Ushma Shah

Ushma Shah, superintendent of Oak Park’s District 97 elementary schools, has reached the 150-day mark in her administration. Rooted in her stated goal of maintaining democracy and sustainability among students, Shah expressed gratitude to be able to ensure universal access to academic excellence in her position – guided by safety and curiosity.

To preface her 150-day report at the Nov. 15 school board meeting, the word ‘Grateful’ in Gujarati appeared on the screen. And Shah recounted a recent event she was grateful to attend and witness: the swearing in of Oak Park Police Chief Shatonya Johnson on Nov. 11.

“I’m grateful to have been in a room that reflected that kind of community of possibility and a community in which we really feel together in moving forward in such important ways,” Shah said.

Relating this pride in ‘common good’ to the work at District 97, she said it’s that responsibility of moving forward together that’s in the district’s idea of democracy and sustainability, and its duty to make sure that learning happens, and that every child is ready for the futures ahead of them.

“Those things are very much connected to everything that we do every day and our purpose,” she said.

In her transition, Shah said she has had to consider various perspectives in ensuring student excellence, and with that she must check her own ego to remain “student centered and anchored in those big ideas.” With the decisions she’s made along the way, many questions have surfaced – questions she is responsible for answering, and so checks and balances between her and her peers has been a major part of her role, she said.

Accountability, she says, makes us better.

Students at Percy Julian Middle School recently practiced their democracy in their own capacity during a Mock Trial, gearing them up for voting and making important choices in America, Shah said.

In celebration of student success throughout Shah’s 150 days, Amanda Siegfried, senior director of communications, presented accomplishments made by District 97 students.

The eighth grade girls basketball team at Percy Julian Middle School captured its conference title. And the Rainbow Club at Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools received the 2022 Founders Award, honored by the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association.

“They were recognized for just the work that they’re doing to create welcoming and accepting school environments for all of our students,” Siegfried said.

Brooks Middle School’s Environmental Club also met with Sen. Don Harmon about the fight to save Bell Bowl Prairie, as it is under threat from the expansion of an airport in Rockford.

Listed in Shah’s ‘things to do as a district team’ is develop shared agreements and protocols and center the most impacted communities – on the basis of her value of being curious at District 97.

Board members at the meeting raised questions about the intersection of a new Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on safety and policing with the district’s equity policy, expressing concerns and commitment around racial equity, Shah said. And she says the IGA is not just an agenda item up for a vote – it’s an act of having robust debate and expecting that when questions are asked, they are responded to thoughtfully to nurture curiosity and listen to each other.

“I am grateful to be here,” Shah said.

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