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March 15, 2023
Coming out of the worst of COVID-19, Evanston / Skokie Community Consolidated School District 65 has since been faced with multiple challenges. From lagging literacy rates, to decreasing enrollment, as well as issues of safety and equity, District 65 and its school board are responsible for navigating these issues in a way that ensures all students learn to their potential, feel safe and seen at school and help the district flourish.
With that said, the stakes for this year’s District 65 School Board elections are high.
There are five candidates running for three spots on the elected school board.
Two candidates, Sergio Hernandez Jr. and Mya Wilkins, are incumbents, looking to serve another term on the board.
Meanwhile, John Martin, Ndona Muboyayi and Omar Salem all are looking to join the board for the first time.
All five candidates have their own stories for why they believe they are the right people to lead District 65 into this next chapter in the district’s history.
Voting for school board elections will take place on April 4, but early voting begins on March 20.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio with a teacher for a mother, John Martin, candidate for District 65 School Board, has always believed in the importance of education. Throughout his life, he was supported to further his education, taking him to Chicago for a master’s degree at DePaul University.
“I’ve always had, and it’s something I see in my kids… an unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” said Martin.
Martin moved to Evanston in 2015 with his wife and two children. Despite not living in the city for long, he has been quick to set down roots. He became a coach for the Evanston chapter of the American Youth Soccer Organization, AYSO and later, during the pandemic, became the commissioner.
“[Working with AYSO] gave me the opportunity to get to know a lot of different families from all different backgrounds… I rarely go anywhere in Evanston without running into a friend,” said Martin.
In his current job with a software company, Martin helps businesses to be more effective by guiding them with his expertise. As he works with many accounting businesses, he has been successful in fiscally advising AYSO and hopes to do the same with District 65.
“[I lowered] participation fees by 40 percent, for all families the first year and then another 20 percent in the second year [at AYSO],” said Martin.
Martin balances those analytical skills with emotional ones as well.
“The ancient art of mindfulness grants me the compassion to understand people’s different perspectives [and] respect differences of opinion,” said Martin.
A major factor behind Martin’s move to Evanston was the strong public school system. Currently, he has two kids at District 65 but has been disappointed by it lately.
“One of the things that I think is the most concerning is the emptiness of students. [There is] a 20 percent decline in enrollment in four years,” Martin said.
The most important thing is educating and caring for the whole child; socially, emotionally and academically. And I think recently that academic piece has been missing.
— John Martin
Though Martin does not have any direct solutions on increasing enrollment, he would like to explore the issue once elected. He noted that one thing he would look into was the increase in staff, specifically in the central office, hired while students declined.
Being a public school student, Martin has the desire to support the system. After working with AYSO and deepening his understanding of Evanston and the diversity that sets it apart, Martin aspires to put his plans for the school district into action.
“I have a deep-rooted belief in public education… District 65 has a very proud history that I’d like to build on,” said Martin.
In recent years, Martin has noticed a decline in emphasis on academic excellence in the district. One of Martin’s goals, should he be elected, would be to restore the focus on academics.
“The most important thing is educating and caring for the whole child; socially, emotionally and academically. And I think recently that academic piece has been missing,” said Martin.
One of the biggest challenges is having District 65 remain equitable. In past years, the district has struggled to enact academic rigor that would serve the entirety of the student body. One example of this is the decline in student performance on math in standardized tests. Martin hopes that by providing better support to teachers they will be able to restore District 65 to its past level of academic excellence.
“Equity and academic excellence is essential. Culturally inclusive and reflective education is what we want for our kids. Equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive. They can not only coexist but complement each other,” Martin said.
Overall, Martin would like to see more transparency in District 65. He wants the organization to share why they make policy and curriculum changes with parents.
“I want the board to be an independent institution of transparency,” said Martin.
He aims to help the community and school system heal after the pandemic and the isolation it brought. On the District 65 school board, he would have this chance.
“[Ideally, District 65] would look like a community built on trust,” he said. “ A welcoming place where trust and respect are shared among parents, teachers, administrators, board members and community members.”
With one year of experience on the District 65 School Board, Wilkins has dedicated herself to improving the equity for the D65 school system and hiring quality teachers.
Wilkins strongly believes that a strong education is the foundation for success, and her passion for education is the driving force behind her appointment to the board.
“It is my mission to make sure that every child is provided with the support, tools and resources they need to get the education they deserve,” said Wilkins in an interview with the Democratic Party of Evanston.
Originally from Ohio, Wilkins moved to Evanston to attend Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University graduating in 2006. She comes from an academically-oriented family, and currently has two children, one attending Chute Middle School and one at Walker Elementary School. Not only has Wilkins served on the D65 board, but she has also connected with the community by being involved in groups focused on equity in the district, including Walker Black Students Achieve, PEP and the African Black and Caribbean parent group.
