DISTRICT 97 SCHOOL BOARD (4 open seats)

Barika Grant | Gavin Kearney | Jung Kim | Cheree Moore | Holly Spurlock



candidate for 2019 District 97 School Board

1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to District 97?

I believe strongly in public education. I am a former high school English teacher and literacy coach in Chicago Public Schools, and I am currently an Associate Professor of Literacy at Lewis University, i.e., I work with pK-12 teachers pursuing their Master’s in literacy education. I hold a Bachelor’s in English education, a Master’s in literacy, and a Doctorate in Curriculum, as well as an active teaching license in secondary English Language Arts and Reading Specialist. As someone who has worked in education for almost two decades and has been strongly committed to issues of justice and equity in schools, I feel I have a variety of skills and experiences that would help me be a strong member of the D97 school board. From having worked in difficult situations with other educators to arguing for culturally relevant curricula in schools to presenting on the disconnects youth feel in and out of school, I have found myself working with a variety of people around issues of equity in public education. I feel that my current role as a teacher educator/professor gives me a “bird’s eye” view of what different districts are doing in implementing various state and federal policies that is also highly contextualized and grounded in the daily practices and realities of everyday teachers.

2. What do you think makes an effective School Board Member?

In order to be an effective public servant, one must be aware of the needs and desires of the people they are representing and be transparent in their decision-making. They must also be able to work through complicated and nuanced decisions with an eye towards equity and justice. They must be able to work collaboratively with a variety of people and treat others with respect. With that said, it is also important to foster healthy tension when navigating difficult issues and fighting for what is right. I think it’s particularly important for an effective Board Member to research multiple perspectives and make sure many voices are represented—particularly those who have been historically marginalized.

3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the District 97 Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the School Board, District staff, and the ten schools in the District?

The purpose of the D97 Board of Education should be to help foster a district that allows for each and every child to achieve their full potential, whether academically, intellectually, emotionally, or socially. The Board should serve as a channel from which the multiple needs of the District administration, the ten local school faculty and staff, students, parents, and community members can come together to meet this vision. To this end, the Board may sometimes take a leadership role and other times a support role. As members of the community—and, in many cases, parents of students in D97—the Board members also inhabit multiple roles and must navigate the delicate balance between the needs and desires of all stakeholders. It is important that the Board make an effort to hear from all members of D97, as well as the larger community, but also use this positioning to filter these different voices to make well-informed decisions.

4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?

Perhaps this will sound trite but being a working mother epitomizes the notion of balancing competing interests. As an academic, there are many demands on my time, from researching to responding to student emails to attending on-campus events. There is always so much more I could be doing as there is no clear-cut end of the work day. Similarly, there are “bigger and better” ways I could be a wife, mother, progressive, community member etc. Even as an avid runner who needs running to stay sane, I can log 30-50 miles a week. I have often thought longingly of Hermione’s time turner necklace. I’ve found, though, that “good enough” can sometimes be enough. I continuously evaluate my priorities and what is best for my family. This means that sometimes my children will go out into the world with messy hair or stay up too late at a community event, but these things will not matter in the long run. Seeing me demonstrate self-care or community engagement or showing how we show up for equity, those are the things that will be have more importance and impact in their lives.

5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?

It is important for government to help equip its citizens with as much information as possible, but to also help filter and make that information digestible. One way I would like to try and put this into practice is to find a way to livestream or record (in an audiovisual format) all Board meetings. This will allow all members of the community to have access to the Board meetings, even when they are not always able to physically be there. I would also like to maintain either a collaborative Board Facebook page or website that has updated information and resources—not just meeting minutes, agendas, and handouts—but also supplementary resources and information. If the Board is not interested in hosting a group page, I plan to continue using my campaign Facebook page after the election as a point of contact and information for Board and provide education-related materials. I believe it is important for Board members to be actively engaged in the community and be accessible to their constituents.

6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?

