Left to right, Candance Chow (incumbent), Suni Kartha (incumbent), Nicholas Korzeniowski, Lindsay Cohen, James Hailpern, and Anya Tanyavutti (incumbent).

On Jan. 24, the Evanston branch of the NAACP and the Organization for Postive Action Leadership (OPAL) co-sponsored a forum for six candidates running for the District 65 School Board in the April 4 election. The forum was held at Family Focus. 

Five candidates are running for four positions on the Board that will be for four-year terms: Candance Chow (incumbent), Sunith Kartha (incumbent), Nicholas Korzeniowski, Lindsay Cohen, and Joseph Hailpern.

The remaining candidate, Anya Tanyavutti (incumbent), is running unopposed for a two-year term on the Board.

During the forum, which lasted a little more than one hour, candidates were asked questions regarding racial equity, District 65’s $14.5 million operating referendum, which will be on the April 4 ballot, the District’s inclusion program, and the District’s disciplinary policies.

This article will focus on answers relating to racial equity and the referendum.

Question: What have you personally done to deepen your personal understanding around racial equity?

Ms. Tanyavutti said, “I have lived experience as a black woman in America.” In addition, she said she deepened her understanding of the historical context of race in the United States and the world through her studies, and obtained a Masters in Social, Cultural Studies and Educational Thought from Western Michigan University, and wrote her thesis on school reform in the context of equity. She added that she received a Fulbright grant to study in West Africa, with a focus on cultural curricular development.

Ms. Chow said, “First and most important to me has been the relationships I’ve built and the friendships I have across race here in Evanston, and really trying to understand on a personal level what other moms are experiencing in the schools, and what friends of my children are experiencing, and whether their experiences are getting reflected back in the education they receive. … I will never be able to fully walk in their shoes, but I can start to understand and talk about how I could do a better job from a policy level, from a Board level, to serve their needs and understand what they are.”

In addition, Ms. Chow said she has done a lot of reading, and recently attended the “Race Forward” training and participated in the equity training as part of the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative.

Mr. Hailpern said he deepened his understanding of racial equity while growing up, and during the 31 years he has lived in Evanston. “I have friends who have come from all walks of life.” He said he has been an educator for his entire professional career. He started out as a teacher at Kingsley School and is now a school principal.  He tries to understand what barriers families have to access schools, and seeks to build networks to connect people and education.

He obtained a Master’s degree in Social Justice and Education Leadership at UCLA, and is currently working on a dissertation that is rooted in building new models of accountability that support students, support innovation, and rebuild networks in schools so everyone finds access points. He says, “We need to move beyond a tolerant community.  … Now is the time for extreme acceptance.”

Ms. Kartha said she grew up in a small town in Indiana and has “lived experience as a brown person in a primarily white community.” Five years ago, she said she served on the Citizens Advocacy Group that supported a capital referendum to reestablish a school in the Fifth Ward. “At that time, I learned about the history of Evanston that I hadn’t known or really understood before. I talked to a lot of people and understood their experience and what had happened around desegregation in Evanston.” She said this drove her to run for the School Board four years ago.

Last summer, she participated in the Race Forward training, and in the fall she attended a two-day “Beyond Diversity”national summit in Austin, Tex.

Mr. Korzeniowski said, “In academics, I studied very thoroughly critical race theory.” He said, he learned it is not just academics, “the disparity is something that’s lived, and I got to see it as I moved into school districts for my work.” When he arrived at Skokie School District 69, he said “I was blown away with how many people were underserved. I always felt, as parents, as citizens, as capable people, we should always be doing as much as we can, for as many as we can, in any way we can.”

He said at District 69, many children lack access to technology and the Internet. “We’ve set out very aggressively to start addressing that.”

Ms. Cohen said she grew up in a Buffalo Grove that was 99% white, attended Northwestern University when it was “incredibly segregated,” and then lived in Manhattan.  “I didn’t fully appreciate my privilege until I became a mother,” she said. At that point, she said she began reading, and started to practice some “intuitive responses with my own family.” She said she tried “to seek out strong people of color role models for my children” and, as an example, chose a pediatrician who was a woman of color. She chose Evanston to raise her family “to try to right the cycle a little bit in my own family,” and has become more involved in the school district with her son at Kingsley.

Her decision to run for the School Board is a progression in that process.

Question: In light of the decline in the African American test scores, why should African Americans support the referendum?

Mr. Hailpern said, “Talk of closing the achievement gap is important, but I think in reading the accountability reports over the last couple of years, what I look for is understanding that we know where our students are, so we can define where they should be going. He said parents need to understand where their kids are and what the next steps are. “We ask kids to climb stairs one stair at a time. We don’t ask them to skip steps. We don’t ask them to be college- and career-ready in kindergarten.”

