive.

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

Indeed, it's going to take more than history to predict a strong future for D90 and the following issues are important to me.

It's important to me we have a five year strategic plan that is visible, contains sufficient detail and is void of surprises. A good plan is measurable, chronological and progress along that plan becomes a basis for communication to all the residents of River Forest.

I believe our teachers are our best researchers, voices that must be heard by parents, administration and the board. I'll advocate for greater voice from teachers in the next collective bargaining agreement. In participating so deeply in D90 over the past eight years there are potential barriers that need breaking down, channels that need digging so information flows and trust remains high.

Last, the cost of education is continuously rising and this impacts all River Foresters regardless of having school age children. We'll need to operate within the tax levy, anticipate a cost shift and make sure dollars remain focused on curriculum and instruction – the things that directly impact growth and achievement and keep River Forest attractive.

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