As a member of the board and a parent to two children attending D65 schools, Wilkins says she is committed to making positive changes for students. Her goal is to ensure that every student has access to an equitable education that meets their individual needs. With her extensive background in business, Wilkins is able to contribute to the financial and strategic planning of the school district as she believes that her “perspective will help ensure that the district is making the most of its resources to provide high-quality education to every student.” Wilkins’ appointment to the board has also been welcomed by the community, as they believe her experience and passion for education will make a positive impact on the students of District 65.
If Wilkins is appointed to the board in the upcoming election, she is hoping to improve busing expenses and create structure in classrooms. Another important thing that Wilkins will stand by is the racial equity commitments. Wilkins has experienced situations where “when things get tough those equity commitments get put on the back burner,” she said in that same Democratic Party of Evanston interview.
It is my mission to make sure that every child is provided with the support, tools and resources they need to get the education they deserve.
— Mya Wilkins
She believes that it is incredibly important for the district to make sure that doesn’t happen under any circumstance because “at the end of the day it’s important [for the] students, and with the experience that we have we have, to make sure that no matter what situation the district is in we continue to prioritize those initiatives” she said.
Following the election, a new school in the Fifth Ward is soon to be established. Wilkins is thrilled about these plans; however, she believes that it will be important for “the district to continue to work with the community and hear from the community and partner with them.” Wilkins wants to employ forums where community members are able to share their perspectives and experiences. With putting this in action, the community of the Fifth Ward will be able to feel heard on their concerns or points of view.
“I just want everyone to know this is really really personal to me, and this is not like being on the board and running for the board,” Wilkins said. “This is nothing that I came to lightly. I know that it’s a big commitment, but throughout my life, starting from when I was in middle school and started to see some of the issues that are in our education system, it has been something that’s been deeply important and it’s deeply personal to me. Because of that, my commitment and my dedication will always be there.”
Sergio Hernandez Jr.
Sergio Hernandez Jr. has been a part of the District 65 school board since 2017. Since he was welcomed to the school board, he has been an avid participant in the fight for equality for multilingual students in the district.
Hernandez has been in education for over 25 years. He currently serves as the Director of Family and Community Engagement at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) in addition to serving as District 65 board president. Previously, Hernandez taught in Chicago Public Schools and some of the schools in the western suburbs as well. He has also been a community organizer and an activist whose goal has been to ensure that everyone gets the services that they need. He first got involved in the district after having three children go through the school system and seeing some huge problems in how schools supported multilingual students.
“One of the things I found out in talking to other Latino parents as well as educators was that there were some issues in regards to services for students who are multilingual. Students who were multilingual got evaluated by the schools to see if they require bilingual or ESL services,” Hernandez said. “We ended up finding out that some schools would screen students, particularly magnet schools, and they would give them a choice. The choice was you could either come to the magnet school and not receive ESL services or go to another school that does offer those services. That’s illegal, by federal law and state law.”
Upon learning this, Hernandez organized with a couple other Latinx parents and educators to bring this up to the board, as well as joining a local organization called Latino Resources.
“I really want to stand up for my students, and all students really, who require specialized services and educational studies,” he explained.
Hernandez also explained how privileged and honored he feels to be a part of a school board with such a focus on equity and to be able to serve the community in that way. He went from engaging the board as a citizen to being a part of the board and continues to fight to ensure that all students have access to the resources that they need to succeed in the school system.
“There’s been an educational opportunity gap for many students, particularly our most marginalized students, and what I enjoy about being on this board is that we are able to try and change the systems that have perpetuated or continued to create these barriers,” Hernandez said.
In the future, Hernandez hopes that the school board will work on doing a better job of coordinating and collaborating with the City of Evanston, as well as District 202. His goal is to make sure that they provide the assets and services that students–specifically marginalized groups–and families deserve.
I really want to stand up for my students, and all students really, who require specialized services and educational studies.
— Sergio Hernandez Jr.
He would also like to see young people, such as high schoolers, to start thinking about being civically engaged. This includes registering to vote when you can, and really taking the time to do research on and learn about the candidates.
“It’s important for our young folks to really get involved. We work for [District 65 students], so we need our young folks to hold us older folks accountable so we can make sure that we lay a pathway for a better future for all [students],” Hernandez said, “As a teacher, that’s something that I’ve always believed, that I serve the students and I serve their families and the community and it’s my job to work in collaboration and co-conspire with the people that I serve to ensure that we have a sustainable future for you and your fellow students when you become adults.”
Following her parent’s divorce, Muboyayi spent less time at home and more time participating in after-school activities. Whether she was at French class, softball practice, working on an art project for Young Evanston Artists (YEA) or rehearsing for an upcoming Haven Help Us performance, Muboyayi was always involved in some sort of program.
