Finished answering the Activist Toolkit questionnaire, so for those looking for a more comprehensive sense of my school board policies, you might find this helpful.
(There is some repetitiveness in my answers, but I couldn’t help it — some of the questions had overlapping concerns!)
DISTRICT 200 SCHOOL BOARD
2021 ACTIVIST TOOLKIT CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE
1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the District, and why would those contributions be valuable in the role of School Board member?
After serving on the library board for the last four years, I wanted to continue to serve the community. Professionally, I’ve been immersed in education work for fifteen years as a professor (at UIC, Northwestern, Roosevelt University, Vermont College, the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and Mills College), and for many years as an undergrad, master’s and doctoral student; I also founded and direct a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides grants for writers and free educational resources (www.speclit.org), I’ve served on boards for the Museum of Science and Industry and the XPrize, and I currently serve on the board of the Plurality University, an international futurist organization.
Personally, I’m a bisexual brown immigrant woman, born in Sri Lanka, and a cancer survivor; having grown up with multiple marginalized identities and lived through economic and health challenges, I’m acutely aware of the additional challenges some of our students face, and can hopefully help shape strategies to help all of our students succeed.
I moved to Oak Park with my husband about ten years ago, and our children have been at Holmes and Brooks thus far; they’ll be attending OPRF, with our daughter entering as a freshman this fall.
2. What are the three biggest challenges or opportunities you expect District 200 to face in the coming years, and how would you work with your colleagues to address these challenges or realize these opportunities?
• adapting to the pandemic and its consequences will necessarily impact both the budget and day-to-day logistical planning; although we can hope that much of the community will be vaccinated before fall semester starts, masking will almost certainly need to continue through the fall, and I’d be looking to science and evidenced-based research to guide the board on appropriate actions
• as we continue to implement the IMAGINE plan at OPRF, I expect that each new phase will bring its own challenges along with concerns from the community; the board will need to be ready to explain its decisions (and possibly revise plans if needed by changing circumstances)
• keeping a focus on equity and a level playing field for all our students will require balancing complex needs and demands from various stakeholders, listening thoughtfully to community concerns, and working together to craft concrete and measurable steps towards improved equity
3. How will you balance competing interests, such as your own deeply-held values and opinions, input from District staff and fellow board members, and diverse views from the community? How would you describe your leadership style and your decision-making process generally?
I’m a problem-solver by nature; one of the things I found most challenging on the library board was not jumping in and trying to fix things myself immediately. I learned that as a board member, it was my job to listen to the various community stakeholders, help set broader priorities at the board level, and support staff as they came up with detailed implementation plans, always checking back against our larger mission to make sure we stayed in alignment. (I may have suggested a few additional tweaks along the way.)
I’m particularly in favor of learning from what’s been tried elsewhere, studying best practices, using solid research to guide my decisions, and hewing closely to our ethical principles and institutional mission.
4. What values would you bring to the budgeting process? What changes do you favor in the process by which the District conducts its budgeting and fiscal planning?
Budgets are moral documents – where we spend our money says what we value, as a community. My understanding is that right now, D200 has a significant fund surplus, which is primarily earmarked for the IMAGINE project. I know the library budget intimately at this point; I don’t know the D200 budget as well, so if elected, my first step would be to start learning the budget in much more detail, before I’d want to suggest any changes.
But I certainly would want to look into whether there’s sufficient fund balance that D200 can justify significantly reducing the levy from the community in the next four years, especially given the financial impact of the pandemic.
5. How will you balance the community’s desire to decrease the property tax burden with the need to maintain the quality of our schools, create an equitable learning environment for all students, and address facilities issues?
Property taxes increased significantly recently, with the D97 referendum, and that was painful for many in the community. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see such a sharp increase again anytime soon – as far as I know, none of the six taxing bodies is planning to go to referendum for anything in the next decade. Hopefully we’ll have a long, slow stretch of minimal increases, generally hewing close to the rate of inflation, so that households can make financial plans with confidence.
That said, property taxes are also one of the best ways to fund libraries and schools because they do roughly correlate to household wealth. Many other funding mechanisms are regressive, hitting poor families harder than wealthy – a $25 school supply fee has a very different impact on a single parent household earning just barely minimum wage, than it does on a two-working-parents household bringing in six figures together.
So overall, when there are real needs to address, such as physical accessibility to the building for all students, functioning facilities that are clean and safe, special education and mental health resources for students in need, etc., property taxes are the appropriate mechanism for addressing those needs.
