Oak Park Elementary School District 97 is hitting the drawing board to create a “Portrait of an Oak Park 8th Grade Graduate” and using the model to lay the groundwork for their new community-driven vision of who their graduates should be. 

During the District 97 board meeting March 14, Supt. Dr. Ushma Shah, who was hired by the district in February 2022, presented the model to the board as part of planning for the 2023-2024 school year. 

“In Oak Park we can feel so proud that we made the courageous moves when it was time to make them,” Shah said. “To say, ‘let’s start to shift’ and ‘let’s recognize that the system that we have needs to continue to grow and evolve’ so it can be all that we envision it to be for our students.” 

The coming changes will be a way of answering how the system can be adjusted to meet the current needs of students and families. The idea behind a “Portrait of a Graduate” is to represent the school district’s vision for the skills, character traits, and social-emotional abilities that a student would need to succeed as they get older. By establishing a portrait of a student, the district will be able to work backwards to build a model for education that helps reach those desired outcomes directly. 

The vision in producing well-rounded, high-achieving students goes back to basics in setting them up with a strong foundation that will guide them to academic success. Part of this equation is having active participation from the school board along with Shah, who said her role is to deliver and be held accountable for carrying out the community’s vision.

“This complex relationship can only happen if there really is good foundational governance between the board and the superintendent,” Shah said during the presentation, addressing that trust and communication are crucial to the success of the district. 

To create the portrait, Shah suggested the creation of a “Portrait of a Graduate” community design team in hopes that by Summer 2024 they can continue with the project with more clarity of students’ needs and how to meet them. 

According to Amanda Siegfried, the district’s communications director, the district is currently focused on the first phase of the redevelopment, which includes additional faculty. 

“We are currently in the process of hiring and determining placements for the 2023-24 school year, with the goal of filling key positions by July 1,” Siegfried said. “From there, we will be engaging more deeply as an organization to further define roles and create new team structures that support increased collaboration across the district.” 

To provide additional support for students, Shah has added positions to help in overseeing students and aid in clear communication with the district. Part of the SY23-24 Central Office Leadership Alignment includes two assistant superintendents, one focused on the elementary schools and one focused on the middle school, to increase alignment in instruction across all grade levels. 

Additionally, the district will also be hiring student success coaches, which would be focused on helping students with career, counseling and competency as well as building relationships over time.

“We want to build the capacities in our schools and make sure that everyone is well supported,” Shah said.

To maintain a mindset valuing equity, the district will relook at the allocation of finances. Additionally, the district will examine the way they use technology, human resources, their communication and engagement, and facility use as they hope to move to the second phase in the future. 

“It is really having clarity about what is that baseline of universal investments that the district makes and then what is that above and beyond donations and contributions that can be made so that it is in alignment with our equity process,” Shah said. 

As part of the community-driven vision, the district will invite other agencies in Oak Park to co-design the portrait with hopes of creating long-term partnerships that will focus on “multilingual early childhood education,” and students who would use time outside of the classroom for “competency-based learning.” 

“What are the possibilities when we think about all the different places that our youth learn and grow?” Shah asked. 

As the district moves forward with the revamping, they will also take a look at core instruction and the options for community-based learning and entrepreneurialism, along with sustainable and long-term operational systems that will continue to move students forward. Despite drawing a portrait of a model student, Shah said it was important to acknowledge not all experiences are identical across the student body, and the district plans to embrace those differences while navigating the changes to help give all students the best education possible. 

“We want to find a balance between that district wide vision for an Oak Park graduate but also allowing space for the unique cultures and histories and life experiences that we have in each of our different neighborhood school communities,” Shah said.

Conversations around “Portrait of an 8th Grade Graduate” are ongoing and Shah hopes to engage the community as well by meeting with Oak Park Teachers Association union leaders, the PTO council, holding staff meetings, holding student meetings, as well as encouraging discussion on what the community believes are important characteristics of their students upon graduation.  

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