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

Age:  42

Profession:  Project Director at Education Policy and Advocacy Non-profit

Years lived in Oak Park:  9 years

Spouse, if applicable:  Hannah O’Connor

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

Yes.  I have two children:  one in second grade and one in fourth grade at Irving Elementary.

Have you ever run for or served in a local political office before? If so, when and which office? 

I have served on the Oak Park Elementary District 97 School Board for the last four years. 

Why are you running for this office?

I have the drive, the passion for developing the whole child, and a deep experience in public education. 

I am a parent of a second grader and a fourth grader at Irving Elementary School and I have dedicated my life to public education.  My wife, Hannah, is active on our PTO and I have served on the District 97 school board for the last four years. 

 I have a passion for teaching and I taught for four years.  I went into teaching to put kids from low-income households on the path to college.  As a science teacher on Chicago’s West Side, I worked to provide my students with access to the broader world. 

 I started a high-performing public middle school on Chicago’s West Side and was the principal for six years.   One hundred percent of the alumni from our first three graduating classes were accepted into college prep high schools and together, they accepted more than $3.4M in scholarships. 

 I strived to continue to build upon the success that I had with students at the classroom and school level.  For the last four years, I have worked at the non-partisan, non-profit Advance Illinois, where I help Illinois school districts and legislators understand our public school system and improve it. 

 As a current school board member, my board service is informed by unique skill set as a teacher, principal and state-level education advocate.  I have a comprehensive understanding on a broad number of education issues. 

 I believe we have a very good district and I want it to be one of the best in the nation.  I want to create a public school system in Oak Park that we are as proud of as our diversity, our Arts District, our innovative Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and our world-class authors, in which every student, regardless of their race or family income level can pursue the life of their dreams.  

 Our school district has nearly 6,000 students, 425 teachers and an annual budget of over $80M.  With ten candidates running for four seats on April 7th, we need board members with drive, passion for developing the whole child, and deep experience in education.  I have these qualities. 

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

1)    We can do an even better job of looking critically at how the district is doing and working to improve.  We need to build continuous improvement processes into each part of the district.  We need to use feedback from constituents, teachers, students, and community to improve student success. 

2)    We need to raise the bar and close the gap:

  1. We need to raise the bar:  While 73 percent of adults in Oak Park hold an associate’s degree or higher ONLY 60 percent of our elementary school students are currently on track to earn a college ready score on the ACT of 21.  Our adult population is more educated than the students in our public schools are on track to be.
  2. We need to close the gap:  A student’s income level can still predict their success in our district.  We are simply not doing well enough with students from low-income households.  Currently, only 51 percent of students from low-income households in our district perform at grade level in reading, while 86 percent of students from non-low-income households do.  This 35 percentage-point gap is larger than the average gap state-wide and unacceptable.  

3)    We will likely face budget cuts from Springfield over the next four years.  We will need to improve our performance while lowering costs even further. 

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

1)    In the past I have successfully gathered data and used it to improve: 

  1. In my first year as a board member, I brought board training to our district on how we can use data to make the right decisions for schools.  You can see how our board uses this data to assess our investments here. 
  2. I also advocated for the creation of a dashboard by which we can assess our performance relative to other districts. In partnership with community members who are experts in education research, our administration is now building this dashboard.

 2)    I have personal experience successfully raising the bar and closing the gap.  I was the founding principal of KIPP Ascend Charter School in the Austin community.   Our school served 320 students in grades 5-8.  Over 85% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, 96% of students were African American, and 4% of students were Hispanic.  Here are some highlights from the school’s performance:

  1. 100% of alumni were accepted into college prep high schools and accepted more than $3.4M in scholarships
  2. 87% of KIPP Ascend graduates in first three classes graduated high school and of those 95% enrolled in postsecondary (58% of CPS students graduated high school and of those 60% enrolled in postsecondary)
  3. Earned #1 ranking for 8th grade math Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores in CPS out of 463 elementary schools in 2007. Average feeder school ISAT composite score ranked 360/463.

 3)    My skills/talents related to cost cutting:

  1. As a school leader I have experience making cuts in ways that impact kids the least. In the 2008-2009 school year, I saved $220K in costs allowing our school to finish the year with a balanced budget. 
  2. Our board minimized your tax burden by moving our maintenance truck garage into the Village Public Works Building on South Blvd, and selling our space that was larger than we needed.  This collaboration will reduce District 97 expenses by approximately $800,000.
  3. Our board and teacher’s union also brought down the cost curve for our staffing costs.  If we had stayed with our current contract, our average increases in salary over four years in would be 3.9%. With this contract the four year average increase is 3.1%  Those savings are even greater in the long-term since we sunsetted the spikes in salary during the last four years of a teacher’s contract that D97 had in place during the previous contract.  Very few other Illinois districts have done this. 

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

 I will have three goals over the next four years:

  •  Increase the percentage of students making a year of growth academically—this will raise the bar.  Increase the percentage of students in the bottom quartile who make a year and a half of growth–this will begin the process of closing the gap.
  •  I will continue my work to elevate the teaching profession in our district so that we can continue to recruit and retain great teachers.  In our last contract we made three major steps forward:
  1. More collaboration time for staff:  We partnered with our staff on our new teachers contract and have added more support for them.  That is why I have worked with our board and with our teachers to increase the minimum amount of planning time teachers have and ensured that they have a significant planning time each day.  Our board has also increased the number of grade-level and department meetings from three to nine per year and increased the number of Institute Days from four to six per year.  Without a doubt this raises the quality of our students’ learning each day in the classroom.            
  2. Built a career pathway for teachers:  We increasing the number of leadership roles available, clarifying teaching leader responsibilities, and increasing compensation for those who take on these additional challenges and responsibilities. 
  3. Made performance matter:  For the first time, our new teachers’ contract will connect teacher pay partly to individual teachers’ performances, by eliminating automatic increases for teachers who receive one of the lowest two performance rating categories.    This new teacher contract, developed in partnership with our union, builds a career pathway and rewards performance more than any other previous contract in D97.  This is how we ensure that our district will continue to attract talented and dedicated individuals to teach and lead in our schools. 
  4.  In collaboration with our teacher’s union, I want to move further on each of these three areas.
  •  I will support, coach, and evaluate a new superintendent who will increase the quality of programming while driving down costs. I will have high expectations for her/him and I will hold her/him to those high expectations. 

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