District 97 School Board Candidate
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*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies
I’m Erin Connor, mom to a kindergartener, 2nd grader and 4th grader at Mann. My husband and I settled our family down in Oak Park almost 7 years ago.
I decided to gather signatures to run for school board last fall because I was concerned that students that required an in-person learning option wouldn’t be provided with the opportunity. I’m not an expert in the field of education, just a passionate, action-oriented parent that wants to influence change by listening, asking questions and challenging norms. My main strengths from my 15-year corporate career are team building, problem solving and communication, and I’m confident I can leverage these skills to make a positive impact as a board member. My children are going to be in D97 for the next 8 years and I want to be part of the solution.
My primary short-term priority is to safely return more students to the classroom and maximize in-person instruction opportunities. As a board member, I will approach this issue with a mindset of “how we will” and challenge any perspectives of “why we can’t.” D97 provided a daily, consistent schedule for our elementary school students but the middle school schedule is woefully inadequate; these students are receiving less than 20 hours of in-person instruction a month, versus elementary students getting nearly that amount in one week and River Forest middle schoolers, also incoming OPRF students, getting 50 hours a month. We must do better if we want to get back on track with narrowing the opportunity gap. Further, we should be planning now for a return to full-time in person learning for the Fall. D97 must approach this challenge by thinking big and imagining what conditions might be in August, as opposed to limiting creative problem solving based on how things are now. Several schools in the area are currently returning to full-time in person learning and we can learn from their experiences.
My main long-term priority would be on improving the relationship between D97 and its stakeholders by focusing on meaningful communication, improving transparency and creating pragmatic solutions. Throughout the return to in-person process, it became clear that parents and teachers felt outside of the process and we must have greater collaboration between all stakeholders not only to make people feel valued and respected, but to make sure that the best ideas come to the table and that leaders are held accountable.
I studied marketing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and after graduation I spent 15 years in corporate America, with management and director-level roles in the automotive and real estate industries, where my areas of focus were collaborative team building, outside-the-box problem solving and culture improvement. I know I can leverage my strengths to influence change in D97.
I feel optimistic about what we can achieve for our kids by working better together and I hope I can earn your vote on Tuesday, April 6th!
Do you believe the district is adequately addressing the needs of its most marginalized students, particularly its Black and Brown students?
Through its most recent District Goals and Action Plan, D97 has laid a strong foundation to create more equitable outcomes for marginalized students, including students of color. D97 created a comprehensive, transformative equity policy that members of our community should be very proud of. D97 leadership has done thorough foundational work, including establishing common curriculum and assessments, introducing more rigorous content to students, providing climate & culture and restorative practice training for staff and focusing on students’ sense of belonging at school, that already started to yield results as it relates to tier 3 students who achieved accelerated growth in reading and math.
The pandemic and resulting transition to remote learning will undoubtedly impact our progress towards narrowing the opportunity gap, so D97 must measure and address learning loss and put programs and supports in place to ensure students are prepared for next year’s curriculum. D97 leadership and school principals should engage and empower teachers to come up with creative solutions in the classroom to help struggling students right now, and not wait for the next batch of results to develop a plan.
What are your expectations from the next superintendent who will succeed outgoing Supt. Carol Kelley?
The next superintendent must explicitly demonstrate a commitment to our community; this leader needs to be present, visible, engaged and involved. We need a bold, authentic leader; someone who is passionate about what they believe in, will make difficult decisions, stand behind them and support them with data, and who is willing to authentically engage with stakeholders to create an atmosphere of understanding even when there isn’t agreement.
Our next superintendent must be an effective, proactive, transparent communicator who anticipates objections and addresses them before they become problems. This person must have a clear, demonstrable record of a commitment to thoughtful, strategic communication and working closely with parents and teachers, particularly during the pandemic. The next superintendent will be someone who sets the expectation of accessibility and authentic, meaningful, two-way communication between members of their leadership team and stakeholders.
Equity focus and determination to narrow the opportunity gap are also high priorities and non-negotiables. Our next superintendent will have experience and actionable plans to continue to make progress towards these goals.
It’s critical to get the right person for this role, and if we aren’t able to identify an optimal candidate for the July 1st start date, we should appoint an interim superintendent, someone who is familiar with D97 and well-respected in our community, to fill the role until a permanent replacement is identified.
What are your thoughts on the district’s hybrid learning model and its implementation?