6. Special education is mandated by federal law. How will you set up structures to ensure ongoing concerns of families engaged with special education are addressed? What do you believe are the biggest issues facing families and children with special needs, and how will you work to see their needs are met?
I don’t think I can speak to what structures I’d set up at this point – as a first step, I’d want to assess the structures currently in place. My son has an IEP for ADHD and sensory issues, and I have ADD myself, so I’m familiar with at least some of the process involved with 504s and IEPs.
That said, every child is different, and a school’s challenge will always be educating the whole child (whether or not they fall into the special education category) in the ways best suited to them. Giving teachers the resources they need, so they can give all their students sufficient individualized attention, would be high on my priority list.
7. How do you define equity? Have recent discussions in the larger community informed or changed your thinking?
Recent community discussions have primarily centered on racial equity; I’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn, about the challenges facing Black Americans specifically. Reading books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me have been both enlightening and saddening.
But equity has always been a concern of mine, as far back as I can remember – when I was the one brown child in my entire white school, when I was the geeky girl who was mocked by the boys for actually liking math, when dating white boys (and girls) shocked my traditional immigrant parents, and I was threatened with being cut off from the family entirely if I continued…
We swim in a sea of sexism, racism, homophobia, class differences, ableism, and more, and it’s inevitable that some of that will stick to us; it will be hard work to clean it away. Our society is riddled with inequities, and while I do think we’ve made tremendous progress in just the last few generations, we still have a long way to go.
To me, true equity comes when every student has equal opportunity to shine to the best of their abilities, when they are cherished and supported and heard.
8. How do you plan to solicit feedback from people who may be experiencing OPRFHS in a different way than you? What barriers do you believe may exist in this process?
At the library, one of the main projects that I pushed for was the library’s first community survey, because I was concerned that they weren’t hearing from everyone in the community. The people the librarians talked to generally loved the library – but what about the people they weren’t talking to? The ones who lived on the fringes of Oak Park, perhaps, who didn’t have a care and couldn’t easily make it to a library branch, who never received a library card or utilized the online services, or even realized how much was available to them? Doing a survey like that costs money, but I think everyone on the board and management staff agreed, on reading the results, that it was absolutely worthwhile, and gave us a lot of information that would help guide us towards better serving the whole community going forward.
9. How should the District assess its policies and progress with respect to the opportunity gap? As a Board Member, how will you determine whether the District is succeeding?
I’ll look to evidence-based measures and solid accountability procedures, which I hope are in place already. If they aren’t, then I’ll work to help put those in place.
10. District 200 Superintendent Joylyn Pruitt is retiring in June 2021, and a search process has been initiated by the current Board. What qualities do you value most when searching for a new superintendent?
Oak Park-River Forest is a complex ecosystem with a wide variety of stakeholders with different needs; a new superintendent needs to have experience in understanding and balancing sometimes conflicting needs. They have to be able to comprehend and manage a complicated system, get buy-in from all affected groups (students, parents, teachers, staff, and of course, board members), and implement a strong plan. The ideal candidate would be ready to hit the ground running when they took up the position, to help us make swift progress towards our equity and inclusion goals.
11. What is your impression of D200’s Access for All detracking curriculum redesign program and of detracking efforts generally? How will you handle parent concerns that arise as implementation begins?
I’ll admit that I was somewhat concerned when I first learned about the push towards detracking; my daughter was in the honors track, and I was concerned that “gifted” students would not be well served if the honors track went away. But as I learned more about detracking and studied the proposed implementation, it became clear that the proposed change wasn’t about removing challenging material for high-achieving students – it was about making sure that material was available to all the students who were ready to work with it.
The former system tried to identify gifted students and pull them out of the regular classroom, with limited success and racially biased results. It was clear to me and my husband that we didn’t want my daughter to succeed if it meant she’d have to step on Black children for that success.
Thankfully, detracking is well-studied and is shown to have excellent results for broadening opportunities to challenging academics for students across racial and ethnic groups; I’m confident that she and her classmates will thrive under the new system.
12. Educational and business leaders have begun to use a “cradle-to-career” framework when talking about education. Please discuss the role of District 200 within the “cradle-to-career“ framework.
We live in a world where too often, a child’s opportunities are dictated by the economic circumstances in which they’re born and raised. If a public school is to fulfill its mission of educating all the community’s children well, they must consider what they can do to reduce systemic economic and other inequities.
