Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.
There are two contested races for the Urbana District 116 School Board, which is divided into sub districts. If you live in sub districts 4 or 6, you will have this race on your ballot. Not sure which district you’re in? You can look up that info here. These are four year terms.
Paul Poulosky is an incumbent running for another four years in sub district 6.
Smile Politely: Why should voters keep you on the District 116 school board? What successes can you point to and what do you hope to improve upon?
Poulosky: Our family chose to live in Urbana because of the great neighborhood schools. We wanted our four kids to go to the same school that their neighbors did. We wanted our daughter, who is of a different race from my wife and me, to attend a school where there would always be someone who looked like her in the same classroom. The multicultural student body in Urbana was also a huge draw. We wanted all of our kids to be educated along with people who were not like them. They will be far better prepared for life in the real world having friends from all backgrounds.
My personal involvement with the school board began about ten years ago when the board was discussing how to utilize its elementary facilities. The board president had stated in public that he was in favor of closing one of the three southernmost elementary schools, moving these students into the other two buildings. It would then potentially convert that school into a new early childhood school. A group of parents organized to learn about why that board was considering this and to make sure that our voices were heard.
At the time I noted that most of the board members did not have young children in the district, and decided to run to ensure a member of the board could provide that voice. I will only serve as a board member while I have children attending its schools.
Partly due to our group’s efforts and input, the board decided to keep all of its elementary buildings operating as elementary schools and added a new early childhood building at the Prairie campus on Washington street.
Since facilities issues were the main issue that brought me to the board, they have also been a large focus of my time on the board. I chaired a committee of concerned citizens, students, and staff members who prioritized all of the large facilities needs that the district has, and the priorities coming out of that group’s efforts are driving the board’s decisions on priorities going forward.
The district has been slowly updating its elementary buildings with dedicated space for fine and performing arts, separate gyms and multi-purpose rooms, and additional classroom space. Leal was done before my time on the board. King, Williams, and Yankee Ridge have now been brought up to this standard.
The top priority from the committee was to eliminate the inequities in our elementary buildings and bring Wiley school and Thomas Paine school up to the same standard as the rest of our buildings, and I want to remain on the board to ensure that commitment is met.
The expansion of the dual language program is another issue driving my desire to continue on the board. This program is one of the crown jewels of the district. The traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) program that the district had prior to the implementation of dual language operated more as as school within a school. The native Spanish speakers and the native English speakers did not have much interaction.
With dual language, the classrooms are comprised of one half to two-thirds native speakers of the target language while the rest of the students are native English speakers. Test results show that both groups are performing more strongly academically on standardized tests, and the schools are far more socially integrated. It has been an unmitigated success and Dr Wiemelt and Guadalupe Ricconi must be lauded for what they have done for this program.
With the enormous growth in the native Spanish-speaking population in Urbana, the district moved to expand this program from one to two schools, and the board was very divided on where to place the expansion. The driving factor in my decision to vote for the placement of the program into what was then Prairie (and is now Dr. Williams) School was to provide access to this incredible program to more students of color.
I am running to ensure that the district’s facilities, programs, and resources are distributed with equity in mind.
Outreach, though is something I certainly need to improve upon if I am re-elected. When contacted by phone or email, I am responsive, and make myself as available as I can to students, parents, and staff who wish to meet with me. But there are so many people who have issues with the district who would never approach a board member. I need to do a much better job of reaching out to all parts of the community to hear as many voices and concerns as possible.
SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?
Poulosky: Principal Brown has long endorsed the idea of creating a new academic screener that would identify students early on in their academic careers who would benefit from additional academic supports. This would help decrease the disparities we see in which students are qualifying for AP classes as well as decreasing the disparities we see in SAT scores.
Disproportionalities also exist for students on Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. This means that we can reduce racial disparity overall by providing more resources in special education. The district is understaffed in educators who have both special education as well as bilingual certification. Targeted hiring and professional development to close this gap in staffing would yield many positive benefits. Training all instructional coaches in special education will bring more supports an professional development targeted at SPED teachers.
The gaps at the high school and middle school are large, but the disparities did not begin there. A district wide program that provides additional education supports and early interventions at the preschool and kindergarten levels will identify and help close the gaps as soon as we possibly can.
SP: For our readers that live in Urbana, yet do not have students in the District 116, beyond tax dollars, why are these school board elections something that they should care about? Why should they do the work of researching the candidates and choosing wisely in this election?
Poulosky: I am a firm believer that access to a good education is a basic human right. Increasingly, our society is becoming less of a meritocracy and more of a plutocracy. A good public education is the best means for everyone to acquire the tools and knowledge they need to achieve their goals and be fully functioning members of a civil society.
The children in our community are our kids. All of them. We all share responsibility in helping every single child “acquire knowledge, develop skills, and build character to achieve personal greatness and help create a better global society.”
This is the mission statement of our district, and it reflects who Urbana is as a community. I want to thank all of the candidates running in races this election. The attention these contested races have brought to the schools have sparked needed conversations. This exchange of ideas will in turn benefit the board in the future no matter which candidates prevail on April 2.
SP: Are you committed to pursuing restorative justice as a way to deal with current disciplinary issues in the Urbana schools? Why or why not?
Poulosky: The techniques described under the umbrella term of “Restorative Justice” have proven to be effective in districts with even more challenges than ours. Some of these have been used in our district, with success, for several years. Restorative Justice techniques include restorative talking circles, trauma informed care, and multi-tiered support systems.
