Omar Salem took first place in the District 65 school board race this spring after running on a platform that emphasized equity, communication, differentiation in instruction and fiscal responsibility. The only non-incumbent candidate to win election to the board, he received 24.68% of the vote in a five-person race.

Salem is an English language learner and business education teacher currently on leave from Niles North High School while he works with the Illinois Federation of Teachers as a union professional issues director. He lives with his wife Stephanie and their two children in the Fifth Ward. His first day as a D65 board member was Wednesday, May 10. 

He sat down with RoundTable columnist and Nichols Middle School teacher Simone Larson to chat about his goals, the process of running and what he learned about Evanston along the way.

Simone Larson: First of all, congratulations! Can you start with a general introduction of who you are? 

Omar Salem: Thank you! I grew up in Morton Grove. My mom worked at St. Francis [Hospital] in Evanston for almost 30 years, so I like to say I tangentially grew up in Evanston. My wife grew up here until she moved to Skokie in fourth grade. We actually started dating in eighth grade. So both sides of her family were living in Evanston. 

We’ve been married for almost nine years. We have two kids, one five-year-old at King Arts and a son who is almost three. He will be a future King Arts student, most likely.

Your wife is from Evanston, and you say you’re tangentially from here, but what made you want to stay?

We both worked at Niles North. When we were looking for our first place to buy, I was also coaching, and we both worked a lot of hours. We realized [we were drawn to] Evanston because there is more to do here than in other suburbs, so we bought a condo in downtown Evanston in 2012. After a few years living downtown, we realized this would be our forever home.

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Last August, when there was an opening, I decided to apply. Five years ago, if you would have asked me if I’d ever want to be on the school board, the answer would’ve been no. As a teacher and union member, we would send reps to the board meetings to listen in, to make sure what administrators were sharing with the board was accurate. So I was [attending school board meetings in that capacity] quite a bit.

But then, a little over two years ago, I went on leave to work for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. I learned a couple of my colleagues had previously been on school boards. I began serving on committees with the Illinois State Board of Education [and] sitting in on meetings with legislators, parent groups and different stakeholders. Maybe this is hubris, but I felt what I was learning through my job I could bring to Evanston. 

What were some of the highs and lows of running for school board? 

I was very adamant about [not exceeding my] $500 budget, and I actually didn’t even reach it. I really wanted to show that Evanston is an engaged community, where folks are going to do their research and vote accordingly. 

A lot of people that I trust and love said I was crazy, and even stupid, for not taking any money. So I’m proud of the fact that it still worked.

This was a really hard process. Part way through, I made a decision to scale back my events. It was a Sunday evening, the second Sunday in a row that I was sitting with Stephanie, my wife, [realizing] three nights during the work week I’d have a campaign event. And then on the weekend, I’d have multiple events. So I said to Stephanie, what if we just stop? She was very supportive throughout the campaign.

Not everyone has the time to spend six days a week campaigning. Not everyone has the money or the will to ask their friends. Equity would mean anybody who wants to run has the opportunity, not just the privileged folks. Because every one of us who ran in both [District 202 and 65] races are in some way privileged, whether it’s finances, a flexible work schedule or through child care assistance.

Salem at a Feb. 19 meeting at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. Credit: Richard Cahan

What’s one tool or structure from your professional experience that you would love to bring to District 65?

One example is the mentoring and virtual coaching program. This virtual coaching program is run by the teacher’s union and connects new teachers with veteran teachers doing the same thing they’re doing, but in different spaces. As a new teacher, I can talk to somebody who is teaching my same subject, but who isn’t in my building and doesn’t know my kids, my colleagues or my administration. Sometimes that is helpful, too.

Something I learned through the coaching program is we don’t know everything. We can talk to people. We can do site visits. For example, when I was teaching in the classroom and our district was adding an earned honors program, similar to what ETHS has, five other teachers and I did a site visit with ETHS, and we spent time in classrooms. I’d love to see more collaboration across buildings in 65.

Can you tell me more about your work experience and how you see that informing your work on the school board?

I’ve lived through what the educators have lived through. I’ve had a lot of different roles in public education. I’ve sat through professional development, good and bad, taught summer school, [and] worked over the summer with curriculum development. I was a paraprofessional in a life skills class, an ELL teacher, [and] worked with marginalized groups, so there is a broad experience that I have. 

I will come from the most well-informed background to be able to advocate, not just for the educators but also for the marginalized groups because of my experience in special education classes and working with those families. And especially in the ELL world, those are the families that often need the advocacy most.

I know you have experience working in and for teachers’ unions. How can we all really come together as District 65 educators, council members, administrators, and school board members, and do what is best for kids in a collaborative fashion? What does that look like to you?

In my current role, the training that is most requested is trauma-informed training. We only do this training if there is a labor-management collaboration and agreement. Then we, as the union, train teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators. That way, each team is teaching it to their teams.

It’s not top-down. Our team only does this kind of training if administrators and the school board agree. If the staff is on board, and administrators are on board, we do it all together. And it has been very successful, because people in the building lead it. 

As a teacher, I remember getting professional development from people who haven’t taught in 15 years or who taught for two years and are now consultants. My best experiences receiving professional development did not come from outside organizations. They were not from one administrator to the whole building. They were led by my colleagues. They were sustainable and ongoing. That is something I’d love to see in D65.

Put on your parent hat for a moment. Can you speak about your own child’s experience in the Evanston schools? What has gone well?

We love her teacher. We love the whole kindergarten team. I volunteer and run book nook with a couple of other parents, so I’m there quite a bit, giving out books to the kids.

She’s coming home, sharing things with us that she is learning. She is talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. There have been social-emotional lessons. When her little brother would try to give her a hug, she’d say I don’t feel like it, and then he’d chase her, and she’d say, no, my body, my choice. This is the reason we are raising our kids here. I’m happy she is learning these things.

Some things that we noticed, relatively early on, is communication. There have been some examples of late notice on events happening. We are very involved, we’re always on our email, and we’ve still missed some events. So, imagine other folks who are less privileged. Maybe they don’t have the time, maybe they have a language barrier, maybe they’re working. But that’s really a district level issue. We should be able to engage as a community. 

What do you want to get across to the community after you’ve gone through this whole election process?

Please trust that I am going to do what I said I would do. That doesn’t mean you can’t be upset with me. That doesn’t mean you can’t call me. I love talking to people. One of the misconceptions after I stopped doing in-person events during the campaign was that I was hiding. I wasn’t, and am not, hiding. I was actually having great conversations with folks, except on mutual time.

Please reach out to me. Find a way to get in touch. My website is still up, so people can reach out that way. Let’s go for a walk, set up a Zoom, grab some coffee. I want to know what the community thinks, and I want to take that into consideration when we make decisions. I was elected for a reason, and I’m going to be as transparent as I can possibly be.

Larson is a public school teacher who writes about her teaching experiences on Substack.

Simone Larson

Simone Larson

Simone Larson is a third generation teacher. She lives in Skokie-Evanston with her husband and two young children.

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  1. Congrats to Omar! I think he will be a great addition to the school board.

    Its impressive that he did not have a big campaign budget, but he must have received some financial help because I saw many Omar signs and social media campaigns.