In the past couple years, Elgin Area School District U-46 has taken steps to reach out to more families and involve them in their children's education.
While applauding those efforts, the six candidates seeking a seat on the U-46 school board say community and family engagement needs to remain a focus as the district moves forward.
"I was able to work with some stakeholders on drafting a parent and community engagement policy, which we did not have before," said Amy Kerber, who is seeking re-election. "We're one of the few districts in the area that has it. Those things are just starting to pick up some traction. There are definitely some buildings that are not as far along. I do think we have set some things in motion and we're going in the right direction."
Maria Bidelman is also seeking re-election. Four are challenging Bidelman and Kerber: Gary Percy, Jennifer Shroder, Traci O'Neal Ellis and Mary VanSlyck. There are four seats available.
Shroder's take on the district's engagement efforts was not as sanguine as Kerber's.
"This district has policies for parent and community engagement," Shroder said in a Daily Herald endorsement session. "But they pretty much stop in the district offices. They don't translate into the buildings themselves. If you want to get parents active in your schools, (it's) the cheapest and fastest way to raise scores."
In 2009, the U-46 school board approved a family and community engagement policy that requires the district to make efforts to reach out to all segments of the community and mandates that each principal should implement a family engagement plan for her building.
The district also made the family and community engagement coordinator a cabinet-level position, meaning it reports directly to Superintendent Jose Torres.
O'Neal Ellis said she would be make it a priority to reach out to black families in the district to help close the achievement gap.
"We've got an achievement gap in this district that is primarily and most egregiously impacting the African-American community," said O'Neal Ellis, an attorney. "As a longtime member of the African-American community of this district, that is heartbreaking to me. … There are some things that I can say or do … in the African-American community that no one else in this room can."
VanSlyck, a former career specialist at Bartlett High School, says the district's engagement policies need to be strengthened and that principals should be evaluated on their outreach efforts.
"We don't give feedback to parents particularly well," VanSlyck said. "I'd love to see some policy that says you have to get back to us: 'This is what we're using; we've already started this; love it, but can't afford it.' "
But Percy, a member of the Citizens' Advisory Council, said for the policies to be effective, the district must educate parents. He added that evaluating employees on outreach efforts is a good goal but difficult in practice.
"It's more than just numbers," he said. "It has to be a collaborative effort on everyone's part, but how you measure that is tricky."
Bidelman could not be reached for comment but said in a questionnaire that U-46 needs to continue its outreach efforts.