As an elected official, it is important to engage with one’s constituents. I feel it is extremely important, whether in research, classrooms, or community spaces, for community leaders to be accessible and available to those they serve. Social media is a great way to share information and build community. However, I have found that in many instances it is not a great place to have nuanced difficult conversations. Those deserve to have more direct interactions. The accessibility of elected officials via social media can be a great tool, but it has to be one carefully wielded.

I intend to engage with the breadth of the community through a varied approach. One activity I started with my campaign and would like to continue is a children’s literature book club for community members. This allows people—both adults and youth—to come together to discuss relevant issues in our schools. I would also like to continue having semi-regular meetings with various groups to hear a variety of voices and keep up with what is important to different constituents. I have participated in a number of equity-related and community events in Oak Park over the past 15 years I’ve lived here. I plan to utilize these opportunities to go out into the community and engage with different groups.

7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?

I surround myself and my family with a diverse array of friends, and I believe strongly that diversity is important. As an Asian American and a numerical minority in Oak Park, most of my interactions are with people who are “different” from me racially. Regardless, I make a concerted effort to attend events with my family that inform me of the different concerns and issues, as well as celebrations, of diverse groups—from Kwanzaa celebrations to immigration protests to town halls on mixed-income housing. I also regularly engage people with different viewpoints to better understand their perspectives on contemporary issues on a local and national level.

8. How should the District assess its policies and progress with respect to special needs and the opportunity gap? As a Board Member, what metrics will you use to determine whether the District is succeeding?

For a number of reasons, I am not a huge fan of the use of the term “opportunity gap” as a replacement for “achievement gap.” I find it still falls short of describing a system that is inequitable and unfairly punishes students for not fitting a pre-determined standard. Whether because of race/ethnicity, language background, gender, ability, or socioeconomic status, students are being told they are not “good enough” without being given the tools, strategies, or accommodations they need to be their best—or by having a definition of “good” or “best” that is not appropriate or relevant for them. One example of how this is happening is through the disparate selections of students for gifted/talented/ special education or the disparate punishment of students of color for behavior. As a Board Member, I would like to use a variety of metrics to determine whether the District is succeeding. While standardized tests may play a part, other metrics like student attendance, growth over the school year, number of disciplinary infractions, identification of students for enrichment/accelerated/special education programs, should also play important roles as well. Survey data tracking parent/student satisfaction around issues in the school can also be extremely valuable.

9. What have been your most useful sources of information about pre-secondary education? Have you found any research to be particularly informative?

Because my own direct experiences have been in secondary classrooms, I have found my students (who are all pK-12 teachers) to be extremely informative in providing a personal context for elementary education. While I am widely read in literacy research and broader educational research, having my students read research and also comment on how they see this working or not in their classrooms has been tremendously enlightening. I also present at and attend national and international conferences on educational research, so I have an opportunity to interact directly with some of the people who are writing about and disseminating this research. I have a number of close colleagues who work in elementary education in institutions across the country that I have learned a tremendous amount from and to whom I often turn to with questions about curriculum, practice, and policy.

10. Why have property taxes assessed by the District increased so substantially over the past 10-15 years? Can the District continue without additional tax increases? How?

This is a complicated question, which I will admit to having only a developing understanding. It seems that there are a variety of factors impacting increasing taxes. One major reason is the declining state support Illinois school districts are receiving, increasing the need for more local contributions. Another is the increasing assessed values of homes in Oak Park. Finally, as the Oak Park “Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force” (2018) referred to in their report is the practice of utilizing referenda to “sustain programs, services, and otherwise unsustainable increases in annual operating costs.” This raises the question of whether there are areas that need to cut back or be examined more closely to determine whether there is room for more financial restraint. Without knowing the future of the state’s economic fortunes, it is hard to project whether additional tax increases will be needed. I believe that, as a public servant, we must be faithful stewards of the taxpayers’ money. However, this stewardship must also be balanced with maintaining the vision and integrity of the quality of the district as well.

11. How will you balance the community's desire to decrease the property tax burden with the need to create an equitable environment for all students?

