Issues of diversity and equity are top of mind after a year of renewed calls for civil rights and social justice reform. Some of those conversations center on American schools -- what students are taught, how they're treated, and what their teachers look like.
Issues of diversity and inclusion play a big role in Unit 5 school board contenders' bid for election on April 6. Three seats are open.
Candidate Kentrica Coleman said data clearly show an academic achievement gap between minority and non-minority students in the district. It's not unique to Unit 5, Coleman said, and it came before the pandemic -- though that's not helping.
Coleman said her top priority is addressing that gap.
“I am confident that every student has the ability to be successful and reach their individual fullest potential, no matter their circumstances," Coleman said. "But this is something that I realized can't be done without (the) community and our parents, caretakers, and educators all coming together to make it happen.”
Coleman wants to see more students of color enrolled in dual credit and advanced placement courses. She also wants to see teachers better reflect their classrooms.
"I do think representation matters. And I'm aware that, sometimes, where we live ... it may not be as easy to have a pipeline of folks or of diverse candidates," Coleman said. "What that means is that we would have to be very creative and how we address that representation fact.” She said there’s no single solution, and it will take collaboration from the entire community to solve these problems. But it also needs to be a concrete part of the district’s strategic plan.
Coleman is one of two Black women running for the board. The other, Ericka Ralston, said Black and brown parents often feel ignored.
"A lot of parents that I've talked to over the years -- even not being a school board member, but going to some of the meetings -- they feel like they're not being heard," Ralston said. "They feel like the school board listens to them, but they're not being heard. So I want to be that ear.”
Ralston said it's a vicious cycle: lack of diversity on the school board and in a meeting audience makes the room feel less welcoming for parents and students of color.
"Sometimes when people don't see enough representation of a certain group of people, they shy away. They don't want to be involved, because it's not enough representation of a certain group of people," Ralston said. "I believe that the school board has got to get out (and) talk to parents.”
Ralston said the district needs to make non-white families comfortable enough to be in the room to advocate for themselves.
Candidate Stan Gozur agrees the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students is a big challenge for the district, state, and country to overcome. He said investing in all students early in elementary school helps them succeed later.
“This is where students are more impressionable than any other age, and they're coming in with a widest range of needs," Gozur said. "They can be special education needs. They can be social emotional needs. They may just be remedial to get up to the point where they are at grade level, and build those reading and writing skills so that that can further self propel their education into the junior and high school levels.”
Gozur said it's also critical that teachers and administrators foster inclusive environments for students, adding this requires constant learning and an acknowledgement of the societal issues faced by students and their families.
Gozur supports the Illinois State Board of Education Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards that emphasize training new teachers about systems of oppression and how they impact education.
“What this is (is) just setting the bar for our teachers to be applicable, be skilled and trained to the point where -- regardless of any student that walks through the door -- the teacher is able to connect with them … and make sure that they're able to introduce the curriculum to the student in a way that will resonate with the student," Gozur said.
Opponents of those standards dismiss them as a progressive political agenda and yet another unfunded mandate.
Candidate Jeremy DeHaai said he's not necessarily against the standards, but he does have some concerns about implementation.
"I think teaching students alternative histories is a very important thing," DeHaai said. "The history that was taught when I was in school is ... it's a very one-sided view of history. I think we need to teach our kids about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history. But doing so in a political fashion is frustrating.”
DeHaai agreed Unit 5 administrators, teachers, faculty and staff should better reflect the diversity of the community they serve, but said recruiting those teachers is difficult amid a statewide teacher shortage.
DeHaai said his approach to school policy is simple -- students first. He said that’s regardless of race, nationality, sexuality or religion.
“Racism, oppression -- obviously, those are horrible things," he said. "If we can implement part of the education system to mitigate those or reduce those -- you know, ideally eliminate those, but even reduce those -- that's a very important thing.”
Another Unit 5 candidate emphasizes a need for more diverse curricula. Gavin Cunningham is running on that theme.
“One of the things I want to do if I am elected is to create a subcommittee of parents, teachers, students, staff, members and community members to reform our current K-12 history curriculum to make it more accurate and diverse," Cunningham said.
Cunningham said that means teaching Juneteenth and accurately describing relationships between Native Americans and European colonizers. He said it also means developing Black history beyond pared down stories of Martin Luther King Junior and Rosa Parks.
Cunningham said the benefit is two-fold.
“More diverse teachers would be interested in coming to our district if they see that we are trying to make our curriculum more diverse, that we are wanting to teach our students about how diverse our American history is," Cunningham said. "Because the way that it’s taught right now is a very white-washed version of American history.”
Candidate Janelle Czapar did not respond to WGLT's request for her stance on race-specific issues. But she said legislative pushes to make teachers and classrooms more inclusive can be redundant. She said those efforts already are happening in teacher training.
“As a teacher, you get trained through your schooling, and part of your education revolves around the fact that you don't pick the children that walk into your classroom," Czapar said. "You need to meet them where they are. And that includes every possible life experience that led to making the person that they are coming into that room."
Czapar said there's room to improve access to the school board and decision-making that affects all families. She said that could be easily accomplished through email communication, or offering times to meet with school board members outside of scheduled meetings.
"I think that we're going to see some interesting changes going forward in the world as a whole with this edition of Zoom that we're using today, because it allows people more opportunities to get together in a short, convenient fashion.”
Election Day is April 6. Early voting is underway. To check your voter registration status, click here.
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