Left to right, incumbents Pat Savage-Williams, Gretchen Livingston, and Anne Sills, and challengers Patricia Maunsell, Jude Laude, and Russell Kohnken.

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The Evanston Branch of the NAACP and the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL) sponsored a forum for school board candidates on Jan. 24 in the Foster Theater located at Family Focus, 2010 Dewey Ave. The evening began with a candidate meet-and-greet followed by separate forums for candidates for the District 65 School Board and District 202 School Board.

For District 202, there are six candidates running for four open positions.  They include incumbents Gretchen Livingston, Patricia Savage-Williams and Anne Sills, and newcomers Russell Kohnken, Jude Laude, and Patricia Maunsell.

Moderator Karen Chavers asked each candidate seven questions, including some submitted in writing by audience members.

Question: How do you plan to be connected to what happens daily in the school?

Mr. Kohnken: The Board includes a student representative but more perspective is needed. Encouragement is necessary to hear more from the community. The Board needs to hear from people on the ground.

Mr. Laude: It is important to hear from the student representative and the teachers. The Board needs to better reach out to the community, all sectors and ethnic groups, those who do not engage. Faculty and staff should go into the community to build a bridge. 

Ms. Maunsell: Board members should be at the school, be interested observers, learning the culture of the building. We have to engage with students and learn how they see their experiences. There must be a two-way dialogue.

Ms. Sills: As a Board member, I view myself as an ambassador. My conversations with staff are always rich. The perspective of students is important and we like to have them come to meetings. The current Board has done a good job reaching out to the community, especially in crafting the District’s goals.  We need to find opportunities to welcome new families.

Ms. Livingston: We do an excellent job at one-way communication. We have expanded channels. Two-way communications is where we can do more work. We have sought input from the community and are making some inroads. We are connecting with different points in the community, with affinity groups. The Board continues to welcome new suggestions.

Ms. Savage-Williams: I often think of the size of this school, more than 3,000 students and 300 teachers. It is a challenge to hear from everyone. Board members have to be good listeners, be in the school to connect with people. We have to connect to the community. When I talk to people outside school and they know who I am, they are very forthright. We must be more intentional in connecting.

Question to newcomers: The School Report Card indicates poor performance for an increasing number of students entering 9th grade. What can the District do to help ensure success at ETHS?

Ms. Maunsell: The work with mixed-level classes is crucial. Before, the ways kids were tracked was determined by a test in 8th grade. Freshmen curriculum reforms have established a culture that embraces everyone’s need for help and supports, where students learn if you work hard and get help, you will achieve.

Mr. Laude: The District’s transition from tracking imparts that learning is a continuum. With time and effort, you can get there. We are building confidence to take Advance Placement  (AP) and more rigorous classes. We need to tackle literacy. Once literacy improves, all subjects improve.

Mr. Kohnken: Literacy is crucial and work is already underway relating to district goals. Now we need to better interact with District 65. Cradle to Career stresses literacy at pre-K which is important. Teachers should build better relations with families, better communicating what students need to be successful.

Question to incumbents: How successful have interventions been in preparing students for ETHS?

Ms. Savage-Williams: The District has been very successful in preparing students for Honors and AP classes in upper grades. Freshmen restructuring has been very successful; the trajectory has been positive and the District has won awards for our work with AP participation. We are changing the practice of seeking supports. When students leave the high school, they know how to identify and use resources which is a life skill.

Ms. Livingston: One of my first big votes on the Board was for changes to freshman year. It was an exciting and nervous time. The changes have turned out to be very successful; there are more students accessing higher-level classes and succeeding.  We recently made changes to sophomore year, amping up writing. The joint District 202-65 achievement goal allows us to better measure progress K though 12 so we can help move the needle.

Ms. Sills: Success is based on having open pathways, the data is there. I see that we have interventions going on in the high school that can go into District 65 as well like AVID. Soft-skill development is needed for students to prepare for rigorous course work at the high school.  There are discussions between both Districts about this and both can work together to put supports in place early.

Question: The ETHS administration has been accused of being top down and not welcoming of parents. Do you agree and if so what would you do to change this?

Mr. Kohnken: As a teacher, I did sometimes feel that somewhat. I felt sometimes that decisions were made and we were told this is how it is. It is hard when you are not included when a change is proposed. The community needs to be encouraged to get involved in the process early, not just be asked.

Ms. Savage-Williams: This is feedback I am taking in. I have been working in high schools for a long time, it is very fast-paced; four years go by so fast. The Board in the past has gone into the community to have conversations. Maybe this is something we need to look at doing again.

Mr. Laude: The Board needs to be intentional in engaging and realize not everyone is online. We need to reach people where they are. There needs to be transparency. People do not like to hear about change at the last minute. The District needs to get out in front and let others know what changes are coming.

Ms. Livingston: It is sad to hear that someone has that view. Top-down has not been my experience but we need to think about how to avoid that sense. No one likes to be dictated to. When the Board did outreach and visited community centers, churches and the like, the turnouts were disappointing. We need to figure out how to make that an experience people are interesting in doing.

Ms. Sills: What does it look like to change this perception? In Evanston, we always want to hear what is important to the community. Leadership skills come in different packages; administrators all have different approaches. We do not have an ombudsman. That might be the right conduit to satisfy the community. It is not healthy to have these perceptions.

