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. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, we’d just like to do our part to provide voters with some insight into the importance of these local races and have some 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.

Champaign residents will be electing four school board members this time around. There are nine candidates, three of which are current school board members, and you will be selecting them for a four year term.

Jennifer Enoch, a certified nurse-midwife, is challenging for one of those seats. 

Smile Politely: Why did you decide to run for school board? What do you hope to accomplish and why are you a better choice than the other candidates/incumbents?

Jennifer Enoch: For the past several years I have been deeply concerned about the overall quality of education in our schools, and about the ways in which black kids and low-income kids have far less access to high quality education and are less likely to graduate high school prepared for college or career. I have also been concerned about both between-school and within-school segregation at the elementary level. In the school my child first attended, there is substantial within-school segregation between the gifted classes, which have very few black children, and the “gen ed” classes, which are majority African-American and have very few white children. It’s a stark difference. We like to think that kids are color-blind and that they don’t notice, but they do. My daughter had a phenomenally good kindergarten teacher who taught the kids a lot about Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, and about the civil rights movement. In second grade, once the classes become segregated into gifted and gen ed, my child and her friend Brooklynn, who are both black, thought a lot about what was going on. They told me, “Segregation is coming back to America,” and they worried about what would happen next. They speculated about whether the drinking fountains at school would get marked “black” and “white.” My daughter asked me, “Is Sholem going to be the black pool and Crystal Lake the white pool, or will it be the other way around?” I kept telling her segregation was not coming back, but she didn’t believe me for a few months because of the evidence she saw with her own eyes. This is a problem. I was co-chair of the BTW Parent Equity Committee and later joined the district’s Gifted Task Force and Education Excellence Equity committee; I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with unit 4’s failure to remedy this problem, although I do see that some teachers and administrators in the district work really hard at fixing within-school segregation. 

In addition to these issues, I was distressed to read about contract negotiations between the teachers’ union and the current board. I felt that the public statements showed a profound lack of respect for our teachers. I’ve worked closely with unit 4 teachers for several years.  I see how much work they do outside of regular school hours. I see them buy things for their classes with their own money. I see them pursue more knowledge on their own time and I’ve heard them talk about the things that helped them to be better teachers. I watch them go the extra mile to forge good relationships with their students. I notice that many teachers worked so many hours of their own time on adapting and re-creating the official curriculum so that it will work for their students and allow kids to succeed instead of presenting an insurmountable barrier. I noticed that the board claimed that they wanted certain things to improve equity, but that they didn’t explain how the extra, unpaid professional development days they wanted could even improve equity. The teachers were the ones fighting for kindergarten class size caps, a major equity issue. For these reasons I was so upset that the board was disrespectful toward teachers, and I decided to run for the school board.

SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?

