In 2018, Mary Anne Mohanraj, 49, told Wednesday Journal that she was interested in seeking higher office, perhaps mayor, trustee or county commissioner. The previous year, she had campaigned successfully for a seat on the Oak Park Public Library board, a run that was prompted, she said at the time, by the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016.
Now, several months after Trump lost his bid for re-election to President Joe Biden, Mohanraj has focused her sights on Oak Park and River Forest High School, as one of six candidates seeking four open seats on the District 200 school board.
Like the library board, the school board seems a natural fit for Mohanraj, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a prolific author.
“My time serving on the library board is ending in April and I want to continue to serve the community, if I can be helpful,” Mohanraj said. “In general, I think the high school is on a good path, so this is less about me wanting to change things than hoping to support them and problem-solve, as things go, and bring my experience in higher education to the table.”
Mohanraj, the mother of two kids in District 97 schools (her daughter will enter OPRF in the fall), emigrated from Sri Lanka when she was 2 years old. She grew up in Connecticut. Mohanraj said she’s taught a wide variety of colleges and universities. In addition to UIC, she’s also taught at Northwestern and Roosevelt, along with a series of institutions in other states like Vermont and Utah.
“I’ve seen a lot of different types of educational structures and have some sense of what I think does or doesn’t work,” she said. “I hope that perspective will be helpful.”
Mohanraj said one animating aspect of her campaign is equity. She said she’s strongly supportive of D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams’ plans to restructure the freshman curriculum at the school, a move designed to put an end to the practice of separating students according to two different curriculum tracks. Opponents of tracking argue that it exacerbates the racial opportunity gap at the high school.
“I’m excited about the district’s freshman curriculum revisions and the standardization they’re doing in service of equity,” she said.
Mohanraj said she’d like more attention placed on supports for students who may not necessarily see themselves going to four-year college and universities.
“I have a nonprofit that does free education work and we’re hoping to start a maker space in Oak Park,” she said. “I’m really interested in alternative paths for students who aren’t college-bound and making sure they know the full range of career options available to them to build successful futures.”
With respect t0 remote learning, Mohanraj said she’d be interested in talking with D200 staffers and administrators about the possibility of shifting the start time to later in the day.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that teens should sleep later than adults,” she said, adding that a later start time “might become more feasible” with the move to block scheduling.
“That might show some real benefits in student achievement across the board,” she said.
Mohanraj said the COVID-19 pandemic might be an opportunity for schools to rethink how they educate students across the board, particularly as experiments in remote learning become more prevalent.
“As we reimagine curriculum, are there ways we can continue to take the best parts of remote learning and integrate them into the regular curriculum? I can imagine a lot of possibilities for that,” she said.
“For example, what if we had a virtual study hall with a subject matter teacher, such as a math teacher, who is available for students who are learning from home? They can check in and get one-on-one help,” Mohanraj explained. “I expect we’ll see a fundamental shift in how we do schooling and I’m interested in seeing what that might look like.”