EVANSTON, IL — Five candidates are running for three open seats on the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school board in the April 4 municipal elections.
Two incumbents are seeking re-election: Sergio Hernandez and Mya Wilkins. They face three challengers: John Martin, Ndona Mubayayi and Omar Salem.
Evanston Patch sent a questionnaire to all candidates ahead of Tuesday’s vote and publishes their responses verbatim.
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Age (as of Election Day)
Does anyone in your family work in politics or government?
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I attended public schools as a child and graduated from Shaw High School in Ohio. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. I have an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.
I’ve worked in marketing research for 17 years. I am currently a Marketing Research Executive Director at JPMorgan Chase.
Previous or Current Elected or Appointed Office
District 65 Board Member (appointed)
The most pressing issues facing the district are _______, and this is what I intend to do about them.
Some of the most pressing issues facing the district are the opportunity gap, educator shortages especially in specialized areas, and maintaining and upgrading facilities.
We must eliminate the opportunity gap and ensure that all students are provided with what they need to succeed. This will require a comprehensive set of strategies, supports and resources including a focus on early childhood education, academic interventions, fostering a welcoming climate for students of color so they all feel that they are supported, using science based curriculum, and support and training for teachers to name a few. Many initiatives related to these areas are already underway at District 65, but to be successful they will require continued commitment from the Board and skillful implementation. I will continue to support these initiatives as a board member and work with the district to make sure they are having the desired impact and make refinements if they are needed.
The educator shortage is another national problem from which District 65 is not immune. It is also critical that we hire teachers of color that reflect the diversity of our students. In order to attract and retain qualified, high performing educators, educators must have a voice when decisions are made, feel they are fairly compensated, and be provided with the resources they need to be successful. I am a proponent of conducting exit interviews with educators who leave the District to better understand their reasons for leaving. I also support and would like to see programs like CREATE 65, the District’s teacher residency program, expanded.
Given the age of many of our buildings, it will continue to be important to make needed capital improvements while balancing all of our other financial needs. The District must continue to work through the Master Facilities Plan in a systematic, environmentally friendly manner.
What are the critical differences between you and the other candidates seeking this post?
I have a unique perspective based on my own lived experiences and professional background.
Achieving Equity in education has been important to me for my entire life. I remember first learning about inequity in education from my grandfather. As an African American man coming of age in the rural South in the 1930s, his educational opportunities were limited. He was only able to attend school until the 3rd grade and was therefore unable to read. However, in his eighties he started taking GED classes so that he could learn.
I attended under-resourced public schools through high school but then went on to complete a rigorous college program in Computer Engineering at Case Western and earned an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern. These experiences helped me understand some of the challenges that public schools have to solve to achieve equity and also sparked my interests in educational policy. I worked in the Office of Strategy and Planning as a part of the BROAD urban education program that helped me understand more about educational policy. I continued working towards trying to find solutions to inequities in education as a parent of two children who attend District 65 schools, I’ve served as an organizer of the district’s African, Black and Caribbean Group (ABC) events, as a PTA Equity Project (PEP) representative and as one of the founders of Walker Black Students Achieve (BSA), an affinity group for Black families.
My career experiences have also equipped me with a skillset that will help our district. I’m currently an Executive Director of Marketing Research at JPMorgan Chase. I’ve spent my career in marketing research. I know how to get and use perspectives from different people to develop solutions. This type of experience is invaluable as a school board member where it is important to take into consideration the perspective of students, families, educators and the community. My work has also provided me with experience managing teams and managing budgets which are needed on a school board.
Describe the other issues that define your campaign platform
As a school board member, I will continue to work to have a more equitable school system, ensure the emotional and social needs of students are taken into account, and keep our district fiscally responsible.
Supporting the social and emotional needs of students is important for academic success and for preparing them for their futures. Learning how to problem solve, manage emotions and how to understand their own and others’ feelings builds empathy and helps them to be good citizens while in District 65 and beyond.
District 65 has had far fewer suspensions than previous years. Implementation of restorative practices and support services (social workers and psychologists) show that we’re investing in social emotional learning and school climate. Keeping students in school as much as possible means they can continue to learn both academic subjects as well as how to recover from mistakes.
Having a balanced budget and carefully weighing the costs and benefits of spending decisions is critical. Being fiscally responsible enables the district to provide students with educational opportunities that will prepare them to succeed.
What accomplishments in your past would you cite as evidence you can handle this job?
One of the things that I am most proud of is that I have consistently found ways to contribute to the community throughout my adult life. I’ve always felt compelled to be of service in some way. My community involvement has taken many forms, from volunteering in a senior citizen center in college to being a mentor for Big Brother Big Sisters, to volunteering in a reading program to being a mentor for The Fellowship Initiative, a program through JPMorgan Chase that provides intensive academic support and leadership development for young men of color. I’ve always sought out ways to contribute.
My time and commitment to these activities are evidence that I can handle the job of a school board member. This job requires being caring and committed. While I have professional skills like problem solving, managing budgets, collaborating with multiple stakeholders and leading teams that are important for being on a school board, care and commitment are the things that are needed to really move our school district forward.
