D97 superintendent Dr. Ushma Shah stands for a photo on Friday, July 8, outside of the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 building on Madison Street. | Alex Rogals

When Ushma Shah first headed for college, she thought of becoming a journalist. While in high school, she was named editor of the newspaper and was inspired by the work her fellow classmates did. She enjoyed reporting, namely, the chance to interview school officials like the principal and ask questions.

That experience stood out to her, and “I saw the importance of it,” she said. 

But when Shah got to Knox College in the fall of 1989, her plans began to change. She was encouraged to sign up for different classes before selecting a major and ended up in one particular course that changed the direction of her life.

That class, she remembered, was taught by a professor who chaired the education studies department, and it focused on the role of social justice in public schools. The lessons stuck, and the 51-year-old Shah has spent the last three decades in education, first as a fifth-grade teacher and later as an administrator – and now as Oak Park Elementary School District 97’s newest superintendent.

Sitting in a conference room in the district office, Shah opened up about her journey as an educator, reflecting on that class she took on a whim at Knox.

I’ve always viewed my work as this really important way of remaking and making sure that the world we live in, the communities we live in, reflect our highest values of the kind of world we want to live in.

Dr. Ushma shah, superintendent

“You couldn’t take classes around methodology or anything until you had a firm understanding of the history of our country and the way that public education fits into that history,” said Shah, a 1992 Knox College graduate. 

To this day, she can still recall the professor’s three key questions: Where have we been? What kind of society do you think we should live in? How are we going to get there?

And those questions remain just as important now as they were then, Shah said.

“It resonated with me because I could see the purpose of my career,” she said, “and that has everything to do with why I’m here today.”     

She added, “I’ve always viewed my work as this really important way of remaking and making sure that the world we live in, the communities we live in, reflect our highest values of the kind of world we want to live in.”

Before Shah officially stepped into the superintendent role early last month, she served as an interim chief portfolio officer in Chicago Public Schools and oversaw four departments.

She also spent 10 years as assistant superintendent for elementary schools and chief of equity and social justice at the Elgin Area U-46, one of the biggest school districts in Illinois. While at U-46, she supervised the district’s 42 elementary schools and the district’s English language learners, early learners and assessment and accountability departments.

Shah told Wednesday Journal she also never intended on becoming a superintendent, but once again, life – and maybe fate – had other plans. After seven years of teaching in CPS, she wanted to be a principal and started applying to colleges and universities to get certified. She submitted an application to Harvard University.

“I was like, ‘Let me see just what happens,’” she said. “One Saturday, I get a call, and I pick it up. They said, ‘We’re calling from Harvard University, and we want to offer you a fellowship to the Urban Superintendents program.’”

Shah told the Journal she thought the call was a mistake.

“I must have checked the wrong box, because I’m looking to be a principal, not a super. I’m a teacher right now,” she remembered telling the rep.

The Harvard rep told Shah that she was what they were looking for: Someone who wanted to better serve students and advocated for more teachers to be part of the school’s decision-making process.

So, Shah’s journey continued.

Shah shared with the Journal that her arrival in D97, in some ways, is an extension of the work she has committed to. She said Oak Park has been “on my radar” because of its values on equity as a community and in the school districts.

On a personal front, Shah said that when her parents first emigrated from India to the United States in the late 1970s, they initially settled in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood before moving out to the suburbs.

“It’s a place that I have connections to in both personal, as well as philosophical ways, so I’m really excited to be here,” she said.

Shah reiterated that equity needs to be front and center, on the table at all times, or else nothing will change. She said she understands that these conversations can be challenging but necessary.

“We’re going to have to learn some new ways of being together,” she said. “We’re going to have to learn some new ways of exchange, and we’re going to have to slow down and talk to each other and approach things with more curiosity and more commitment to our service to students – and all of us, self-included, checking egos in that process.”

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