*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies
A Chicagoland native, Jennifer (Jen) Kovar has made Oak Park her home for the past 14 years. She and her husband Jason have two boys in D97 elementary and middle schools. Professionally, Jen teaches sixth grade in nearby Riverside and has served on multiple committees in Oak Park to support the Village and D97 communities. Education is her life’s work, and community service her strong passion.
After college and a year of national service, Jen moved to Washington, DC to work for New American Schools, a non-profit organization focused on improving public schools in underserved communities across the country. Working in school reform compelled her to make education her career. So, she moved to Boston and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. That experience ultimately drew her to the classroom, to go deep into the heart of education: teaching and learning. She became a teacher, first in suburban Boston and for the last 14 years in Riverside.
Throughout her nearly 20 years as an educator, Jen has developed a strong commitment to public schools and gained increasingly deeper knowledge and experience with excellent teaching practices and how schools work. What Jen loves most about teaching are the relationships she builds with her middle school students, helping them become their best selves and finding their individual voices. In recent years she has tapped into resources from Facing History and Ourselves and Teaching Tolerance to bring social justice to her classroom and a more culturally-responsive approach to teaching and learning. And as an avid reader, Jen works hard to encourage her students to develop an enduring habit of and love for reading.
In 2016, Jen earned her National Board Certification, one of the most rigorous professional credentials teachers can earn. Beyond the classroom, she has held a wide-range of leadership positions within her district. She has been a teacher team leader. She has served on district-wide committees around hiring, curriculum, technology, standards-based grading and more. She has mentored student teachers and new staff. She co-founded her school’s chapter of the Best Buddies program, sponsored a writing club, launched a writing contest, and began a Spoken Word club. Most recently, she developed a “Reading Buddies” program that connects middle schoolers with kindergartners and preschoolers.
Jen has carried her keen interest in equity and inclusion into her volunteer work in Oak Park. In the past few years, she has participated in multiple groups established to support community priorities. She served on the Village Board’s Disabilities Access Commission (DAC), which works to build greater awareness for access and confers the Disability Access Awards. She joined Lincoln Elementary School’s Diversity Committee (DivCo), as part of D97’s district-wide efforts to build equity, diversity and inclusion. Jen and two other DivCo members launched a mentor program to help welcome kindergarten and new families to Lincoln. And she serves on the D97 School Board’s Committee on Community Engagement (CCE), which advises the Board and administration’s communication efforts toward increasing community engagement and interest.
Do you believe the district is adequately addressing the needs of its most marginalized students, particularly its Black and Brown students?
Closing the opportunity gap among D97 students is the most pressing need in our community. We must ensure that the learning experience of Oak Park’s students of color is exemplary at all levels and in every respect. Right now, the District is not yet adequately addressing the needs of its Black and Brown students.
First of all, we need more and better data. As a Board member I would advocate for increasing the resources dedicated to collecting, analyzing, reporting and using data to more thoroughly assess the District’s efforts to close the opportunity gap.
In my experience as an educator, I find it most valuable to have “hard” and “soft” data that I can put together to make sense of a situation and take action. “Hard” quantitative data is helpful in understanding what is happening. We can measure things like attendance, grades and standardized test scores to paint that picture. Meanwhile, “soft” qualitative data helps us understand why it is happening. Why are students showing up to school or not? Why are they engaged in their coursework or not? How are students experiencing school? Hearing students’ voices and their narratives, and that of their families and educators, provides the nuance needed to then know how to change–what policies do we need or what investments do we make in order to move toward closing the opportunity gap?
What are your expectations from the next superintendent who will succeed outgoing Supt. Carol Kelley?
Along with the Oak Park community, I will expect a lot from the next Superintendent of D97. Oak Park has extremely high expectations for its schools and that will extend to its next leader.
To begin, this person must be fueled by a great passion for teaching and learning, have a dedication to students that began in the classroom, and exude an enduring energy to lead towards excellence in education. We will expect the next Superintendent to have a depth of experience with implementing an equity policy like ours so that she or he can hit the ground running with D97’s equity work. We will expect the next leader to be deeply committed to the Oak Park community, ideally having come from within the District.
We will expect the next leader to be an empathetic communicator, dedicated to fostering genuine trust and engagement within the community, willing to truly listen to all stakeholders and in turn maintain transparent updates about the District’s work. Leading with a student-centered approach, the next Superintendent must be exceptionally attuned and responsive to students’ needs. To tirelessly work toward addressing students’ needs and close the opportunity gap, the next superintendent must bring a positive and collaborative approach to leadership, marshaling the talents of the current District leaders. Also, this leader must have exemplary analytical skills, stepping up the District’s use of data to drive its work.
As a community, we truly do have all of these high expectations, as we should. The next leader must be inspiring and innovative and also down to earth and pragmatic, exceedingly thoughtful and emotionally connected. All of these attributes combined will enable D97 to move forward with its goal to create a positive learning environment for all our children.
What are your thoughts on the district’s hybrid learning model and its implementation?