He said teachers need to develop relationships with parents  and give them good feedback and advice so parents feel they can be partners in their kids’ education and feel connected to their kids’ education.

“I think the reasons people should be voting for the referendum is a trust in the teachers and a trust in the work that’s being done, and to help make sure that we maintain a positive climate for the students to continue forward and upward.”

Ms. Cohen said, “I think one of the biggest opportunities right now is to invest more in early education, and the only way we can do that is if we have additional funds. I think it’s incredibly important, especially considering so much of our childhood education right now is funded by Head Start. And who knows what’s going to happen with that in the next four years?

“So, I think it’s incredibly important to think of this not just in terms of more money going down the drain, but to look at this as an investment and the mechanisms that will really start moving the needle for equity.”

Ms. Cohen also said she thought the referendum was “critical for the success of our schools. Without filling this gap, the District will need to make drastic cuts and basically throw the whole system into chaos.” She said, though, “I think it’s critical for us to work together to create a creative solution to help offset the property tax increase for those people who will be most negatively impacted, particularly people who find it hard for any reason.”

Mr. Korzeniowski said the District just presented its annual achievement report, and “We’ve got the data at our fingertips to do this right, with the resources that we hopefully will have after the referendum. We can apply that to early childhood. We’ve seen that the gap begins at kindergarten. We see it throughout. If we can keep at it, all the way through, I don’t think we’re going to see the disparity that we’ve almost grown to expect.

“I think what matters to folks is where do these resources get allocated. Are we going to spend that money to close the achievement gap or are we going to not do that? What will happen once the ship is right? That’s where we need to have our focus.”

Ms. Kartha said, “I think over the last couple of years, especially, the District has taken some good strong steps towards equity. But I think they’re just some steps. I think there’s a lot of work that we still need to do.

“I understand the frustration that black and brown parents feel, that there doesn’t seem to be enough of a sense of urgency with the Board or the administration. I understand that. I hear that. I don’t even necessarily disagree with that. I think that we need to be more transparent and responsive in what we are doing now, what urgent actions we are going to take in the near term and in the long term to address equity and to address the achievement gap.

“But  I also know that if we have to cut millions of dollars from our budget next year, that’s going to hurt all of us, that’s going to hurt all of our kids, black, brown, white, Asian. That’s going to hurt all of our students and all of our families.

“We cannot deliver the quality that we have been delivering, that we want to continue delivering, if we have to make the kinds of cuts that will be necessary if the referendum doesn’t pass. That’s why it’s in all of our interests – for our children and for our community – to support the referendum.”

Ms. Chow said, “A lot of important things have been said, so I’ll only add a few things.

“I too totally understand the frustration that families have if you feel like you’re giving a lot to the system and the system isn’t giving back to you something that you deserve, and what your children should rightfully have.

“I think we are making some progress. We’re coming off, quite frankly, five years of worsening achievement for all of our students, but particularly poor, black and brown students.

“And I do like to try to see the possibility of what’s before us, and there are a couple of promising things. One is that in the last two years, the percentage of African American students who are achieving their growth targets, which is the first step to us getting to the place we need to be, has increased 10%. That’s considerable. It’s not ultimately where we need to be, but it’s movement in the right direction. Also, our focus on serving struggling learners and striving learners has reduced the percentage of students below the 25th percentile by 13% in just the last year.

“The way I look at the connection between this and the referendum is we can’t afford to go backwards. We’ve been working for a number of years to try to stabilize where we are ready to get some movement and some momentum, and it’s not quick enough, and it’s not getting enough traction or what we want around our equity work, around culturally responsive instruction, around real focus on early intervention. But we can’t go backwards for our kids. We will go backwards if we lose the referendum.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said, “I definitely agree there’s a structural deficit that could threaten the quality of everyone’s experience in our system and we want to respond to it in an urgent way.

“I also believe that something that is not okay is to tell folks who have experienced decades of being educated side- by-side, in the same schools, and receiving unequal opportunities as a result, that it’s just going to get worse, so you should support this.

“I think it ignores the emotional experiences of children and families who are experiencing institutional marginalization. These are not individual choices by any particular person who is teaching or leading our children. These are institutional practices that are ingrained in our system, and in order to challenge them we have to effectively come together and inquire about and challenge our values, practices, and policies.

“Whether we have the referendum or not, we need to make that commitment to one another, because this is something that affects not just black and brown children. It affects all of us. It affects our social and emotional experiences, the experiences of our community. I think we all want better.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...