Enoch: We need to make sure that our schools are warm, welcoming, safe and orderly. All kids should have equal access to high quality instruction, and all kids should have intellectually challenging work and should be learning every day. Our district has a long-standing problem with a wide disparity in academic achievement between white and black kids; while this achievement gap is present in most schools and districts in the U.S., it is a particularly wide gap in Champaign. Despite this, we have particular teachers and classrooms where the disparity in academic achievement is closed by the end of the school year. These teachers have been able to work with kids who started the school year averaging 1.5 years below grade level and have had these children end the school year averaging well above grade level, essentially moving their classes almost three years worth of learning in one school year of time. These teachers combine intense warmth and nurturing with being very intellectually demanding. They pay a lot of attention to the social and emotional aspects of education and they help kids learn how to be part of a happy classroom community. They create an atmosphere where it is safe to make mistakes and mistakes are viewed as a necessary step on the way to mastering new material. They don’t tend to teach the curriculum “with fidelity” as the educational jargon goes; instead, they figure out what will work for their students, but they do it with a great belief in their students’ unlimited intellectual potential.  I think that this is a really hard thing to grasp: how these teachers can see realistically where their students are in their learning and, in many cases, how their students are dealing with difficult life circumstances, and yet their approach, while kind and supportive, is extraordinarily intellectually demanding. When I first started volunteering in the class of a great kindergarten teacher, I worked one on one with a number of kids who started school not yet knowing the alphabet. A lot of them told me about huge stressors in their personal lives and most of them were living in poverty. These children are infinitely precious. My instinct was to coddle them and try to protect their self-esteem by over-praising them for simple tasks, and I was wrong. Their teacher was as loving as I was but she was intellectually demanding in a way that shocked me. She asked them extremely difficult questions about math and about books she read aloud; during a unit on Martin Luther King and Ruby Bridges, she asked them to discuss the nature of heroism, and they did; months after a unit on ramps and balls she asked them hard questions about friction and gravity. At first I cringed when she asked the kids I worked with such hard questions, but gradually I realized that despite starting kindergarten unfamiliar with the alphabet and despite their many stressors, these children were brimming with intelligence, curiosity, and intellectual passions. The same kids who struggled with sounds and letters were just as likely as their peers from affluent families to answer the hard questions, to quickly grasp new concepts in math or science, to make up creative stories with an impressive command of language, and to offer deep insights in discussions about books they heard read aloud. Not every teacher is as great as this teacher, but most could be; most of the teachers she mentors rapidly become excellent. One of the teachers she has mentored has won multiple national awards for excellence in teaching and two others consistently moved their low-income, black students from well below grade level at the beginning of the school year to well above grade level at the end of the school year.  Providing high-quality, effective, gap-closing education to children who live in poverty is not a mystery and it is not impossible. There are many schools in the U.S. that do so; we have individual teachers in our own district who know how to do it. We have a lot of great teachers who excel at many different things — teaching low-income black children who have coped with a lot of trauma in their young lives is a very specific thing at which we have a number of teachers who excel. According to Pro Publica, the average black student in Unit 4 schools is 3.4 grade levels behind the average white child. I feel that as a community we should treat this as an emergency. I’m all for things that would address or reduce the problem of poverty, in general. But our schools shouldn’t be in the business of trying to fix the problems of the wider society. The job of our schools is to educate children. We should focus on that. We should take note of how these teachers are able to succeed in educating children who live in poverty and create opportunities for teachers to have the time to help each other replicate successful practices and spread this success around. Every child in our community has the right to a public education. This doesn’t mean that they just have the right to go to school, they have the right to become educated. We should take this seriously, listen to our teachers, and do what it takes to give all our children an education instead of using the existence of poverty as an excuse not to.

SP: How do you plan to address suspension and expulsion rates for African American students that are out of proportion with the percentage of African American students in the schools? 

Enoch: It’s important that we create an environment that helps students succeed. Teachers work on this every day with classroom management and routines. Teachers and other staff also build relationships with their own students and other kids in the school. Schools should be warm and supportive environments for all students and staff. We should encourage all adults in schools to model respectful ways of talking to each other and to students, to model and nurture growth mindset attitudes, and to create a friendly and welcoming environment.  We need to make sure that every single student gets the message that they belong and that they are an important member of their school’s community. Students need to feel that adults in the school believe in them, will treat them fairly, and see them for who they really are.  We need to avoid overcrowded classrooms. It’s important that every student has challenging work to do and is learning every day. 

It’s also important that children feel safe at school. As a parent I got tired of arguing with administrators who insisted that a school was perfectly safe even though kids were getting punched, chairs were getting thrown, and my child got slammed into a cubby and had a fist-sized goose egg on the back of her head: so I’m going to just say that it’s important that kids feel safe at school. Constant behavioral disruption can make children feel unsafe; they get tense and put their energy into scanning the environment for potential threats rather than being able to focus on learning. They become more reactive and are prone to engaging in disruptive behavior themselves. Teachers are responsible for educating children and we need to let that be their focus. Teachers help each other develop strategies for keeping their classrooms calm and well-managed and when I’ve been present as a volunteer I have often marveled at how effective these strategies are, but no strategy is magic. Restorative practices work, but they aren’t magic. When teachers ask for help with behavioral disruptions we need to make sure they can get the help they need. As a volunteer in elementary classrooms, I’ve gotten very attached to many kids who are disruptive, and I know that they are good kids who can learn. I have noticed that some kids do well academically and are good citizens in a calm classroom, but those same kids, when exposed to lots of disruption, become very disruptive themselves. I’ve observed them acting out when they feel threatened and frustrated. With smaller class sizes and fewer disruptions to react to, they would be able to focus on their learning and do better in school.

