The idea of reforming education in Illinois, which includes rethinking how the practice of teacher tenure works, is not a new concept for Jim O’Connor and Advance Illinois, the group he works for.

The nonprofit, along with other education groups in Illinois, helped state lawmakers push through legislation this spring that, among other things, links tenure to teacher performance. State lawmakers in the House and Senate approved the bill earlier this spring.

O’Connor, one of two newly-elected board members in Oak Park’s elementary school District 97, has been project director for Advance Illinois since last year. He’s also a former principal at a Chicago charter school. As project director, O’Connor works to turn around under-performing schools, working with the State Board of Education via federal grant money targeted for that task.

He was elected to the D97 board in April, along with Oak Park resident and community activist Denise Sacks, in the uncontested race. A former classroom instructor himself, O’Connor believes in having exceptional teachers for kids. That, he stressed, is the most important factor in ensuring a student’s success — both in school and life.

That might sound lofty to some, but it’s actually part of O’Connor’s training in education. And he expects to incorporate that belief into his work as a school board member, his first elected office.

“I think, fundamentally, any success you have as an educational organization is built on teachers and how well they do,” O’Connor said, who credits a former River Forester and mentor for instilling that belief.

Mike Fienberg, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, along with his friend and colleague Dave Levin, founded the Knowledge Is Power Program in 1994 — more commonly known by its acronym, KIPP.

The two started KIPP in Houston with a group of mostly minority students who struggled academically in “traditional” classroom settings. KIPP has grown to more than 70 schools nationwide. O’Connor was formerly the principal of KIPP Ascend Charter School on Chicago’s West Side from 2002-2009 before leaving briefly to work as an administrator at an Elgin school district. He joined Advance Illinois in 2010.

KIPP is touted by educators and experts as a model program. It was featured in the acclaimed documentary from last year, Waiting for Superman.

Having high expectations for teachers, not just for students, is a founding principle of the program, O’Connor explained. He fully embraces that notion and believes the Oak Park school system also shares it. That’s been underscored, he noted, by Supt. Albert Roberts, who is finishing up his first year with D97.

O’Connor supports tying tenure to performance, noting that Senate Bill 7 actually allows teachers to earn tenure at an earlier pace.

Under the old system, Illinois teachers received tenure in their fifth year after working four full years. O’Connor said the new law lets a teacher earn tenure at the three-year mark, but only after receiving three “excellent performance” reviews. They also don’t “lose” their tenure status if they switch to another district — they can earn it in their new district after two years of receiving excellent performance ratings there.

O’Connor also carries another core KIPP principle with him to the D97 board: putting kids on a track toward college from the time they enter school until they graduate. He said he’s looking forward to working with fellow members in finding out where Oak Park’s students are.

“What percentage of kids graduating from D97 are academically on track to be college-ready as high school seniors … that’s the big question I have,” he said.


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