Below are candidate-submitted answers to a survey Wednesday Journal sent out to all candidates running in this year’s elections.

Age: 45

Profession: Education Policy Researcher

Years lived in River Forest:  I have lived in Oak Park since 2009.

Spouse, if applicable:  Ravi Datta-Nemana

Do you have children in D97 schools? How many and what ages?

  •  I have a daughter in 2nd grade and a son in 4th grade at Beye School.

Have you ever run for or served in a local political office before? If so, when and which office? No.

If you are not currently on the school board, how many school board meetings have you attended in the last year? 2

Why are you running for this office?

I am running because my combination of skills and perspectives can help the district confront its challenges in ways that best support student learning.  These skills including: using data and statistics for decision-making, understanding educational policy issues, managing budgets with public dollars and subject to public regulations, and bringing together diverse organizations to work on shared goals.   

I have applied my expertise as an education policy researcher to the district’s work for three years: as Data subcommittee chair on the Committee for Legislative Action, Intervention and Monitoring, as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Dashboards and Benchmarks, and as a member of the Measurement and Evaluation Committee of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. In those roles, I’ve contributed to the district’s improvement efforts and seen the potential value of my expertise at the board level.

What do you think are the three biggest challenges facing the district in the next four years?

 The three biggest challenges for the district in the next four years are to 1) deliver consistently high-quality instruction to every D97 child, 2) establish and maintain effective and collaborative relationships within and outside of the district, and 3) responsibly manage our resources in times of substantial fiscal uncertainty.

Above all, the work of District 97 is to educate each of our children to their fullest potential.  Our district is in the midst of many changes that affect instruction, including adopting the Common Core standards, administering and reacting to the PARCC assessment, continuing implementation of the iLearn technology initiative, and becoming a full implementation of the International Baccalaureate program in the middle schools. Our challenge is to keep our focus on high-quality instruction, making sure that each of these initiatives is supporting student learning and consuming only proportionate resources.

Relationships are key in any complex organization, and even more so when almost 6,000 children are involved. The arrival of a new superintendent, the implementation of a new teacher’s contract, and the possibility of a referendum in 2017 all heighten the importance of establishing and maintain positive, collaborative, and open communication and cooperation among stakeholders within D97. These include the superintendent, the board, the administration, teachers, and parents.

In addition, the district must intensify the work it has begun engaging with other Oak Park entities.  Cooperation and coordination will greatly expand what is possible for the district to achieve.  I include in this list entities such as: District 200 on academic and operational issues, the Park District on facilities and opportunities for our children, the Village on financial issues, as well as the Public Library, the Township and other local jurisdictions and organizations.

Managing our finances responsibly is intimately tied to these first two challenges.  It is always necessary to make sure that the instructional choices we are making serve our children.  Similarly, effective relationships within and outside of District 97 can extend our resources and allow the community to more efficiently achieve its goals for our children.  Both of these are more critical in light of substantial fiscal uncertainty from Springfield regarding pension reform, the PTELL adjustment through which District 97 receives substantial state dollars, and other changes to the state’s financial practices.  The board must prepare for adverse news and be sensitive to the significant tax burdens, but also protect the quality of our schooling today and in the future.

What skills/talents do you have that would enable you to deal with those challenges?

My most relevant skills/talents primarily derive from my work as a Vice President and Senior Fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent social science research organization.  In that job, I manage finances and navigate multiple layers of governmental regulations, use educational data and statistics for decision-making,  analyze current education policy issues and practices, bring together different constituencies to work on a shared objective, and do all of these things with student outcomes as the primary objective.

I also bring valuable perspectives as a current parent of children in 2nd and 4th grades, as an education policy researcher, and as a committed D97 volunteer from classroom tutor to board committee.    

If elected, what are three goals that you have for the next four years?

If elected, I would work to keep a strong focus on consistently high quality instruction.   I would do that through 1) better information and commitment to ongoing improvement, 2) increased engagement with key stakeholders, and 3) using those two to sharpen our choices about investing resources.  These are all tools that are available to and appropriate for a board.

In terms of information, I am pleased that the current board has increased its focus on evaluation, but we can do more to use the available data to understand how well our schools are serving our students.  We can also make better use of best practices in other districts, the research literature, and other information sources outside of the district. We must commit to adapting and refining our practices until every child is being served effectively and efficiently.

For engagement, we can improve the nature, extent and ease of communication to and from parents, teachers, principals and others in decision-making.  We have talented and committed people in our district who understand the student experience, and whose support and participation will massively improve the success of any initiative.

Our biggest resource is of course taxpayer money, which must be managed carefully.  But we have other precious resources as well: students’ time in school, parents’ energies, teachers’ work hours.  All of these are resources to invest mindfully. 

Evaluation and better knowledge about effective practices, together with the partnership of our teachers and parents and others, can help us use our resources to achieve consistently high-quality instruction that challenges, nurtures and inspires.

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