Elias Ortega, 42, said during a recent interview that he is an “educator first and foremost” and wants to bring the perspective he’s gained in that field over the years to the District 200 school board.
Ortega, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Oak Park in 2019, attended graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he obtained his Masters of Divinity degree and a Ph.D. in Religious and Social Ethics.
A former associate professor at Drew University, Theological School, Ortega is now president and professor of Religion, Ethics and Leadership at Meadville Lombard Theological School.
As an educator, Ortega said he has always been passionate about “ways to bring my students into the community to engage social problems,” adding that higher education “entails a responsibility to giving back to the community.”
Ortega said that, as a teacher and an administrator, one of his main priorities has been on exploring ways of engaging a stakeholders, ”putting service at the center of the work we do,” and, as someone of color, “finding ways of removing barriers to access.”
Addressing the board’s attempts to hire a superintendent to succeed outgoing Supt. Joylynn Pruit-Adams, Ortega said that, as an administrator himself, he knows a thing or two about transitioning into a new role.
“You have different challenges,” he said. “One the one hand, there’s the excitement of having a new perspective and new energy in the work. But there’s also some anxiety in the system, because change is not always easy, especially when there is already a plan in motion. So, this new person who is hired must be someone who understands that there’s already a plan in motion. They need to understand that quickly to be able to move the plan forward.”
Ortega said that the district’s plans, including its equity policy, proposed freshman curriculum restructuring and Imagine OPRF facilities plan, are already in motion. The new superintendent, he said, should be able to learn what’s happening already while also bringing more voices who may be affected by those plans into the fold.
“This person should also be someone willing to ask hard questions of the system and process, and, if necessary, able to put the breaks on certain parts of the process, so we have a clearer, more collective goal,” Ortega said.
Ortega said he supports Pruitt-Adams’ proposed freshman curriculum restructuring proposal, which he’ll likely have go vote on, if he’s elected.
“The curriculum restricting is importance, because what we know of our educational system in the United States is that it is a system that centers the needs and privileges of white students at the cost of students of color,” he said.
“We know in our community, particularly given the history of Oak Park — and that was [illustrated by the ‘America 2 Me’ documentary] — that we’ve created an educational model in which Black and Brown students cannot thrive and succeed at the same level as white students,” Ortega added.
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Ortega, who is the parent of two middle school students in District 97, said that he understands the complexities school districts are facing as they prepare for yet another pandemic school year.
“As an administrator myself, we are having those conversations,” he said. “How are we bringing students back safely and how are we preparing ourselves? Also speaking as a parent, I know how students are impacted by these decisions. We have to base our judgement on the best science available, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and health department guidelines on safety.
“But it’s also critical to be prepared for crisis and to assume that an outbreak will occur — whether of COVID-19 or the flu,” Ortega added. “And we have to be prepared to engage that crisis … Some of these conversations are fluid, some decisions will be happening somewhat at the spur of the moment, but somewhat quickly. And because of that, there needs to be clear, transparent communication and community engagement.”