About 50 parents, students and community members packed into the City Council chambers at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center Saturday afternoon to hear four of the five candidates for District 65 school board debate their priorities and approaches.

Current board President Sergio Hernandez, incumbent Mya Wilkins, Ndona Muboyayi and John Matthew Martin spent a little more than an hour answering questions about key concerns for local schools, including the recent precipitous drop in enrollment, the need for major repairs in most buildings and staff shortages.

From left: D65 candidates John Matthew Martin, Mya Wilkins, Sergio Hernandez and Ndona Muboyayi discuss their ideas at a forum on Saturday, March 18.
From left: D65 candidates John Matthew Martin, Mya Wilkins, Sergio Hernandez and Ndona Muboyayi discuss their ideas at a forum on Saturday, March 18. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Omar Salem, the professional issues director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the fifth candidate competing for three available spots on the board in this election cycle, was not able to participate in the forum, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Evanston.

Martin and Wilkins, in particular, often clashed in their vision for the future and how to achieve the best results for Evanston students and schools. For example, responding to a question about teacher shortages locally and nationally, Martin told a story about a grade level at an Evanston elementary school with two classes that each have seven out of 20 students with an individualized education program (IEP).

A few of the students in those classes have experienced behavioral issues rising to physical altercations with others, according to Martin.

“When this teacher has reached out to the administration looking for help, the response she’s gotten is, ‘There’s an evacuation room for the students to go to for safety.’ And that, to me, is really concerning,” he said. “All of these students are being impacted. The students causing the disruption, they need the support and help in the classroom. And the other students aren’t getting to access their education because of the disruptions.”

Wilkins, though, said that “change is hard” on anyone, including teachers, but that the evidence shows that integrating special education students into the general school environment is more effective for all students.

Throughout the nearly 90-minute discussion, all four candidates agreed that enrollment, equitable access to learning, a sustainable budget and funding building repairs are high priorities for the district going forward. But, in a rare moment of agreement, both Wilkins and Martin said the board and administration need to significantly improve their communication and transparency with local families.

Plus, they both said they wanted to see the district conduct some kind of exit interview with families who leave local public schools to see what motivated them to leave and where they are going exactly.

“From a district perspective, I think it [declining enrollment] is something we have to plan for. I know right now, the district is doing outreach to incoming kindergarten families to make sure they enroll,” Wilkins said. “We also have to make sure we get the information out there about all of the great things happening in the district. We’ve got Golden Apple Award winners, superintendent of the year, updated curriculum, a lot of extracurricular activities that are being instituted, and I think families need to know about this.”

Hernandez, for his part, mentioned the issue of housing affordability and livability in Evanston as a serious concern when it comes to enrollment. The city and the district are losing their diversity because of how prohibitive the cost of living in Evanston has become, he said.

He suggested working with city staff, the City Council and Northwestern University to invest in affordable housing and ensure that families experiencing housing insecurity get the help they need to continue living here.

“If I stay on the board, I want to collaborate cross-institutionally to ensure that every family has the opportunity to take advantage of the resources they need to succeed in our community, and to keep them here,” he said. “That, to me, is a commitment that I want to continue.”

Candidates give their closing statements. Omar Salem, the fifth person running, was not able to participate Saturday. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Hernandez also touted “high-impact tutoring,” early childhood programs and recently-created teacher residency fellowship as evidence of the current board taking action to improve student performance and invest in a sustainable workforce of educators.

Muboyayi, a fifth-generation Evanstonian whose relatives attended the old Foster School in the 5th Ward, argued that the current administration and board are not equitably serving marginalized students, especially those who speak a language other than English at home or who are English language learners.

She also said she is concerned about the threat of gentrification changing the racial and demographic makeup of the 5th Ward in the wake of a new neighborhood school being built. Building the school is a necessary and exciting step, she said, but the district needs to work with other organizations to safeguard the residents who want to continue living in the neighborhood.

Responding to those potential issues, Wilkins said the 5th Ward has dealt with gentrification for decades, and that the new school would “not at all” be a new driver of gentrification.

“As we all know, currently in the district, it’s not equitable for all students, especially when it comes to English language learners and students who come from diverse backgrounds, because there continues to be a massive opportunity gap, specifically when it comes to students who do not speak English as a primary language,” Muboyayi said. “There’s an ongoing literacy gap. There’s an increased number of students arriving at ETHS unable to read.”

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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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