Since we are still in the middle of our hybrid learning experiment and the public health crisis has not yet fully abated, we should be humble about what this experience may tell us. There will be many takeaways in due time with some deep reflection still to come. For now, I think we can note a few lessons.
I give the D97 administration credit for keeping health and safety top of mind and following the updated recommendations and guidance from doctors and scientists. I also appreciate the district’s significant efforts to listen and be responsive to the community and ultimately allowing for family choice. It was clear when barely more than 50 percent of Oak Park families opted to return to in-person / hybrid learning in February that our community was genuinely split as families weighed the costs and benefits of remote and in-person learning options. In times of profound uncertainty, we’ve learned there is a premium on being responsive and adaptive, even though accommodating such mixed needs has been daunting.
Having said this, the administration appeared slow to make decisions. While this may have been the price of extensive stakeholder engagement, many of our peer districts were simply quicker to return to in-person learning. They seemed to get a much faster jump on planning, which allowed their students to start the year in such a way that they could pivot from remote to a hybrid model, while certainly not seamlessly, with as little disruption as possible.
One of the most distressing lessons we’ve learned thus far is that by staying remote for so long, relationships have suffered across the board. Despite some of the positives I noted, many in the community are frustrated. Despite emphasizing safety of staff early on, many teachers feel their voices were not heard when returning to in-person learning. And many of us parents have witnessed our children suffering from a lack of connection and belonging. We have been reminded that relationships and genuine engagement are at the heart of teaching and learning. One of the most challenging aspects of remote learning for teachers has been connecting with students and keeping them engaged with content and with their peers. It is apparent that more could have been built into the hybrid plan to support relationship-building. Those connections, those relationships need to come first. Academic achievement will follow.
What are your thoughts on the district’s policies regarding race and gender?
I commend the District for the great effort put forth, in collaboration with community stakeholders, to create and launch its equity policy. That was a vital step toward closing the opportunity gap and building a truly inclusive climate and culture throughout D97 schools. Now the District is working to implement the equity policy through a wide array of programs and policies.
Based on the District’s mission, vision and policies, it is clear the administration believes every single student deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Every child must have all they need to be successful in this world regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, ability, sexual preference, and other identities and circumstances. The Board must take responsibility for ensuring this. The Board should support, and push where necessary, the administration to continue building a climate and culture welcoming for all. Board members can prioritize space regularly in meeting agendas to inquire about and discuss the District’s work on anti-racism and inclusion, and to celebrate good practices, like Girls on the Run, Rainbow Tribe and social justice clubs at Brooks and Julian, among others.
The real work of meeting the needs of all students takes place at the school and classroom levels. I will be satisfied that the district is effectively meeting the needs of its most marginalized students when we have meaningful supports in place for educators to lead the work from the bottom up. This involves furthering, and enhancing where necessary, teacher professional development through professional learning communities where educators can regularly share and learn from each other as well as from experts. It involves being persistent in furthering the anti-racist curriculum, which the district was quick to roll out. And it involves offering the building principals ample room and forums to collaborate and share and plan together around implementing the equity policy.
What are your thoughts on the current teacher contract?
As a community, we have to work hard to be fiscally responsible while also investing adequately in our most valued assets: our teachers. Research has consistently shown that teachers are the greatest input into student achievement.
When I think about teacher contracts, I gravitate to a few key questions. Will the contract enable Oak Park to hire the best talent? Does the contract make important investments in supporting and rewarding excellence in teaching? Does the contract provide pathways for teachers to become leaders? And cutting across all of these areas, does the contract help Oak Park attract, support, reward and elevate teachers of color as we strive toward equity and build a community of educators that reflects our students.
The current contract has elements of many of these things. Salaries for beginning teachers are very competitive in Oak Park compared to our peer districts – although our veteran teachers earn less than experienced teachers in districts like Evanston or Hinsdale. In supporting and recognizing excellence, the district has made a push to incentivize National Board Certification in the current contract. As a National Board Certified Teacher, I have firsthand knowledge how rigorous that process is at getting to the heart of good teaching practice.
Importantly, in working out a new contract with the Oak Park Teacher’s Association, I believe there needs to be a foundation of trust between the Board, district administration and teachers. As a Board member, I would want to have ample opportunities to listen to teachers – not just at contract negotiation time, but all the time. The teacher voice extends well beyond their pay and working conditions, although those are critical to attracting and retaining high-caliber talent. Regularly engaging with teachers about their needs, experiences and ideas will go a long way toward bringing out the best in all of us.
What do you understand to be the core functions of a school board member?
The School Board is responsible for working with the administration to set and guide the District’s overarching mission and vision. The Board employs the Superintendent and holds her or him accountable for implementing the District’s vision and working toward agreed upon goals.
Thus, a School Board member’s role is to work collaboratively with the rest of the Board and the administration to guide the District in its work by asking questions, raising concerns, advocating for areas of the District’s goals that need greater attention, ensuring resources are used responsibly and effectively, and evaluating progress toward the District’s goals. Meanwhile a School Board member should solicit input from the community around the District’s work. Underlying this work, at every decision point, a School Board member should ask—Howdoes this work to improve the learning experience for all our students?