Talking circles, which are mediated methods for students to talk their way through conflict, find common ground, and heal, have been in place in the district for over six years and have had great results. There had been progress made in the aggregate numbers of suspensions, referrals, and expulsions while these techniques were used. These punishments had all gone down, especially expulsions.
The problem is that when you break down these metrics by racial subgroup there are very real and stark disproportionalities in the application of these consequences. The district had to do more to reduce them, which is why additional supports were added at the district’s secondary buildings. These include trauma-informed care and a multi-tiered system of supports.
Trauma-informed care is largely driven by professional development, teaching staff how to help children who come into schools while suffering from trauma.
The multi-tiered system of supports then adds additional support personnel into the buildings who can engage with students, build relationships with them, and help them manage behavior. These are Student Engagement Advocates, Clinical Professionals, and Student Interventionists.
The Student Engagement Advocates identify "at risk" and truant students, establish communication with student and their families, monitor their progress, and ensure that students are referred to the support services they need.
Clinical professionals are specialists trained in providing students with social and psychological supports.
The Student Interventionists perform the same basic role in the new structure as the deans did in the old, except that they no longer had the power to suspend. That power was moved to the principal. The district did not get rid of the role of dean, as much as it changed its name and removed its ability to apply one specific consequence.
In my opinion, one of the primary reasons that the secondary buildings had struggles at the beginning of the school year was not that the role of dean had changed to Student Interventionist, it was that most of the people the district had in place as deans were not hired as Student Interventionists.
We had a summer where we had a large turnover in our secondary building administrators, we had a large turnover in teaching staff, and we had a new group of people hired into the new roles. Most of these people did not have established relationships with one another, and they certainly did not have established relationships with the student body.
When you combine all of this with a new system and policies for which staff had not been fully trained and which had not permeated the buildings’ cultures, it is no wonder that the year started off with many struggles.
I do believe that the goal of providing these additional supports with these additional staff members is the right thing to do. But I also believe that until we can get all of our staff fully trained, get more of our staff to buy in to the new structure, and have enough time to build institutional knowledge and a culture around these new structures and supports, the staff will struggle.
We have to build relationships and trust at every level if the district is ever going to do the challenging but necessary work of reducing the very real disparities in the application of adverse consequences.
All of this said, however, what’s important to me is that whoever the district brings in as its new superintendent have a demonstrated track record of reducing discipline disparities when broken down by race. I would not want to excluded a great candidate with a proven track record of success meeting the goal we want to meet if they have accomplished that via a different means. As long as the method has solid research backing it up, and the district can commit the resources and time to properly implement it, the district should consider it. The goal is is more important than the method.
SP: How will you address concerns about lack of communication and transparency with parents and community members?
Poulosky: We need to give parents, teachers, and most importantly students a voice at the board table. If elected, I will put a motion in place before the start of the school year to modify the board policy manual to have a representative of the high school student body added to board meetings. There are examples of this working very well in other districts. The board and the district will benefit greatly from having students give their opinions at board meetings.
I would push for the a PTA council to be reformed, and have a standing item on the agenda for a PTA council report. This would also have the added benefit of getting parents from all of the districts buildings working in common cause, building relationships and benefitting all students.
Urbana benefits greatly from its many community groups. While the board, in general, has responded well when invited to events, we need to do a much better job of outreach to our community partners. Many of the problems facing the children in our schools did not originate in its buildings, but the school district has a duty to do all it can to help the children in its care. To that end, we will need to ensure board members sign up to attend and to participate at the meetings of our community partners. Board members will then report back via board reports.
Lastly, I would move to amend or revoke board policy 2:82 to allow board members to give informative posts over electronic media. This has been done very effectively with Unit 4’s “Board Corner” and would certainly help increase the visibility the public has in board work.
SP: How will you stay connected to staff and students who do the day to day work and live with the policy decisions you enact?
Poulosky: It was past practice for members of the Board of Education to have monthly luncheons with teachers and staff in each of its buildings. This had been done without administration present to allow staff members to bring concerns directly to the board. Reestablishing this practice would help build bridges and increase trust.
It would also be a huge benefit if board members would sign up to attend UHS and UMS student council meetings to hear the concerns directly from the student body. We need to do a much better job of soliciting student input when making decisions that affect them.
SP: How can Urbana prevent another total collapse of its administration in the future?
Poulosky: Regardless of who wins the seats on this board, there will need to be a process of healing. Relationships are broken. Trust will need to be restored. The community will need to find a way to unite in common cause again.
In order to do that, I would urge the Board and administration to hire a consultant who specializes in assessing organizational health and in how to rebuild relationships and trust. Until the district can get that done, it will not be able to reach any of its goals.
The board and the district would also benefit greatly from a broad, independently run climate and culture survey. I work in software, and have worked for several large companies that have used these tools effectively.
This survey would be anonymous, and would ask each employee questions related to their job satisfaction, their opinions on their immediate manager, how they feel about the superintendent and the board. All of this data would then be used to assess the overall organizational health. It could also be used to do performance evaluations for the superintendent and administration at all levels.
The district should also consider looking at changes to its contract language in support of teacher collaboration. The UEA has about 100 requested changes to its work rules that would support staff’s role in being a part of decision making. I would happily consult UEA leadership in collaboration to achieve this goal.