Newberry-Schwartz has the record, dedication to raise the bar at D97

Opinion

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Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, One View

I'm running for re-election to the District 97 school board. I've served on the board for the past four years and as its vice-president for the past two years. I have worked to be broadly representative and to bring caring, purposeful leadership to the board.

Serving on the school board is challenging work that often requires tough decisions and difficult tradeoffs. To effectively address the many complex issues that come before the board, we must take the time to understand them and appreciate the perspectives of all of our constituents?#34;students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff and the community at large?#34;in order to forge consensus on constructive solutions. It also often means working outside the four walls of District 97 to influence policy and funding issues that affect our schools and to leverage additional resources and services that better support our children.

To illustrate the nature of this work, I would like to describe four of our most important challenges.

District finances: Illinois currently ranks 49th in the nation in direct support of education. The state also caps property tax increases at the level of the Consumer Price Index instead of the more rapidly escalating labor and healthcare costs that constitute the bulk of our expenses. Although District 97 had built substantial financial reserves that buffered the impact of the structural deficits created by these laws, soon after I joined the board it became clear that we could not afford to continue our existing spending patterns.

To meet this challenge, I proposed and the board approved an immediate $500,000 budget cut to send a message that we were changing course. I also helped form and served on the Finance Task Force with 18 volunteer community, faculty and administrative members possessing the expertise necessary to chart a new course towards financial stability. By following the task force's recommendations, we have reduced our yearly spending of reserves from a projected $7 million in 2003 to a projected $1.2 million this year through a series of revenue enhancements and budget reductions. We have achieved this goal while maintaining a strong education program. The board needs to maintain its vigilance over the next several years to assure the best and wisest use of our financial resources.

I have helped lead the board in acquiring additional revenues through the unprecedented commitment of the Oak Park Village Board to provide $3.9 million over the next three years. Recognizing that inadequate funding for our schools and an over-reliance on property taxes burdens our taxpayers and jeopardizes the quality of our program, I helped form and co-chair the community-wide Legislative Advocacy Committee to lobby our representatives in Springfield to reform and increase school funding.

The achievement gap: Disparities in aggregate test scores by students from differing racial and socioeconomic backgrounds highlight the need to better address the educational needs of all our students, an issue given further impetus by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Research shows that a highly qualified, diverse faculty, a rigorous and engaging curriculum, high expectations for all students, a safe school climate, strong home-school connections, and assessments that provide meaningful measures of learning all help close the achievement gap.

In the face of declining revenue and the need to make cuts, I and the board have worked to maintain these priorities and to keep class sizes as small as possible while balancing the benefits our students gain through exposure to a broad and rich curriculum. I have also attempted to address the achievement gap by introducing the concept for Stepping Stones, a full-day, eight-week summer program to provide students with the foundation they need for success in first grade.

The district has made some gains in closing achievement gaps. But we need to make an unyielding commitment to regularly assess all our efforts that address the factors contributing to the gap. This will increase our knowledge of what is working in our schools and will spur the district to try new strategies.

We must look beyond District 97 to address root causes such as differences in experiences and opportunities in the early childhood years. As a member of the Minority Student Achievement Network, the district has learned that children entering our kindergartens may have disparities in vocabulary of up to 2,000 words. Vocabulary is a bedrock of literacy and a difference that wide is hard to close. That's why I helped form and now serve on the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education, which brings experts in early childhood education together with Oak Park pre-school and childcare providers to share best practices and improve access so that all children in our village enjoy high quality pre-school and child care experiences. In recognition of these efforts, I was appointed by Governor Blagojevich to the Illinois Early Learning Council.

School improvement: In response to dissatisfaction with performance at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School and at Holmes Elementary School, the board directed implementation of School Improvement Processes in which the respective School Leadership Teams (SLTs) recruited parents, teachers and administrators to assess and propose improvements.

At Brooks, this process has leveraged the talents and expertise of more than 60 parents, teachers, and administrators. As the board liaison to the Brooks SLT, I am impressed by their dedication and the tangible improvements in discipline, instruction, communication and leadership gained through their work together over the past nine months. I believe this effort provides an important model for meaningful faculty, parent, and administrator collaboration to create shared commitment to goals and improvement at all our schools.

Working with our new superintendent and looking to the future: I'm excited about our board's hiring of Dr. Constance Collins as the superintendent of District 97. Dr. Collins is a dynamic, collaborative leader who has successfully addressed the needs of diverse students, parents, staff and community, and has demonstrated skills in supervision and performance and program evaluation.

If re-elected, I will work to provide a strong transition to our district's new leadership. It is time to take stock of where we are and work together-board, parents, teachers, administrators and the community-to identify key directions, issues and goals to improve the educational program and to secure the financial health of the district. The arrival of new administrative leadership provides an excellent opportunity for all of us to engage in a strategic planning process and commit to a renewed vision of our hopes and aspirations for our children.

I hope the above examples convey the breadth and complexity of the issues that the district must tackle and the positive results that ensue when board and community members bring energy, innovation and mutual respect to the table.

To meet these challenges, board members must help build bridges with the many talented persons and organizations within the school community, in the village, and beyond.

I cherish my participation in such efforts. I ask for your vote so that I may continue to work in this way for the district and our children.

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