Having traveled to countless places over the world and attending, or watching her children attend, schools in different countries, Muboyayi has observed plenty of teaching techniques and seen how curriculum and resources differ from place to place. Especially after seeing the differences between Canadian schools and District 65 and 202 schools that her children were attending, Muboyayi knew she wanted to make a difference.
I would work on one of the main issues that exist right now, there’s an opportunity gap. There historically have been some inequities when it comes to Black and Brown students, and low-income students in District 65.
— Ndona Muboyayi
She noticed that here there is a language barrier, making it difficult for some parents to communicate with teachers and District 65 about what their student’s needs were. Growing up in a situation where she wasn’t able to advocate for herself, Muboyayi hopes to be a voice for the families and children that can’t stand up for themselves, whether it be because of a language barrier or other social inequities.
“I was the president of the BIPAC with District 65, which is the bilingual Parent Advisory Committee,” Muboyayi said. “At that time, I discovered that there was also a major issue with the Spanish [speaking] parents having problems with being able to advocate for their students because they were not having a lot of their concerns addressed.”
Muboyayi advocated for her daughter and was successful in doing so. Giving assistance to those who are in less fortunate situations or unable to advocate for themselves would be very rewarding in Muboyayi’s eyes.
The students struggling most with communication with the District and teachers are students of color, which Muboyayi also hopes to address by focusing on the opportunity gap.
“I would work on one of the main issues that exist right now, there’s an opportunity gap. There historically have been some inequities when it comes to Black and Brown students, and low-income students in District 65,” said Muboyayi.
To do this, Muboyayi would make an effort to find the students that are struggling and assist them in getting the support that they might need.
“We need to also possibly think about increasing the number of speech-language pathologists as well as increasing reading specialists because at present there is an issue with Black and Brown students and low-income students arriving at ETHS reading far below grade level.”
Even though some students are struggling, and need extra support from teachers and school staff, many are exceeding the current curriculum. Working towards a curriculum plan that is able to benefit all students– those who are struggling, at grade level, or advanced– and include everyone is another goal Muboyayi has.
“I would look to work on addressing the lagging literacy rate,” Muboyayi continued, “I do believe that there are some students that are advanced and I don’t believe that the current curriculum that is available District 65 addresses all of their needs as well.”
“There’s a dire need for someone to be on the board that’s going to actually fight for children and families that need the support for them,” Muboyayi said.
Omar G. Salem
Fourth-grade-aged Omar Salem already knew that he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up. After experiencing some trauma with teachers and other school staff, he knew the changes he wanted to make as a teacher in the future: creating a comfortable environment for all students where their mental health is the educator’s greatest concern.
Growing up only a 20-minute drive away from Evanston, in Morton Grove, Salem attended Niles West High School. Because of his involvement in Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) Salem’s original fourth-grade idea of becoming a physical education teacher shifted. The work that he did with DECA led him to attend Illinois State University and study business education.
Through marrying a native Evanstonian and because of his knowledge of Evanston through his work in education, Salem knew that if in Illinois, Evanston was where he would be living. Now with two children, Salem and his family are happily living here.
Currently as a Union Professional Issues Director with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Salem is on leave from his job as an English Language Learner and Business Education teacher at Niles North High School.
Academics are important. It’s school, and I think a rigorous curriculum is so important. But a rigorous curriculum without trauma-informed educators isn’t going to do anything.
— Omar G. Salem
Despite his long-term goal of working in education, Salem didn’t see himself running for a position on the school board in the past. His new experiences in this different role changed his idea of an ideal career though.
“[In] my experience with my new position I feel like I’ve learned so much,” Salem explained, “and I want to use some of that expertise that I’ve picked up from this position to benefit all children in Evanston.”
Along with this new perspective and title, Salem’s oldest child is currently attending school in District 65, and his younger child will as well. Creating a space where his children, and all children in Evanston, feel safe, and where their mental health is being prioritized, is what matters most to Salem.
“For me, one of the largest, most important but also impactful training that we do, that I’m a part of, is trauma-informed education,” Salem said. Trauma-informed education ensures that teachers are thinking about what students have gone through and that students feel safe at school.
To achieve this comfortable environment, Salem wants to see all teachers have the opportunity to go through this training. “I think the only way to [confront the mental health issues that students have] is through an equitable approach where all educators, not just teachers, but every single adult is trained on [trauma-informed education],” Salem said. “And every single adult is also given the time and capacity to be the best educator they can.”
Salem also acknowledges that the curriculum and learning going on is very important. “Academics are important. It’s school, and I think a rigorous curriculum is so important,” Salem said, “but a rigorous curriculum without trauma-informed educators isn’t going to do anything.”
Even though a well-educated student body is important, and is something Evanston strives to have, students won’t be able to achieve this if there is any discomfort in any classes. Salem wants to ensure that this isn’t happening to any children in and of District 65’s schools.
“I know that students aren’t going to learn if they don’t feel safe,” Salem said.