In an effort to inform Evanston voters about candidates for both local school boards, the RoundTable sent out a standard questionnaire to each person running for a seat on the board. Today, we are publishing all responses from District 65 candidates, which you can find in one place here. Tomorrow, we will be back with answers from all candidates for Evanston Township High School board.

Early voting begins at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center on Monday, March 20, and Election Day is Tuesday, April 4.

Omar Salem

Omar G. Salem. Credit: Coldwell Banker Realty

Provide your educational background, occupation, recent civic/volunteer activities, time you have lived in Evanston and whether you have children attending District 65.

I am an ESL/business education teacher at Niles North High School. Since April of 2021, I have been on leave from that position while I work as a professional issues director with the Illinois Federation of Teachers. I grew up in nearby Morton Grove, married into a family of lifelong Evanstonians and moved to Evanston in 2012. I have a kindergartener in D65 and a 2-year-old future D65 student. I am currently on two D65 committees: the Student Assignment Planning Committee (SAP) Phase II and the Social Studies Community Engagement Committee. I have a bachelor’s in business teacher education/marketing, master’s in ESL/special education and I have completed the coursework for an MBA in school business finance. 

What do you see as the top three challenges facing District 65 in the next few years, and how would you address them?

  1. Improving the working conditions for the educators in D65. Educator working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. I hope to be able to ensure that all of our educators have the capacity to present curriculum and support learning with the tools and resources necessary. Teachers need the time, capacity, and training to continue to adapt to best practices and respond dynamically to student needs. Teaching assistants need time to collaborate with the classroom teachers they support. All personnel have to feel supported so they are best serving the children of D65.
  2. Providing an equitable, supportive and rigorous research-based curriculum to all students, ensuring that each student’s needs are met. Curriculum changes are always challenging, but best practices show that they are successful when we include educators, families and children in those changes. Further, especially when making changes, we need to make sure our educators at all grade levels have the training, capacity and collaboration time to best serve our students. That time is needed to find, learn and implement up-to-date research based curriculums and practices. 
  3. Capital improvements at all of the buildings in D65. Like many schools throughout the state, our buildings are old. Our children deserve learning spaces that are up-to-date, clean and have the infrastructure to accommodate students’ needs as well as support varied learning groupings and initiatives. In addition to money already allocated to capital improvements by D65, I’d like to investigate the opportunities for grants specific to construction, both from the state board (ISBE) and from other organizations.

Name one thing that you think the current board has done well and one thing that it could have done better in the last three years and provide your reasons.

The decision to build the 5th Ward school is something I wholeheartedly support. The 5th Ward is the most densely populated area of Evanston, and yet has not had a neighborhood school for decades. While building the school does not fix the wrongs done to the Black children and families of the 5th Ward, it is hopefully the first part of helping to create trust and foster a regained sense of community centered around the school. The transition to make this change is hard, but is the right thing to do. I really hope to see D65 partner with the City of Evanston, local organizations and hopefully Northwestern University, to make the new school a sustainable community school.

Something that could have been done better is community outreach. The communication from D65 has to improve. While board members are not specifically responsible for communicating on behalf of the district, it’s important to hold the administration accountable. We need to differentiate the way in which we engage with families throughout Evanston/Skokie. Just like educators are forced to differentiate in order to best teach all of their students, the district needs to differentiate the ways in which they communicate with families. Email, mail, phone calls, text messages, engagement sessions at different times of the day, in locations throughout the community, etc. District 65 has a lot of engaged families, and when information is not disseminated well, rumors will start and can often run rampant.

Over the past three years, enrollment in District 65 has fallen by more than 1,300 students. These numbers were expected to stabilize after the pandemic, but they continued to fall. Do you think declining enrollment is a concern for the district, and if so, what do you think should be done to address it?

While I don’t think it should be the number one focus of D65, it is still a concern. It is necessary for the district to gather more comprehensive data to understand some of the underlying causes of people leaving. Presumably, there is not one story or one solution for all. I am also of the belief that “if we build it, they will come.” I think if District 65 focuses on the issues I addressed in question two, we will see a change in the current trend. 

The latest available data on student math and reading performance shows that proficiency in those two subjects has remained flat, or fallen slightly, since 2015, and Evanston continues to have one of the largest gaps in educational opportunities by race and ethnicity in the nation. What strategies do you want to employ to address those issues that have not already been implemented?

Educators have many titles in our buildings. The priority of our funding and mission needs to focus on student-facing personnel. This includes teachers, paraprofessionals, teaching assistants and student support personnel including social workers, psychologists, interventionists and specialists. Students need to feel safe and supported in our spaces before they are able to lower their affective filter and access new and challenging ideas. All of the adults interacting with students help to accomplish this and have the capacity to support even further when they themselves are supported. The earlier we can intervene when a student needs it, the better. It is often through those positive relationships that that is possible.

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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