I’ve been on the school board since last October demonstrating that I can do the job. I’ve been actively involved in board meetings, cast votes to support student success and have worked to learn more about our district and the national and local issues we are facing. I’ve talked to students, parents, administrators and educators to better understand their perspectives about what is working in our district and what we can do better. I care about our students and am committed to seeing that they all get the educational opportunities they deserve.
Why should voters trust you?
Voters should trust me because I have two students in District 65 so I am personally invested in making sure that our district is successful. Voters should also trust me because I have demonstrated a commitment to equity and education. I’ve served as an organizer of the district’s African, Black and Caribbean Group (ABC) events, as a PTA Equity Project (PEP) representative and as one of the founders of Walker Black Students Achieve (BSA), an affinity group for Black families. I’ve also volunteered as an instructor of internal DEI training at work.
If you win this position, what accomplishment would make your term in office as a success?
I will feel like I am successful if students feel that they have a supportive environment in all of our schools, if there is a strong school community and if all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or IEP status are achieving high academic standards. I am focused on results. I believe that there are many strategies underway that will deliver results. Right now, many changes have been made that are still not fully implemented. As a district, we will have to work through implementation problems and continuously refine and improve until we deliver results. I am committed to holding the district accountable while also working to continuously improve.
What are your views on fiscal policy, government spending and the handling of taxpayer dollars in the office you are seeking?
In order to remain fiscally responsible we have to continue to have a comprehensive budget plan and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of making investments. Making sure educators receive competitive pay and benefits is essential. It is also essential to ensure that educators and students have the support that they need. That sometimes means hiring in positions outside of the classroom. For instance, the district has hired more IEP coordinators to make sure students with disabilities receive the services they need. Where we put our resources shows what our priorities and values are. For example, we’ve invested in multilingual services and services for students with disabilities. The district spent money to create a master’s facilities plan in order to work towards upgrading facilities in a planful manner which will reduce emergency repair costs. In other instances, there are opportunities to cut costs, such as busing, that may not directly impact student success. There are also ways to increase revenue through grants.
Taking a one size fits all approach to the budget, such as just focusing on the number of teachers vs. administrators hired, does not adequately take into account all of the intricacies of a school district and is not what is best for students. In order to most efficiently manage a budget it is necessary to go beyond simple rhetoric and really weigh the cost and benefits of decisions on student success. A well thought out approach has enabled the district to have a balanced budget, add to the reserves, earn the highest financial rating, achieve clean financial audits, and bring in millions in additional grant dollars.
What would you do to improve the district’s retention and recruitment of educational professionals?
Despite what is sometimes stated, District 65 has a good working relationship with educational professionals. The district has worked hard to build a collaborative relationship with teachers and educators. District leadership meets with educators regularly so they have a voice when decisions are made. The district is committed to providing educators with the resources they need to be successful.
However, the educator shortage is a national problem from which District 65 is not immune.
To combat the educator shortage, District 65 has already instituted residency programs designed to create pathways for individuals to earn their teacher certifications (CREATE65), their principal and assistant principal certification (Aspiring Leaders), and an apprenticeship program for paraprofessionals in a partnership with BloomBoard. As a Board member I will continue to support these programs. I am a proponent of creating even more forums for teachers to provide suggestions and feedback and of conducting exit interviews with educators who leave the district to better understand their reasons for leaving.
In what areas, if any, are students in the district exceeding standards? In what ways, if any, are they falling behind?
Student achievement needs to be evaluated on a range of measures. No single number can portray everything about a student or district. While measures like IAR test results indicate that District 65 is ahead of the state, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. Although we’ve made progress, the district still hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic. This is not unique to District 65, but it does indicate why so many initiatives such as high dose tutoring through Academic Skill Centers, are more important than ever.
What stands out more than anything else when looking at the district is the opportunity gap that has persisted over time. We cannot be a great district unless all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or IEP status are able to succeed. This is the impetus behind all of the measures underway to advance equity.
Do you think the current school board has done enough to support racial equality? If not, what specifically should be done to do so?
The school board should be commended for instituting a set of comprehensive strategies to promote equity, The approval of a 5th Ward School, Academic Skills Centers, new curricula, expanded summer learning opportunities, and policies that reduce disproportionality in discipline by race are a some of the developments that fully demonstrate that the board is committed to equity.
Unfortunately, the pandemic was a setback. The board had just started to identify and institute new policies to advance equity when the pandemic hit. Now strategies are being implemented that will positively impact students. However, fixing a problem that has been around for decades will not happen overnight. We will have to continue to evaluate how strategies are working, make changes that need to be made to effectively implement them and refine when we see that things need to get better.
Is there any reason you would not serve your full term of office, other than those of health or family?
The best advice ever shared with me was:
The best advice shared with me is to never give up. My family taught me this not only through words but by demonstrating resilience and diligence. I think of this lesson often as a school board member. Some of the changes that need to be made in District 65 will be hard. It is hard to change the trajectory and make sure all students have what they need to succeed, knowing that not everyone is starting from the same place. However, I will not give up on any children. I hope that I will be given the opportunity to remain on the school board so I can continue to work on behalf of students and see our goal of being a great district for all students achieved.
What else would you like voters to know about yourself and your positions?
I am proud of the work that the district is doing to support all students and I am committed to seeing students succeed.
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