Elías Ortega

District 200 School Board Candidate

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*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies

As an educator, youth mentor, advocate, and parent, I will bring a perspective committed to engaging excellence to achieve equity in D200. 

I was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico. I’ve been an Oak Park resident since 2019 after moving from New Jersey with my spouse and two children. We made Oak Park our place of residence because of the reputation of its schools and community. I am running for the OPRF D200 Board of Education because I believe its strengths play a role in our community’s ongoing flourishing. As a place where engaging excellence can lead to equitable outcomes not only for our students but for our community at large. 

I attended graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I completed a Masters of Divinity degree and earned a Ph.D. in Doctoral in Religious and Social Ethics. At the end of my studies, I went on to teach at Drew University, Theological School where I served as Associate Professor of Religious Ethics and Social Theory. 

Teaching at Drew afforded me unique opportunities for creating bridges between the school and community organizations. I taught courses that allow students to engage in developing digital literacy skills, democratic living, and civic responsibility through service-learning. My students and I regularly participated in community programs that removed barriers to success for Black and Brown children in Math and Science. We also participated in initiatives that brought awareness of issues impacting the community at large, like health outcomes in the community, racial profiling, and ecological concerns. With my students, we co-created spaces where academic excellence and civic responsibility strengthened one another. 

The opportunity to give back to the community where I lived and develop projects of collaborative impacts that help all of us thrive was key to my formation as an educator, a youth advocate, and a Higher Ed. Administration. I value the contributions that schools make to their communities and that perspective will inform my work if elected to the D200 Board of Education. These contributions extend far beyond the education and co-curricular activities provided to the students they serve. They provide employment for residents and neighboring towns, serve as hosts for the large community, provide spaces for recreational events, and serve as a barometer for the community’s health. 


Do you believe the district is adequately addressing the needs of its most marginalized students, particularly Black and Brown students? 

The standard of measuring whether a district is addressing the needs of its most marginalized students most engage those most directly impact in defining what successful outcomes. D200 has taken steps to address how its educational models often failed black and Brown students by removing barriers to advance courses and ensuring that structures of support are available to students who want to strive for success. It is important to keep in mind that if a school district, by design and intention, creates programs and structures where the most marginalized thrive and succeed, all members thrive and succeed. There should not be a scarcity thinking as it pertains to excellence.

What are your expectations from the next superintendent who will succeed outgoing Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams? 

Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams has been a transformation leader in D200 who was able to guide the district when it was facing enormous challenges. Under her leadership, the district was able to move boldly towards a new strategic plan. It engaged in dismantling barriers of access for Black, Brown, LGBTQ+ students and took the proactive step of challenging all incoming freshmen to thrive for excellence through removing entry barriers to the honors programs. The expectations for the incoming Superintendent are high. This person needs to be an innovative and nimble leader who can gather multiple constituencies at the table to refine a plan already in motion. There are facilities improvement underway, and conversations about the cost of this work will be ongoing. There are questions and concerns of how the restructuring of freshmen curriculum will shape the education of incoming classes, and there is still the ongoing work of engaging with how racism and classism impact the outcome of many of our students. In addition, the election of new board members will also change the culture of the board. 

What I expect of the new Superintendent is a person who is committed to working collaboratively to build the consensus needed with an array of stakeholders to put forward the work of shaping an education system with equity at its center. An educational leader who understands the necessary adjustment to adequately prepare students to adequately meet the demands of 21st-century citizenship and multi-career paths.

What are your thoughts on the district’s hybrid learning model and its implementation? 

As an educator who has a certificate in online learning and who has taught online for close to a decade, I have experience with the complexity and challenges that designing and implementing a hybrid learning model presents under the best of conditions. It requires the capacitation of teaching staff, assessment of tech-infrastructure, pedagogical considerations as to the best ways to meet the learning needs of diverse learners, all the while keeping track of how matters of equity and inclusion may impact members of the learning community. The designing and implementation of a hybrid model during a global health pandemic present its own set of unique and unknown challenges. How long would it last? How long before we can return to a sense of safety? To consider the investment necessary to shift towards hybrid learning a temporary investment, or will our systems’ retooling be a long-term investment? How do we support our teachers and other staff who are coping with shifting demands on their pedagogical practices and who are also, like the rest of us, learning to live in pandemic-times? These are matters not to be taken likely. 

While navigating many unknowns, D200 implemented a hybrid model of learning that honored our current moment’s realities. I see evidence of this in the willingness to understand that freshmen needed a process of acclimation to a new school system and implemented ways to facilitate that transition in online and face-to-face settings. The courage to embrace alternative assessment strategies by implementing a Bridge Week instead of finals weeks to promote successful completion of work and remove the additional stress of end-of-year examination shows an understanding of the additional stressors in the lives of our students.

Consistent communication with stakeholders about the plan and how it was going to be implemented provided the needed clarity. Of course, there are always room for improvement, and it is important to underscore that there has been no precedent in recent times in our country on how to adjust to a pandemic while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. I hope that as a district, we can bring the lessons we have to learn to bear into the ongoing curricular conversations, adapting best practices that maximize the best of hybrid and face-to-face learning to promote our students’ success.

Will you support the district’s plans for freshmen curriculum restructuring? Please explain your reasoning. 

The district’s plan for restructuring the freshmen curriculum is a bold move that centers equity and access to promote all students’ striving towards excellence. This plan is also a commitment to creating structures of learning where our first-year students can challenge themselves while receiving the support needed to promote their ongoing academic growth. Personally, my academic and professional success would not have been possible without one of my academic advisors taken a risk. While I was an excellent student in high school, graduating at the top of my class, my college transition was less than ideal. Within my first year, I went from a straight A’s student to a B average. In talking with an academic advisor, this person challenged me to enroll in the honors program, that he will waive the GPA requirement for a year, but I needed to raise my grades. This opportunity gave me the motivation I needed to strive for excellence. I graduated college with honors and completed a Ph.D. with distinction. Without someone being willing to remove access barriers, it is likely that my life would have taken a different course. I believe that through the restructuring of the freshmen curriculum, we are saying “Yes!” to the success of our students.

What are your thoughts on the current teacher contract? 

The new current teacher contract aims to provide more transparency and clarity as it pertains to teachers’ compensation package and benefits. It does so by clearly outlining the levels of compensation, years in the position, and providing incentives towards retirement. It gives the district and the teachers some level of flexibility in balancing cost by allowing an individual to select between various health coverage structures. In addition, incentives and higher increases at lower levels and caps at the top help promote a culture of fiscal responsibility. Overall, this new teacher contract promotes a conversation of short-term and long-term cost management of a system as large as OPRF.

What do you understand to be the core functions of a school board member? 

I understand the core responsibilities of school board members to be the governance of the school. Board Members accomplish in five ways. The first is to represent the community and advocate on behalf of the students in the decision-making process that ensures the district’s thriving. Second, board members are responsible for establishing strategic priorities and planning for the school district. This work should be aligned with and reflect the school’s mission and center the needs of the students. Third, board members are responsible for the sound governance of the district, which is achieved by promoting, engaging, reflecting, and refining, when necessary, the policies that govern the work of the district. Fourth, board members are responsible for hiring the district super intendant as well as for evaluating this person’s work on behalf of the strategic priorities and students’ needs. The first responsibility that board members the approval and adoption of the annual budget.

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