Stacey Williams wasn’t sure at first whether she was going to run for re-election to River Forest’s District 90 school board. Since 2016, the 53-year-old mother of two has served on the board, after years of volunteering at her children’s schools, participating in the parent-teacher organization and working with community organizations, including Beyond Hunger, which offers hunger-relief programs across Cook County, and the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.
Williams thought about what she and the board went through with the COVID-19 pandemic and the tough decisions they made to ensure the safety of district families. As she looked back on the last five years, she reflected on District 90’s strides and realized, “I really believed in the mission of what the district is doing.”
“I feel like our superintendent [Ed Condon] is a strong and committed leader, and I wanted to work in partnership with him for the next four years,” Williams said.
In recent years, District 90 has worked to establish a culture of equity and inclusion, an effort Williams is proud of. Williams spoke more about a few surveys released by the Inclusiveness Advisory Board (IAB), which shed light on some harsh realities. In one survey, Williams said most students felt like they didn’t have someone at school to talk to if they were sad or lonely, “which from the school’s perspective, you’re thinking, well we have social workers. We have teachers.”
“Of course we have people that students can go to,” she said. “But if a student doesn’t feel like I have a single person that I can go to, then that needs to be addressed.”
With IAB and the Equity Committee, Williams recognized the steps District 90 has taken to, for example, change its hiring practices to cultivate a more diverse staff and provide professional development training for faculty on implicit bias in the school. Though the district has made strides, the work is far from over, Williams said.
“It took some courage for our superintendent, along with other board members, to educate and to open the door, because I think it’s difficult work, and I think it’s worked,” she said, noting this type of work “lives on past your time, because it should become work that’s embedded in the culture of what you’re doing.”
Another proud moment in Williams’ book is how the district handled the wave of challenges that came with the pandemic. She praised Condon’s leadership, saying he anticipated “what might become” and put plans in place to help teachers and students transition more smoothly into remote learning.
One thing Williams said she wished the district could have done differently was to reopen its schools last August like the board initially planned. While Williams said she still stands behind the decision made to keep students in remote learning then, “in hindsight, I wish we could have because knowing what we know now, I think we would have been able to do it.”
She understood that “managing fear and anxiety” is real, and with the information given by state and public health officials, “it was a very scary time for parents and especially for teachers.” But, as District 90 turned to a hybrid learning model, over time, Williams and her colleagues learned that “kids can go to school through the pandemic when the right things are done to prepare for that,” she said. “Sometimes, you can only learn that by doing it right.”
“I think we’ve learned that when the proper measures are put in place, when you have the proper PPE, you have the proper social distancing protocols, you have an infection control officer, you have guidelines – that it can be done,” she said.
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As Williams looked ahead with the hopes of retaining her seat on the board, she spoke of her experience and the lessons she learned over the years that have helped her become a better leader.
Good board members know the difference between managing and governing, and the latter is about having faith in and the will to hold district administrators accountable. The other is that board members must have patience and be good listeners.
“Sometimes you do have to vote against your personal perspective or personal point of view,” she said, adding board members must be open. “If something is in the best interest of the school district, sometimes, you have to set aside your personal beliefs, and you have to remember it’s not about you or maybe just you and your children, but it’s about what’s best for all of the kids.”