For the last two years, Katie Avalos has served on the River Forest School District 90 Board of Education. In that time, she participated in the district’s strategic plans for 2020-2025, which is built on a mission to inspire students by giving them a voice, prioritizing their social-emotional needs, and fostering better relationships with their families and their community. 

She also showed support for air-conditioning plans at Roosevelt Middle School, a long-awaited project hindered by Illinois state budget cuts, and this past year she worked alongside her colleagues and Superintendent Ed Condon to navigate the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately leading students safely into the classroom. 

And there’s more work to be done, Avalos said. Aside from the strategic plan, the 43-year-old mother of three wants to be part of the change and explore what the district can do to further promote equity and inclusion and improve its special education program, two issues she is passionate about. 

“What it came down to is I still want to be part of that process of helping the district to work toward that mission, and I still have more to give in that effort,” said Avalos, of River Forest, on her decision to run for re-election.  

She shared that her personal and professional experiences have helped shape her role as a board member. As a parent, Avalos saw how the pandemic isolation impacted her children’s mental health and believes the biggest challenge facing D90 is making sure it continues to meet staff and students’ academic and social-emotional needs.  

Throughout the pandemic, families have had access to the district’s social workers, teachers have received professional development on trauma-informed care, and students have been given additional educational resources, but that’s just the beginning, Avalos said. 

“We’re recognizing that we’ve all lived through something pretty serious in this last year,” she said, adding the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way educators typically understand and manage their students’ overall health and well-being. 

And, as students return to the classroom following months of social isolation, teachers face yet another hurdle. Recently, the district created a social-emotional advisory panel, a small team of social workers, parents and mental health professionals. Avalos, who serves as the panel’s board representative, said she looks forward to seeing what plans will be placed to address their students’ mental health.

While she is proud of the way the district handled the pandemic, including the transition from remote learning to a hybrid learning model, she did offer one criticism. Looking back, she wishes the board had helped families understand some of their decisions. 

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Last October, D90 planned to return to campus, but the rise of COVID-19 cases forced the district to pivot back to remote learning. She described it as “real whiplash” for parents, teachers and students, and in hindsight, “we could have avoided some of the anxiety and stress for people if we’d done a job explaining the decision-making process of why something was happening.” 

Avalos believes relationships are founded on solid communication, a lesson learned through her work in political campaigns, nonprofits and now, the Community of Congregations, an interfaith organization that serves Oak Park, River Forest, Austin and Maywood. It’s an important lesson that Avalos has carried over into her role as a board member and especially as a board representative on the Inclusiveness Advisory Board, or IAB. 

In the past, the IAB has taken steps to break down barriers by changing its hiring practices to include a more diverse staff or integrating more inclusive books to reflect its student body, but again Avalos said that’s only the beginning and their work is far from finished.

“It’s a constant evaluation,” she said. “One of the things I’ve learned through my work is you can invite people, you can ask people, but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to feel welcome. It’s really thinking about how do we build relationships and how are we open to hearing about the ways that we need to do better — and that if someone is saying, ‘I don’t feel welcome,’ you have to listen and you have to be open to that critical feedback.” 

Avalos has one last message. 

“I’ve taken this job seriously, and I put all the time into it,” she said. “I do think that shows, and I think my voice and experience is really still needed at the table right now as we’re certainly addressing the pandemic but also we’re continuing our work to address the systemic racism, sexism, ableism that is a part of the American education system. I think I’m able to at least ask the questions that help the rest of us think about the direction we want our district to be going in.”

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