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. Yesterday, we posted the answers we received from all District 65 candidates. Today, we are publishing all responses from Evanston Township High School candidates, which you can find in one place here.

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

Leah Piekarz

Leah Piekarz Credit: Campaign website

Provide your educational background, occupation, recent civic/volunteer activities, time you have lived in Evanston and whether you have children attending District 202.

I have been a high school educator for 28 years, first working as a Spanish teacher and international student exchange coordinator for seven years, and then as a school counselor for 21 years at ETHS. I served as the lead counselor for 12 of my years at ETHS. I am a first generation college student who holds a B.A. in Spanish language and linguistics from the University of Virginia, a M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from
the University of Illinois Chicago, and a M.S. Ed. in school counseling from Northern Illinois University.

After retiring from ETHS in June, 2022, I have worked as an application reviewer for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a suburban Cook County Election Judge and a volunteer interviewer for The Gates Scholarship. At ETHS, I participated in or was a member of many committees and initiatives, including the District Equity Leadership Team (DELT) and Post-Secondary Planning Committee. I also served as ETHS
Scholarships Co-Facilitator. I was an elected member on the Teachers’ Council Executive Committee for 18 years, and served on two contract negotiations teams. I’ve lived in Evanston for 22 years, and am the stepparent of two ETHS graduates. I am a proud retired member of the IEA/NEA teachers’ unions and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

What do you see as the top three challenges facing District 202 in the next few years, and how would you address them?

One of the most pressing issues at ETHS is the gap in academic opportunities and outcomes by race, ability, gender identity and economic status, and its persistence. We must continue to pursue and refine our efforts to create an equitable and inclusive learning environment for ALL of our students. This means continuing to support our current efforts like offering more pathway to honors courses, providing ample and
appropriate academic supports for students and supporting our social consciousness summits. We also must bolster our efforts to hire and retain faculty and staff of color. And we need to elevate student voice and faculty voice about what’s working in the classroom and what’s not, and to remain open to new strategies to make school relevant, meaningful and inspiring to students.

The pandemic has greatly impacted the current generation’s educational experience, their mental health and their socialization. We must prioritize mental health, even though we are an educational institution with academics at the core of our mission. In today’s world, it is imperative that we incorporate social-emotional learning and support in all that we do, while we maintain high expectations for all of our students along with empathy for the current challenges that they face.

We need to ensure that EVERYONE feels safe in school, not only physically but also emotionally. There is no one technical solution that will guarantee school safety. We must partner with the Evanston/Skokie community to address issues in students’ lives that make them feel unsafe and lead to gun possession and/or gun violence. Students need to feel they are in a safe space at ETHS, that they belong, in order to thrive.

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.

I think that the board’s hiring of Dr. Marcus Campbell as the new superintendent and first Black male superintendent in ETHS’ history should be applauded. He is deeply devoted to students and the educational equity and excellence they deserve. He brings his lived experience as a classroom teacher, AVID program director, administrator, academic lecturer and equity leader to the position. If I am elected, I look forward to
working with Dr. Campbell as a board member.

I believe that, particularly during the pandemic, the board could have done a better job of community outreach. While clearly there are sensitive matters that the board appropriately must discuss in closed session, the community eagerly seeks communication and transparency in all matters where confidentiality is not
warranted. The board needs to do a better job of soliciting information from all stakeholders. Students, parents/guardians, faculty, staff and the community want to feel truly seen and heard, and valued. The board also needs to be more forthright in sharing its accomplishments along with its challenges.

Burnout and high turnover have hit teachers especially hard during the pandemic, and ETHS is no exception. On the 2022 Illinois 5Essentials Survey, 28% of ETHS educators, up from just 9% in 2021, said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “I usually look forward to each working day at this school.” How can the board help boost morale among teachers and create a better working experience for them so that they continue to build relationships with students year after year?

Clearly, the last few years have been extremely challenging for all educators and their profession. There have been more and more demands placed on educators as students’ needs have significantly intensified academically and socioemotionally. ETHS is a school with many resources, but in many instances, these resources are still not enough to guarantee success for every student. Our faculty and staff deserve the
opportunity to have access to cutting edge professional development, and the time and space to reflect upon their practice and to grow professionally. The district must boost its efforts to become fully staffed with highly qualified paraprofessionals to partner with classroom teachers in support of our students. Administrators need
to be creative and effective in finding ways to take administrative tasks off of teachers’ plates, so that they may focus their maximum attention on teaching and learning, and building relationships with their students.

At a recent board meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis presented data on student performance in math that indicated the pandemic “has had a significant impact on math in a very real way … that’s going to have a long-term impact on math instruction at the high school.” What are the solutions you see as most effective to stop this downward trend in math achievement? Do you consider the articulation between District 65 and District 202 as effective in helping reverse this trend?

Articulation between District 65 and District 202 is fundamental to reversing this trend, as is adapting our teaching approach at the high school level to the present-day needs of our students. In math and literacy, vertical alignment of the D65 middle school curriculum with the D202 math and humanities curriculum should be the goal. At the high school, we must assess what incoming freshmen have learned and what they have not learned in terms of math skills and knowledge. All must acknowledge that the pandemic contributed to learning loss, and the D202 teaching approach must address this. This cannot simply be measured by grades, but must be measured by what math skills students have retained and are able to apply to their high school math coursework. At all levels, from support classes to advanced placement classes, teachers cannot simply move forward with the next level in material, but must review, reinforce, and even reteach when necessary what came before.

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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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