The hybrid learning model was a step in the right direction to get students back for in-person instruction, but I feel like D97’s hybrid plan lacked creativity due to the mindset that only half of students wanted in-person instruction. It’s my belief that only 54% of students chose to return for second trimester because the plans that were previously presented lacked ambition and parents had logistical challenges that weren’t worth reconfiguring for a lackluster, infrequent hybrid plan. I’m grateful that the elementary schools kept the consistent 5 half days per week schedule for third trimester, but the middle school schedule of 4 half days every three weeks is woefully insufficient.
D97 must do a better job of weighing risk against benefits; it’s safe for students to be in person with proper precautions and we must put a greater focus on students’ academic, social and emotional well-being while current Oak Park covid metrics remain low. Our middle school students are receiving less than 20 hours of in-person instruction per month, while our elementary school students are receiving almost 20 hours per week. Our community is very different from River Forest, but River Forest 8th graders will be joining Oak Park 8th graders at OPRF next fall, and currently those students are getting 50 hours of in-person instruction per month, two and half times that of D97 8th graders. We need leaders that are willing to make tough decisions and do the hard work of creating solutions to difficult problems, our kids deserve better.
D97 leadership must demonstrate a willingness to look at changing conditions and how other schools have safely and successfully increased in-person instruction time and find ways to bring students back in the classroom towards full day in-person instruction. We need to keep taking steps along the path towards a more normal, curriculum-focused school experience for our students.
What are your thoughts on the district’s policies regarding race and gender?
D97’s policies regarding race and gender are important commitments to our students and part of the culture of our community; they are explicitly stated and will still be in place regardless of any change of board members or superintendent.
I support the universal goal that every Oak Park D97 student is a known, nurtured, celebrated learner, and the action plan to increase students who agree or strongly agree that when they’re at school they feel they belong. One of the board’s fundamental duties is to connect with the community and to serve as an advocate, so the board has a role in ensuring the climate at D97 schools is welcoming to all students. I know that “Mustang Stable Groups” at my kids’ school has created a greater sense of community among students in general and similar initiatives should be implemented and shared across D97 schools.
What are your thoughts on the current teacher contract?
The current teacher contract goes through 2021-2022 and D97 leadership must improve communication, transparency and collaboration with teachers to strengthen relationships ahead of the next contract.
I’ve spoken with many teachers throughout my campaign and I recently had an interview with the Oak Park Teachers Association. I’ve learned that one consistent request is that our teachers want to feel respected and listened to and want access to and meaningful engagement with leaders that make decisions that impact their jobs and their classrooms. Teachers have done an incredible job of adapting and navigating constant change during the pandemic, but in most instances they found out about key decisions just before or at the same time as parents. Teachers deserve to be brought into the decision-making process earlier and to be communicated with and trusted as equal partners in the process.
More communication, transparency and collaboration between teachers and D97 leadership would improve teacher morale and the culture in our district, which would ultimately benefit our students through a more positive learning environment. It makes sense both from an organizational standpoint as it’s a good business practice and from a community standpoint as it creates more respectful relationships. There is nothing to lose by removing silos and creating more open channels of communication. Our teachers are our most valuable asset in improving the educational experience for our children and we must create an environment where they feel empowered, engaged and supported.
What do you understand to be the core functions of a school board member?
The board’s primary tasks are to define the district’s purpose, connect with the community, employ a superintendent and monitor performance. The school board is responsible for the “what” and the superintendent is responsible for the “how.”
As a parent, I feel that board members add value and provide accountability during board meetings by asking questions and starting discussions. Much of the board’s work is done behind the scenes so it’s helpful when there is dialogue and discourse that parents have access to. As a board member, I would add value by listening then asking questions to improve transparency, broaden perspectives, challenge norms and hold the superintendent accountable. The relationship between the board and D97 leadership should be positive and trusting but also self-challenging to make sure we are held to high standards to provide an excellent educational experience for all students.
As a board member, I would be a tireless advocate for students and families. I will seek out methods and channels to improve proactive community engagement and intentional, ongoing two-way conversation. I would influence an improved communication strategy so we proactively seek out feedback from and provide information to parents and teachers rather than reactively responding to rumors and misinformation. I believe that one school board member should serve as a liaison at each school so that they are closer to teachers, parents and students, and have an established channel of communication to elevate successes or areas of concern. It would also provide an opportunity for D97 leadership to understand the culture at a school that their children don’t attend so they can understand the impact of policies and what is needed to help students succeed.