I find it helpful to consider John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” a thought experiment that asks us when making policy decisions for our communities, to imagine that we will be born into that community, but behind a “veil of ignorance” – with no knowledge beforehand of your ethnicity, social status, gender, and crucially, your individual idea of how to lead a good life. Rawls hoped that that this would force participants to make just policies, based on impartial principles that benefit all.
When we look at schools, I’d ask that we not just think about ourselves or our own children, but imagine how current policies do or don’t support children from a vast range of socioeconomic, racial, gender, ability, etc. conditions. We should work with community partners, such as the Collaboration for Early Childhood, to start addressing these inequities as early in a child’s life as possible.
13. What lessons learned from the implementation of remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic do you believe will be applicable going forward, even after the pandemic abates?
I’m excited about the possibilities of expanding virtual access. In the last year, I’ve attended a dozen virtual conventions; their shift to virtual has allowed people to participate who could never have afforded to travel to the convention otherwise. I’m expecting that once we return to in-person as a possibility, many conventions will plan to have a robust virtual participation component, and that will help tremendously with equity.
Similarly, for my own family, my son with ADD and sensory difficulties has found remote learning much easier than in-person. While we expect that he’ll return to in-person school in the fall, I’m hopeful that the schools, having now learned how to do remote learning effectively, will be able to offer some options for remote going forward.
I can imagine, for example, one teacher who holds remote supervised study hall for the grade, either during the school day (perhaps for students who are home sick, but able to do some work) or after school; that might help alleviate attendance issues (and keep parents from sending infectious kids to school), and also offer opportunities for supplemental learning.
(My kids are a little sad that there are likely to be no more snow days…)
14. District 200 has taken some steps to move away from policing and surveillance in schools toward restorative justice, mental health supports, and other services in schools. Do you feel these moves have been successful? Why or why not? What work do you believe remains to be done in this area?
I was very pleased to see the schools making those moves away from policing and surveillance; a child’s learning environment should be a place where they don’t have to fear intimidation or unjust enforcement from armed adults. I’m looking forward to talking more with students and parents to learn how this shift is playing out, and whether they’re satisfied with improvements in this area.
I’m sure that it will be a process; it takes times to shift a culture away from racialized assumptions that lead to things like Black children being seen as years older than their actual age. (Here’s a study from the Atlantic with more info on that: https://www.theatlantic.com/…/cops-tend-to-see…/383247/)
We all have a lot of work to do in reforming those societal biases, but I’m hopeful that if we commit to the process, we’ll start seeing real results soon. (The Implicit Bias Test you can take online, from Harvard, was really enlightening in helping to see my own subconscious biases: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html)
15. Do you see a role for the Board in ensuring that the climate at OPRFHS is welcoming to students in minority populations, whether racial, religious identity, LGBTQ+, etc.? What specific actions or policies would you propose?
Yes, of course – the Board’s job is to support the mission of the school, and that means educating all children. With systemic biases in our society that lead to discrimination against marginalized groups, any civic institution must carefully consider how they can work against those biases.
Some of the possible structures include anti-discrimination statements (making our priorities and policies clear), regular equity assessements, processes being implemented to address inequities as they’re found, strong communication between students and staff, so inequities can actually be identified and brought to the staff, and if necessary, Board attention, surveys of the community at large, etc.
Many of these structures are already in place, but it requires an ongoing accountability process to determine whether they’re being implemented well, and whether they need revision and improvement.
16. District 200 Board members share responsibility for oversight of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. Do you support this example of intergovernmental cooperation? Are there other types of intergovernmental cooperation that you would support?
I teach English lit. at UIC, and I’m sorry to say that quite often, there are students in my classes who aren’t prepared for college writing; some of them have trouble with writing basic, comprehensible sentences. Addressing this at the college level is tremendously late in the process. Often, early economic circumstances led to a lack of literacy – poor families who couldn’t afford books or time to read to their kids because they were working multiple jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table. Those kids enter the public school system behind, and so often, they stay behind, with the gap only widening as their progress through the grades. The most effective intervention in their education can happen at the earliest stage, so I’m absolutely committed to the work the Collaboration for Early Childhood does.
The main other example of intergovernmental cooperation that I’m familiar with in Oak Park is the Youth Interventionist Task Force, which works with at-risk teens to turn them away from potentially violent and destructive paths; my impression is that they do a tremendous amount of good. Both of these groups leverage relatively small amounts of funding to achieve large results.
Campaign page (still in progress): http://mohanrajforoakpark.com
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