As indicated in the previous answer, I think the Board has to maintain a fine balance between the community’s shared desire to both decrease the property tax burden AND create an equitable environment for all students. Strong schools make strong communities and keep strong property values. With that said, I believe it is important that the Board be responsible to taxpayers and maximize all current resources, minimize or eliminate any excess, and look towards highly scrutinizing the value of its financial decisions. I also feel that it is important to maintain the big picture of what is best for the community and not focus too narrowly on immediate financial gains that could create lasting harm and cost more in the long run.

12. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a formal equity lens/framework across District 97, and if so, what specifics should it include? How have you engaged with efforts by the current Board to develop an equity policy?

In simplest terms, equity is when everyone gets what they need to be successful. I strongly believe that D97 should adopt a formal equity framework. I support the one put forward by DivCo and the Board. I just returned from speaking in support of this policy at the D97 Board meeting. I believe strongly in implementing and supporting culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy, incorporating restorative justice practices, recruiting and retaining teachers of color, and using data to ensure that objectives are being met. I have not been heavily involved with the creation of the policy. I have provided some feedback to various constituents and spoken up in favor of such a policy—particularly around the issue of hiring more teachers of color, both in D97 and D200.

13. The District has recently taken steps to eliminate tracking in some areas (for instance, in math classes for some grades). How effective have these initiatives been? Should they be expanded? What specific initiatives would you support to address the range of learning differences among students?

From what I understand, the dismantling of the GTD program was done quickly and without much solid input from the community. In general, I don’t support tracking. However, I don’t feel that the way in which the District seems to have started eliminating tracking is effective either. With the “push-in” model the District has been trying, there should be much more support for the teachers in differentiation. It is not clear to me that students and teachers are getting what they need. It is also inequitable that there is one enrichment teacher per building when some schools are almost twice the size as others. What can often happen in these cases is that the teacher teaches to the middle and the students who may need more support—whether because they are truly gifted or have diverse learning needs—don’t receive what they need and either get bored or frustrated. I would look to increase more supports for diverse learners such as increasing co-teaching in the district, allotting enrichment teachers based on school numbers and not per building, and increasing professional development and potentially support staff.

14. Allegations of sexual harassment (between students) have been made at both middle schools, and the District has been criticized for its failure to have a well-defined policy on how incidents like this are addressed. As a Board Member, how would you work to protect students in the wake of such allegations? What challenges would you anticipate while drafting a policy? What safeguards should a new policy include to protect to populations already affected disproportionately by disciplinary practices?

I am a strong believer in protecting our students, and I do feel that the District needs a well-defined policy. However, it is important that the policy is not just a punitive one but one that includes education and training for both students and staff about what sexual harassment is. The biggest challenge I see in drafting a policy is making sure it is both inclusive and specific enough to address all the issues and provide ample room for implementation. It must also protect all the children involved. This is where education and restorative practices could be much more productive than a rigid punitive policy.

15. District 97 Board Members share responsibility for oversight of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. What is your vision for early childhood education in Oak Park? Should preschool be available to every child in Oak Park? Should the District fund a preschool program for all students?

Having had two children go through the PKP program at Longfellow, I believe strongly in the power of a diverse, strong preschool education. Research repeatedly supports the idea that early childhood education is a powerful way of helping all children have a successful start to their education. In the ideal world, I would love to see PKP expand and have preschool be available for free to every child in Oak Park. However, I had heard that PKP at one point was in danger of not being funded at all because of state funding issues, so I realize what a financial challenge this might be. I would like to explore what other districts have done to offer universal preschool. Also, when I was going through the process of applying for PKP, I remember being frustrated that it seemed like the “best kept secret” in Oak Park. There was virtually no information about the program and spotty communication. Once in the program, we were thrilled with it. However, I would like to make sure that communication of the services and programs for early childhood are clearly publicized and that strong outreach is supported.

16. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.

I am not fundraising nor taking financial contributions.

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[The above answers were supplied on 2/13/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]