Kate Odom, a 37-year-old mother of two young students, one who is a second grader in District 97 schools, said she wants to bring her unique mental health background to the board. 

“When I started paying attention to what’s going on in District 97, I noticed no one on the board is in the mental health field and I’m the only one running in the race who is a mental health professional,” Odom, a clinical psychologist who regularly works in schools, said in a recent interview. 

“So, that’s what initially got me interested in running for the board and then COVID hit and turned everything upside down and we’ve seen mental health crises really spike in our student population,” Odom said. 

Odom, one of six candidates seeking four open seats on the D97 school board in the April 6 election, said, despite the increasing prevalence of mental health issues in Oak Park public schools amid the pandemic, mental health challenges are still stigmatized in the wider community. 

“I don’t think that people are talking about mental health,” she said. “Outside of schools, certainly mental health has a stigma. It’s taboo and people don’t know what to say. That’s not unique to D97, but people don’t know how to talk about it in a way that’s not stigmatized. 

Odom said she’s anchored her candidacy in a “community-centered place,” which prioritizes the perspectives of community members, teachers and other stakeholders over outside experts when it comes to tackling the stigma of mental health.

“When we can get community members who are well-known, well-respected and trusted to start talking about the various aspects of mental health, then I think we can start to reduce the stigma,” she said. “The other prong to this solution is having a better understanding of what mental health looks like.” 

If elected, Odom will likely have a say in hiring the next D97 superintendent to succeed outgoing Supt. Carol Kelley, who will leave at the end of the school year to take a superintendent position in New Jersey. Odom laid out her criteria for the next superintendent. 

“I think the next superintendent needs to remain equity-focused,” she said. “The district has put in some new initiatives, such as the new equity policy that came out a couple of years ago. We need someone who has already demonstrated the kind of skills in leadership and management with implementing the equity policy we have in place so it can’t be someone who is new to the work, despite maybe being very eager.”

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Odom added that she’d like to see someone with a proven track record and “who knows what it means to implement policies that will benefit all of our students.” She also said the next superintendent has to have financial discipline. 

“Oak Park has this history and habit of asking for money and getting it in the name of students, so I would like to see this leadership be more cost-effective and understanding of what we already have in the district to make sure those are being utilized in a more efficient way before asking for more money,” she said. 

Odom said she’ll bring her status as an essential worker to governing as a board member in a pandemic. She said she hopes to leverage her expertise in trauma-informed care in an effort to address some of the distrust and “ineffective communication happening within D97 and our community.” 

Odom added that, if elected, “I would like to really help the school and community transition back into full-time learning or at least have that be an option … I think we’ll have a robust remote learning option still available, if it makes sense and with the mitigations and all the precautions [but] I have seen that we can provide full-time in person learning in a safe way and I do believe that in-person learning is a more effective way for most children.”

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