District 97 administration building (File)

The Oak Park Elementary School District 97 Board of Education recently interviewed five candidates who are vying for an open seat on the board. The position became vacant after newly elected board member Jeremy Duffy resigned in August to take on a legal officer role at the Illinois State Board of Education.

During a special meeting held Sept. 27, elected officials spoke to board hopefuls Brian Hoppe, Kerri Joy, Shyla Kinhal, Jennifer Kovar and Gabriel Salazar and inquired about their experiences with and knowledge of the district. For over an hour, on Zoom, they asked candidates to list the issues the district is facing today, describe their ideal, permanent superintendent and define equity.

A majority of candidates ranked COVID-19 as the district’s biggest problem and top priority. One by one, they shared how the pandemic lifted the veil on the district’s challenges. From tackling remote learning to refocusing on students’ mental health, these were matters D97 would need to revisit time and time again, as the pandemic continues.

“When we think about learning loss and what students sort of didn’t get through remote learning over the course of 18 or so months, what it shows is that right now achievement gaps are still largely across racial lines,” said Kinhal, a former teacher and mother of two young girls.

Kinhal, who pivoted from the classroom to the nonprofit sector, said D97’s next superintendent should have experience working in a diverse community or one “where the achievement gap exists” and understands “what it might take” to break down those barriers for students, especially those of color and/or with varying learning needs.

Jennifer Kovar, who ran for a seat on the District 97 School Board this April, shared Kinhal’s sentiment.

Kovar, a longtime educator who teaches in nearby Riverside, explained that this “gap has to be at the forefront of everything that we’re doing in the district,” and faculty, staff and the new superintendent should be “fully invested” in expanding its equity policies.

The district’s new superintendent should also be willing to partner with leaders from Oak Park, as well as offer a seat at the table for students to exercise their voices, she said.

On the topic of equity, the candidates offered insight and ideas on how District 97 could tackle the layered issue. They discussed tailoring curricula to fit students’ needs, being conscientious about students’ learning abilities and analyzing school data to pinpoint areas of improvement, as well as creating a solid, dignified plan.

“Equity is achieved when all students receive the resources they need at both individual levels and community levels so that they can graduate and be prepared for success in our ever-changing climate and community,” Hoppe said.

Hoppe, who believes his career in civil litigation is a strong asset, said the board must look at its remote learning, especially for quarantined students. Online learning will continue as long as the pandemic persists, and the practice may need to be revamped once more.

“One of the main challenges that face the board in the coming months is how do you provide a good virtual option, as well as in-person, in that hybrid nature, and what does that look like?” he said, noting board members and district officials should look at what other schools in nearby communities are doing and perhaps, learn from them.

For D97 school board applicant Gabriel Salazar, equity is about making sure students’
needs are being met without “putting them into certain boxes.”

“We need to make sure that we’re on the right track to make sure that our students really do have the opportunity to fulfill their goals and to be good citizens for our community,” said Salazar, a father whose career was built on his military service.

Kerri Joy, another school board candidate, echoed Hoppe and Salazar. She added that the district must also ensure that faculty, staff, students and families are having hard conversations about race and equity, as well as training on implicit bias.

“I think in order for us to get to a place where we’re actually eliminating things like discipline being disproportionately handled, we probably need to address what our
implicit biases are, and we all have them,” said Joy, whose corporate work centers on learning and development. “Every single one of us, including those of us that are Black and brown and minorities have them. They exist.”

Joy said the district’s mission to promote equity is a kind of work that should be
consistent and ongoing in order to ensure its success.

As the meeting came to a close, board members opened up the room for questions from the applicants and explained the next step of the process. Additional interviews with top finalists may be held during executive session, which will be held at a later date. The board also expects to appoint a new board member no later than Oct. 30.

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