Why Dist. 203 candidates offer different ideas for student mental health

Mental health continues to be a focus in a district where several students have taken their own lives in recent years.

Six candidates for three school board seats in Naperville Unit District 203 say the issue remains a significant one in their community.

The April 2 election features incumbents Kristine Gericke and Janet Yang Rohr as well as challengers Char Lynnette Dalton, Cecilia Fox, Joseph Kozminski and Becky Rudolph. Longtime school board member Terry Fielden is not seeking re-election.

Two candidates say personal challenges or family histories make them especially sensitive to mental health. Several others emphasize the importance of carrying on the social and emotional learning, or SEL, curriculum the district began about two years ago. And one candidate says the best way to bolster mental resilience is to teach accountability.

Dalton and Fox point to lived experiences as motivators for their focus on student mental well-being.

Dalton, a 39-year-old business attorney, said she lost a brother to suicide.

"I'm very sensitive to spotting those signs and making sure that when we do spot them that counseling is available," Dalton said.

She wants the district to inform parents in at-risk families of the social and emotional work the district is doing through its curriculum.

The SEL program works to teach self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Dalton said it's these attributes she emphasizes most when checking in with her own three children.

"I am placing No. 1 importance on their social/emotional wellness above all else," she said.

Fox, a 38-year-old project manager for a legal consulting firm, said her mother, who has attempted suicide, now lives with her family, giving her a keen awareness for signs of mental distress.

In District 203, Fox said she appreciates the SEL skills her two elementary-aged children are beginning to learn, such as the difference between a big problem and a little problem. Even such a simple lesson will build through the years and allow students to make better decisions, she said.

Fox said she wants students to know it's OK to mess up and there is always help.

"The smallest little thing that somebody might brush off and say nothing can somersault into a huge issue, where now a child who got a B instead of an A-plus on a test thinks there's nowhere else to turn," Fox said. "We need to make sure these kids have resources in place."

Gericke said the district needs to continue implementing the SEL curriculum and also to recognize that schools provide more than learning. They're places of safety, food, security and sameness, too - especially for children whose home lives are unstable.

Gericke, a 46-year-old proofreader, said the district needs to advance teacher training in trauma-informed practices, which will help with the multiple roles educators play.

"We can't just focus on the academics," Gericke said, "because these other things will play into their academics."

Yang Rohr's idea to improve mental health is to begin analyzing measurable results, such as playground incident reports, that can show whether the new SEL curriculum is making a difference.

"We need to keep evolving that program to serve the needs of our students," said Yang Rohr, a 38-year-old global data director with a financial background and a mother of three.

Kozminski said the practice of differentiated learning can help teachers, support staff members and counselors be better plugged in to which students need mental assistance. A physics professor at Lewis University in Romeoville, Kozminski, a 41-year-old father of three, said differentiated learning helps teachers place students on the right track of difficulty and increase one-on-one engagement.

"If you can keep that progress going and have the students monitored regularly that way, you're also getting to know the students and you can identify when problems are starting to exist," he said.

Rudolph said she takes a different approach to mental health. She recognizes the severity of the opioid crisis and mental health concerns, but said she's skeptical of some strategies used to lessen these problems.

"A lot of the solutions I hear seem to me a little bit more like treating the symptoms instead of the cause," said Rudolph, a 55-year-old patent agent with three children and a computer engineering background.

Rudolph said the district can best build student mental stability by setting high standards and firm deadlines to teach real consequences.

"Nothing builds confidence and resilience in children like being met with a challenge and succeeding at it," she said. "But I'm not really sure that telling them to obsess about their feelings is the best thing for them."

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