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updated: 4/6/2011 5:42 PM

More open U-46 board?

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The four winners in the Elgin Area School District U-46 board race come from different backgrounds: teaching, social work, editing, litigation.

But all of them hit on the same theme on the campaign trail: the need, in their eyes, for U-46 to improve its outreach to parents and the community.

The four board members-elect -- including two one-term incumbents and two fresh faces -- say they fully intend to pursue that theme on the board -- perhaps signaling a shift to a more accessible and open atmosphere for parents.

"We all are passionate about engagement with the community," said Traci O'Neal Ellis, one of the two newcomers. "We all have a little bit of an activist spirit in us. I think we have different approaches to that activism."

U-46 has already made overtures toward more openness. In the past two years, the board passed a community and family engagement policy and required the administrator who oversees that area to report directly to the superintendent.

But Jennifer Shroder, the other new board member, said approving a policy isn't enough.

"You've got to get it out of the (district) office," Shroder said. "You've got to get it into those buildings."

Shroder says the district should train principals and teachers in the new policy. In fact, she thinks some sort of customer service training should be required for all U-46 employees.

"It's important to understand who the customer is and why they're important," she said.

But implementing a policy takes time, says Maria Bidelman, who won re-election along with Amy Kerber.

"A policy is intended to be broad and a set of expectations," Bidelman said. The district's five-year plan, though, contains "specific ideas and plans to carry through the expectations to the principals," she added.

Along with an increased emphasis on communication, the new and re-elected board members may try to reach out to specific, underserved populations.

"The achievement gap is one of our biggest issues," O'Neal Ellis said. "I do intend to engage with the African-American parent community to rally around that issue and figure out how we can be more engaged in the process."

Even as they work to make changes, the new board members will have to get up to speed on the district's policies and the complexities of the issues facing the district -- such as labor negotiations, the budget and student achievement.

Tuesday's winners say that's one area where experience will be an asset.

"The learning curve will continue," Kerber said. "This is a very complex job. We're constantly learning. We're constantly faced with new challenges."

She added: "I think there is a commitment there by veteran board members to help the new board members learn and get comfortable."

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