When we look at racial disparities in suspensions, we should look at the number of individual children suspended rather than number of suspensions as the denominator, because there are kids who are getting suspended multiple times. We need to find effective ways to support these children with multiple suspensions rather than simply pressure the schools not to suspend kids for misbehavior. We need more social workers, especially in the schools that have the highest needs and the populations who have a lot of history of trauma. Suspension isn’t a great solution. It almost certainly has little or no benefit for the children who get suspended. However, it does affect other children by reinforcing that some behaviors are outside of acceptable norms and by giving them a break from disruption. In elementary schools, if we had a way not just to measure racial disparities in suspensions but also to measure racial disparities in children’s access to time spent on task on schoolwork in the classroom, we would see deep disparities here, too, because of the between-school differences in proportion of students who have a history of trauma influencing their disruptiveness. Kids who rarely misbehave are having their time in school eaten away by the frequent behavioral disruptions their classes experience, and black children and low-income children are the ones losing the most time and the ones who can least afford it. We can’t ignore chaos or shift the blame to the individual teachers. We can’t make an inadequate goal of just getting suspension rates down — it’s important to avoid perverse incentives that encourage people to turn a blind eye to problems. We need to do the hard work of giving our schools what they need, and that includes smaller class sizes and more social workers and teachers aides in the highest need elementary schools. It also includes creating warm and welcoming environments. At the same time, we should make sure that our children are not getting suspended for minor misbehaviors and we should make sure everyone who works in schools can get high quality implicit bias training. 

SP: For our readers that live in Champaign yet do not have students in the Unit 4 School District, 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?

Enoch: High quality public schools are an integral part of a strong, healthy community. The quality of public schools affects property values. It affects whether businesses want to be based in a community and whether they can find and keep the employees they need. Every child needs a good education in order to be able to expect a good life in adulthood: to earn a good living, to possess the tools to be an effective citizen, to fulfill their potential and realize their dreams. Education is a way that children can rise out of poverty and revitalize their neighborhoods. But when the quality of education is poor, children graduate unprepared to succeed in college or careers, and they don’t have this route out of poverty. As parents, people are used to doing what’s best for their own kids, and that’s good, that is the natural role of a parent. But we also need to come together as a community and look out for all of our kids. People who don’t have children, people whose children are grown, people who plan to move in a few years and expect their children will never attend school here: nevertheless, we are all adults, and each of us has a responsibility to the children of our community. So I hope that everyone will research the candidates for school board, think about what they think will be best for Champaign’s students, and vote accordingly!

SP: As a board member, how would you approach the next round of contract negotiations? What do you think the previous board did well, and what would you like to improve upon?

Enoch: I think it is important to bargain in good faith and keep anti-union law firms out of the process. In this round of negotiations the teachers asked for reasonable things, many of which were for the well-being of students rather than for the teachers themselves. I found it upsetting that the board was using certain things as bargaining chips in the negotiating process. For instance, teachers asked for all schools to get staff training time (when children were not present) to make sure every adult in the building would know what to do if an active shooter emergency happened. To me, it’s very important that teachers collectively identified that they needed this to feel more prepared to protect our community’s children, and as a parent I was very angry that the board didn’t simply agree to this immediately and leave it out of the negotiating process. 

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?

Enoch: I will continue to volunteer in classrooms, as I have already been doing for a few years. If elected I will also spend time in more schools and try to build relationships with our staff, students, and parents. I hope we can have town hall-type meetings at schools so that parents can bring their concerns and ideas to the board and have their questions answered in an open discussion format.