Venus Hurd Johnson is running for the District 97 school board so that the more marginalized and less vocal stakeholders in Oak Park can have more representation at the board table, the candidate said in a recent interview. 

“One of the big pushes we have with equity is making sure all voices are heard,” Johnson said. “We as a village have a lot of town halls and meetings. I think we get a lot of voices and that’s really important, but the loudest voices know where to go and what to say. What about the voices who don’t come to us or are intimidated to come to us? As a board member, I want to seek out those voices and get that understanding.”

Johnson, 52, said she believes the skills she’s honed during her 20-year career in sales are particularly translatable to the function of school board member. Currently, she said, she’s in healthcare sales. 

“I want to make sure we’re hearing all the voices, so we have a full scope of what’s going on in our district,” she said. “I think that’s where my strong communication skills come into play and my ability to connect with people and to get them talking.” 

Johnson, who has a seventh-grader in D97, said she’s been volunteering in the Oak Park school community since her oldest son, who is now a freshman in high school, was in kindergarten. She has served as co-president of D97’s Diversity Council (DivCo) and co-president of D97’s PTO Council. 

Johnson said if she’s elected to the board, she’ll look to have a role in hiring a superintendent who “not only is an equity advocate, but an equity expert and who can execute and has executed equity tactics and strategies with results in a previous school district.” 

But Johnson said she’d also look for someone who is a “really good community” builder  and who can unite Oak Park’s very vocal, yet disparate stakeholders. 

“Our stakeholders need a lot of attention and a lot of information,” she said. “We need someone who can handle that in a dynamic way. The district puts out a lot of information already, but there is also a lot of misinformation and the more the board and the superintendent are out there in the community, the less likely that misinformation has the opportunity to germinate.” 

Johnson said she believes the district is “heading in the right direction” as it relates to juggling hybrid learning and remote learning during the pandemic, but she would like to see strategies put in place to transition the district to a post-pandemic normal. 

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One way to manage that transition is to provide parents and students with a roadmap that lays out resources and materials to review over the summer in order to make up for the pandemic year.

“For example, maybe all of the fourth-grade teachers across the district can get together and say this is what we covered in the school year, this is what will be covered in the fifth grade and here are the resources and materials we’re suggesting for you,” Johnson said. “I’m hearing a lot of parents complain about a learning loss […] the roadmaps can allow them to feel like they’re combating learning loss — whether it exists or not. Plus, you have summer learning, so it’s two-fold.” 

Johnson said in order to closely monitor students’ progress, there should be a plan for robust testing “as soon as we get into the school year,” so that the district can know where students are and how they’ve fared since the last school year. 

Johnson, who is one of six people hoping to win one of four open seats on the D97 board, acknowledged that the new board configuration will include a majority of members with little to no board experience. She said, if elected, she plans to lean on the wisdom of previous board members, but she also said the new board majority presents an opportunity to create a new culture of openness and collaboration within the district. 

“But I also think that, with a young board and a new superintendent, there is an opportunity for the district to create its own culture and set its own path,” Johnson said. “Communicating with one another and building relationships with one another will be critical. If you have a strong board with a strong administrative leadership, that then radiates out into the community.”

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