Ms. Maunsell: A big part of my work has been in coaching administrators to change the culture to provide two-way dialogue with a broader community. It is important to figure out who exactly needs to be heard from, to show there is value in what others have to say. Good work can be shot down if others do not understand it. There needs to be multiple strategies to communicate.

Question: What can you say about the pending teacher contracts?

Ms. Savage-Williams: Administrators and teachers have been talking to prepare for the process. That is a relationship that has been nurtured. Going into negotiations is a natural stressor. It will go better if both parties listen and respect each other.

Ms. Livingston: Trust between parties is important. Hopefully we can work to pass something satisfactory to all parties. There are several financial threats looming: the lack of a State budget does not help, but we are also looking at possible funding reform, a pension shift, and a potential property tax freeze on top of the caps. Things will be difficult if all this comes to pass.

Ms. Sills: Trust is important. This is my first experience with negotiations. My sense is that the teachers’ union and the Board know the gravity of the State of Illinois and the nation.

Mr. Kohnken: District 202 employees are well compensated. I felt I was. But there are budgetary concerns in Springfield, and we may be on the losing end. We need to hear what the teachers want, how the Board can empower them to do their job. Maybe they need more time to interact with one another, time to build better relationships with students. There is a lot that can be negotiated instead of just talking about money.

Mr. Laude: I’ve been in negotiations in Chicago. Relationships going in, transparency, trust, and a sincere effort to empower teachers to produce are all important to the outcome. There needs to be a shared vision. 

Question: If the D65 referendum fails, how can District 202 help to position kids to be successful at ETHS?

Ms. Savage-Williams: Whatever happens, when students graduate District 65, they become our students. We do not have a lot of time with them. The Board has been communicating with District 65 regularly. We are particularly interested in the struggling readers, providing them supports while still in District 65. Whatever happens, we will work with students.

Ms. Livingston: We have good relations with District 65 and it has improved with our joint meetings and joint achievement goals. We have a data sharing agreement and are also working on one with Northwestern University to help measure students on a continuum. Transition points are critical and we work hard to make them as smooth as possible.

Ms. Sills: This would be a time, if the referendum does not pass, to reinvigorate and engage parents. Cradle to Career is where all ducks line up in a row, working with the community to change learning. We need to engage volunteers. It is imperative to call on the community to respond.

Ms. Maunsell: Whether or not it passes, the District will build on work done with joint literacy and thinking about students K through 12. Professional development can grow, not just be high school or elementary, but shared professional development. Evanston is great at partnerships, and this needs to continue. We need to foster a culture where everyone feels responsible to support our kids.

Mr. Laude: Whether or not it passes, we will continue to take a holistic approach. We must look behind the numbers when kids are not reading to ability. Are there homelessness issues, maybe the student cannot study. This needs to be a community effort. We must find affordable housing, transition for immigrants. This cannot be done by the high school alone. I like Cradle to Career, but we must be clear about goals and objectives and continue to measure effectiveness.

Mr. Kohnken: I have always wondered why we did not have just one District. I am not sure that will ever change but we must work toward that, having greater continuity. We would need to know what exactly District 65 would have to sacrifice if we deal with that so District 202 would know how to help. When times get tough, the most in need suffer most. We need to focus supports on that population.

Question: How can ETHS help prepare students who want to pursue a pathway other than college?

Ms. Maunsell: We all take different paths but the key piece is that all kids have the opportunity to make that choice. All students need to work at a high level. All need exposure to careers. Kids need to decide and make choices themselves.  I am 100% in favor of multiple pathways.

Ms. Livingston: My brother did not attend college; it did not work for him. ETHS is a leader. We have rebuilt some technical classes that had been dismantled like the automotive lab. Some of these classes offer certificates that can lead directly to employment.

Ms. Sills: I lasted five days in college. The CTE [Career and Technology Education] highway is clearly established in the high school. Oakton programs make junior college more attractive. We have programs that give students ideas. Our manufacturing lab is fabulous. We have many professionals in the community that can serve as mentors. This interaction needs to be built on.

Ms. Savage-Williams: We do good at helping students leave high school with a plan. Our responsibility is to give them experiences. CTE is thriving. Certificates are valuable and lead directly to jobs. Itis important kids leave here with a plan. It is dangerous for kids to go into their senior year and not know what is next.

Closing Remarks

Mr. Kohnken: The process of running for the Board enables me to meet some wonderful people and see a different perspective. I will continue to listen whether or not I am on the Board. If I am not, the Board will have to listen to me.

Mr. Laude: I am a product of District 202. I am not new to education. I feel strongly for the need to strengthen literacy because literacy affects all subjects. I have experience with this and in improving outcomes. I will advocate for those who feel left out of the process.

Ms. Maunsell:  I have thought for many years about running for the School Board. It meets my personal mission to serve and help kids get a good education. I have dedicated my career to that. I bring knowledge to the position and an ability to collaborate and find common ground.

Ms. Sills: I represented the prior Board with votes for sound achievement and policies that have brought about positive change. So many community members have brought their experience to the high school. I want to continue to build on our unparallelled successes. I was humbled to have been appointed and I hope to continue to serve.

Ms. Livingston: The new ETHS goals underpin my campaign for re-election. I am proud to have served and to see increased access and success in Honors and AP, and lower rates of suspensions. There is still work ahead to address the predictability of achievement and other disparites.

Ms. Savage-Williams: I have been blessed to be a part of the School Board. It has been challenging but rewarding. Our most powerful work has been around equity, looking at disparities in achievement. The gap is real but we have been willing to look this in the face and not passively do nothing.