The Wednesday Journal sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Journal’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.
Name: Eric Isenberg
Previous Political Experience: None
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Assistant coach for girls’ softball (RFYBS)
Occupation: Associate director, Westat, a nonpartisan social policy research organization
Education: B.A. in History, Yale University; M.A. in Economics, Washington University; Ph.D. in Economics, Washington University
1. Do you support River Forest elementary schools adopting all-day kindergarten?
Yes. I made a public comment at a school board meeting in favor of full-day kindergarten in 2015. I’m glad that the school board is seriously considering this option.
2. What do you believe are the strongest arguments for all-day K?
Young learners need more time in school to keep pace with the Illinois Learning Standards, which build on the common core standards for English language arts and math. As Lincoln School kindergarten teacher Lori Suzuki explained during her comment at the school board meeting on February 7, “expectations have changed.” Ms. Suzuki went on to point out that the half-day program is fast paced, and that it can be challenging to meet the needs of all students, especially those who have pull-out interventions during the day. In addition, she noted that children need more time for creative play to interact with each other.
3. What do you believe will be the greatest challenges if expanded kindergarten is approved? Costs? Finding adequate staff? Facilities?
Expanding to full-day kindergarten will double the number of kindergarten teachers, and we need to be honest about the fact that the additional funding needed for salaries—already the largest cost for a school district—will be the most significant long-term cost. At the February 7 board meeting, the principals of Lincoln and Willard laid out plans for creating the necessary classroom space, and District 90 has historically been able to attract talented teachers to fill vacancies.
Overall, the benefit of full-day kindergarten likely outweighs the additional cost. A 2014 study by Dr. Chloe Gibbs used a randomized controlled trial—the gold standard for education research—to measure the benefits of full-day kindergarten on literacy at the end of kindergarten. Compared to half-day kindergarten, Dr. Gibbs found that full-day kindergarten had a positive impact large enough to be cost-effective. In 2017, in a separate study, Dr. Gibbs found that the benefits of full-day kindergarten persist through seventh grade for English language arts and through eighth grade for math.
4. With the national COVID-19 emergency declaration ending in May, what do you consider as District 90’s greatest challenges in addressing learning loss during the pandemic and the social impact of remote learning for, at least, some students?
The greatest challenge is complacency. Although students have returned to school and are growing academically, they must learn at an accelerated pace if they are to make up for the unfinished learning of the pandemic years. Remote learning also affected students differently at different ages. For example, students now in second and third grade missed out on the in-person early learning of kindergarten and first grade, the most challenging grades to take online, as well as on developing the social skills to interact with other children. As another example, the education of students in seventh and eighth grade were interrupted when they were in fifth and sixth grade, a time when student engagement is key and when disparities in academic growth can accelerate. While we are thankful that students are back in school, the board needs to make careful decisions about curriculum and ensure that instruction is tailored to students’ needs—both according to their age group and by the particular circumstances of each child.
5. Do you believe our children, especially by middle school, are dealing with more concerns over mental health than in the past? What is the role of a public school system in providing mental health services and resources to children and families? How is District 90 performing on that front?
Yes, I believe that today’s children are dealing with more mental health issues than in the past. While Roosevelt Middle School is far more dynamic today than when I was a student there in the 1980s, with, for example, more clubs, more activities, and more sports to engage students, at the same time today’s students have endured both the social isolation of the pandemic and the unrelenting scrutiny of the smartphone. Bullying existed then as it does now, but it was not supercharged by technology. So, in the 2022 Illinois Youth Survey for Roosevelt School, a fifth of eighth graders report that in the past year they drank alcohol, about a quarter report being bullied, and a quarter report being depressed. Because mental health issues can interfere with learning, schools should alleviate problems that students experience at school. District 90 has a strong core of social workers who have helped many students, but they are stretched thin by the demands placed on them.
6. In the radical transformation in teaching caused by COVID-19, what did District 90 learn or invent that should be retained in teaching going forward?
More than anything, the pandemic proved the importance of in-person learning, but the experiment with virtual instruction may have some benefits for the future. First—and this may not make me popular with students—District 90 should never have to have a snow day again. In cases of extreme weather, students can take their iPads home and continue with classes for a day of virtual learning. Second, at conference time, virtual conferences can help some parents to meet with teachers more easily, although for those who would prefer face-to-face meetings it may be worth considering an in-person option at Roosevelt as exists at Lincoln and Willard.