*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies
My name is Venus Hurd Johnson and I’m running for the D97 Oak Park School Board. I’ve lived in Oak Park for the past 15 years with my husband Oscar and our two boys ages 14 and 13. I’ve chosen to run because I am passionate about serving our wonderful community and I’m committed to preparing our students to make our world a better place. I have a heart for service and have been actively involved in our schools as a parent leader for the past 8 years. I’ve held a variety of roles, including serving as co-president of the Horace Mann School PTO and its Diversity Committee (“DivCo”), created to advance equity initiatives. At the school district level, I’ve served on the PTO Council and D97 PTO Diversity Council both as co-President. I played a pivotal role in the development of District 97’s Policy on Ensuring Racial and Educational Equity and I’ve had the opportunity to positively impact the culture and quality of our schools. I want to ensure each student has everything needed to thrive and achieve their dreams. Becoming a D97 School Board Member is strategically aligned with my commitment to making impactful changes in our schools and I will work to ensure change occurs swiftly with measurable impact. The next board should have a focus on community engagement – commitment to elevating diverse voices and reducing misinformation, maintaining a healthy & safe school environment – access resources for social and emotional care and continuing to follow CDC and IDPH guidelines, equity outcomes for current initiatives, continued fiscal responsibility and finding the right candidate for superintendent. I love our community and I’m deeply invested in making our schools the best for all our families.
Do you believe the district is adequately addressing the needs of its most marginalized students, particularly its Black and Brown students?
D97 has established some clear and measurable initiatives that explicitly address the needs of the most marginalized students, but we still have a way to go. We will know when we are successful when Black, Brown and IEP student success rates mirror those of their White classmates. Many of strategies put in place have helped to move the needle such as MTSS, climate and culture coaches and professional development focus on implicit bias.
I applaud D97 for developing a racial equity policy to address the long-standing opportunity gap. I would like to see any preliminary outcomes data to show how we are impacting our Black and Brown students compared to district goals. In addition to district-wide goals I think it’s important for each administration department and all ten schools to have one or more specific racial equity goals to evaluate annually. A cohesive plan will help move equitable system changes forward quickly.
What are your expectations from the next superintendent who will succeed outgoing Supt. Carol Kelley?
I want our next Superintendent to have experience leading a diverse school district similar to Oak Park and a leader with experience developing an equity policy with a focus on racial initiatives who can share the outcomes from those initiatives. Our equity policy is solid and has not had an opportunity to get off the ground due to the pandemic. It should not be scraped and re-build with the next superintendent, but fine-tuned so we don’t slow down our progress.
Also, our next superintendent needs to be an excellent communicator with a grassroots approach to community engagement and value diverse opinions. We currently have a plethora of experienced and talented individuals within D97, by recognizing and harnessing existing talent our next superintendent will have a smooth transition and can make impactful change quickly.
What are your thoughts on the district’s hybrid learning model and its implementation?
I served on the Superintendent’s Advisory Panel (SAP) and saw first-hand the concerted effort of school leaders, health experts, parent and community stakeholders to consider the needs, requests and challenges of in-person learning in a pandemic. When surveyed, Oak Park families were split between preferring remote only and in-person learning with both groups expressing their concerns. Teachers also expressed safety concerns. No matter what plan was presented there were no true winners and it was highly likely that some part of the plan would not work for some families. The SAP worked in diverse teams to address the issues, acknowledged all the considerations and shared critical information, this allowed families to make the best choice for them.
I have gathered from speaking with other D97 families and my own family’s experience, the current hybrid model is working out well for most students, families and staff. Kids and teachers are adhering to safety guidelines and we have not had any more district-wide interruption to the class schedule. Additionally, our states positivity rates continued to decline. Further evidence of the current hybrid plan’s positive execution is the increased number of students returning to in-person learning for the Trimester 3. Ultimately, most parents want their kids to return to an all day, 5 day a week schedule as safely as possible. One note of concern is the number of Black and Brown families who did not choose the hybrid plan. I know the District has made efforts to address this and uncover any barriers to hybrid participation for Trimester 3.
Implementation of the hybrid plan offered a huge set of complex challenges that were difficult to navigate. First, the initial hybrid plan was widely panned by D97 parents and teachers due in part of the possibility of some students having to change teachers. The initial plan did not have enough teacher or parent input. The second challenge was the timing the end of Trimester 1 on November 30. Returning to in-person learning a few weeks before winter break would create major disruption. Planning ahead of time for this would have helped the community manage its expectations about returning to school. I appreciate the hard work and planning of everyone involved to get our kids back to school during this unprecedented time. As a board member, I want to ensure the district and board take these key learnings and use them to develop an emergency learning plan, should we face another situation like this in the future.
What are your thoughts on the district’s policies regarding race and gender?
In review of the multiple D97 policies that address race and gender, none stood out to me as having major discrepancies or misaligning with the current vision and goals. Most importantly, none of the listed policies appear to alienate or harm students and staff. The policy entitled “Ensuring Racial and Educational Equity” offers specific language on racial disproportionality and helps to frame initiatives to reduce the opportunity gap. Per the policy “race is the most persistent predictor of student performance in D97.” The policies on race and gender solidify D97’s commitment to the success of every student and to create a positive learning environment that focuses on the whole child and helping them achieve their full potential.
As with all policies, reviewing and modifying to reflect current standards is an important role for the board members. As a board member, I would support D97 continuing to receive guidance on updates to standard policies from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and making any necessary adjustments to policies pertaining to race or gender and as well as drafting any original policies regarding race, gender and disabilities that advance equity and academic success for students.
What are your thoughts on the current teacher contract?
The current teacher’s contract is a hefty 54-page document. It was approved in 2018 and builds upon the prior contract approved in 2015. I want to focus on a few contract items that have positively impacted our schools and community and I would like to see carried into the next contract cycle.
First is the change in the salary structure beginning in 2015 and continues today along with automatic, annual salary increases near the Consumer Price Index, making budgeting for salaries much more manageable and predictable.
Second is the teacher incentive for attaining advanced degrees and achievements. D97 has seen a 4-fold increase in the number of teachers pursuing the National Board Certification in the last three years. They also are expected to use their talents and experience as teacher leaders within the district. In fact, the D97 was among 11 school districts nationally recognized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as a National Board Accomplished District.
Last are the professional development days.Teachers are offered nine professional development training days with some led by the district, building leadership and at each grade level. This creates consistent teaching environments, sparks creativity and problem solving among colleagues to advance students in the classroom. A new teacher contract will be negotiated in 2022, as a board member I will work to find the optimal balance between giving our teachers what they request and being fiscally responsible to the community.
What do you understand to be the core functions of a school board member?
According to the D97, a few of the Board of Education main responsibilities are:
- Formulating, adopting, and modifying board policies, at its sole discretion, subject only to mandatory collective bargaining agreements and state and federal law.
- Employing a superintendent and directing them at their charge of the district’s administration.
- Address other personnel issues of hiring and dismissing and establishing an equal employment opportunity policy that prohibits unlawful discrimination.
- Approving the annual budget, tax levies, major expenditures, payment of obligations, annual audit, and other aspects of the district’s financial operation; and making available a statement of financial affairs as provided in state law.
There are several other board responsibilities, but one that I would like to see enhanced is community engagement with greater outreach. As a board member, I would like to schedule visits to school PTO meetings and hold small events in the community where parents can ask questions, board members and the superintendent can identify strengths and opportunities at each school, coordinate with building leadership to make change happen or replicate successes at other schools.