Barb Tolbert: 2021 candidate for Stevenson High School District 125 board
Six candidates are vying for three four-year seats on the Stevenson High School District 125 board.
City: Vernon Hills
Occupation: Managing Director of two small family-run businesses, and in March, I plan to resume working in the pharmaceutical industry.
Civic involvement: I volunteer my time with CDKL5 Research Collaborative, Lincolnshire Rotary and ROC Wheels International.
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you, and if so, what is it?
A: I am running because I am passionate about the chance to make a real difference in our community. The current board, most of whom have not had children in Stevenson for over a dozen years, are out of touch with the needs of students today. While it's true that Stevenson secures high academic ratings, that does not mean there's no room for improvement. John D. Rockefeller once said, "Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great," Rockefeller believed we should not settle for comfort, because good enough will turn into just OK after a while. Unfortunately, Stevenson's responsibility with taxpayer funds and its COVID response this year has been just OK. I want to go for the great!
The community has pleaded with Stevenson for years to be more financially responsible with taxpayer money. Currently, Stevenson taxpayers spend significantly more on their high schools than comparable districts. I support right sizing Stevenson's budget (we currently maintain an excessive budget reserve of 58%) and focusing the spending priority on educating our students versus construction projects.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: I would give Stevenson a "B-" but the school should have been an "A+" as a leader in the academic community. Though Stevenson did implement a remote learning model, it only addressed the needs of a portion of our students. SHS failed to consider that some students would suffer in a remote learning environment. Because of a failure to plan, Stevenson missed a reopening opportunity when COVID was at low levels in August, September, and early October. Any amount of in-person instruction would have been an incredible boost to our kids.
Understandably, the pandemic threw everyone into panic mode, but by April, I expected to see the Board assume a leadership role and communicate plans for the resumption of in-person opportunities in late summer or early fall. So, I was disappointed to learn that during Board meetings from April -- June, there was NO Board discussion around pandemic student needs, no reference to creating parent, teacher and/or student committees to provide input, and no focus on the emotional impact that isolation was having on students.
The first communication about a reopening plan was on July 21 when families were informed that all learning would be conducted remotely. When asked about reopening, Superintendent Dr. Twadell stated, "We're just not ready yet." Yet, during this same time, the School Board continued its focus on construction and met via Zoom to discuss numerous current construction projects.
Q: How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state authorities?
A: My role will be to the voice of the community and to champion the causes of all students and stakeholders -- not just students that are excelling in a remote environment.
Based on scientific data, it appears that the COVID is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. We are then tasked with creating an optimal environment for the students, whatever their specific situation might be.
Once elected, I would work to address students' educational needs and losses suffered because of the pandemic and give every student a choice to attend SAFELY IN PERSON 5 full days a week, while maintaining a remote option for those who need or want it.
I am also deeply concerned for the mental and emotional health of our students. There is no shortage of evidence that keeping students in isolation has had detrimental effects on their mental health. I would solicit input from parents and students on how we can best address the unique needs of our students as a result of the pandemic.
I would improve methods of communication with parents, students and taxpayers. They deserve to know how their School Board is working on their behalf to address concerns and improvements.
Q: Did your district continue to adequately serve students during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to continue providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A: Stevenson implemented remote leaning and did it well. SHS also showed us by bring back sports activities that it was possible to have kids safely back on campus. Unfortunately, SHS forgot about the over 50% of kids that do not engage in sports, who felt left behind and forgotten last Fall.
I would have liked to see tents on turf fields, small in person masked and distance outdoor meetings so kids could at least have a personal touch point prior to beginning a full remote learning environment.
While I appreciate the concept behind the full flex hybrid model that SHS has implemented this spring, it has fallen flat and kids are not attending, leaving empty seats and resources. This downside of the model that SHS implemented was already experienced at Glenbrook High Schools and New Trier, yet SHS went ahead with it anyway. Why? We are behind which is unfortunate for our students that want and need an authentic in-person learning experience.
Q: Do you have a plan on how to safely and effectively conduct classes in the spring? What have you learned from the fall semester that you would change in the spring?
A: Unfortunately, fall semester was conducted in full remote learning. But I have spoken to hundreds of parents and students to gather information about their experience and have heard loud and clear that learning in isolation, with little to know physical or mental stimulation, is an exceedingly poor substitute for in-person learning. Given how this has played out in many schools across the country, the evidence could not be more compelling -- we must continue to refine the current hybrid model 2.0, beginning March 1, and continue to bring students into the campus.
Now that we are in Phase 4, ISBE clearly states that "in-person instruction is strongly encouraged, with appropriate other accommodations necessary to ensure the safety of students, staff, and their families." And in reference to 6-foot distancing, ISBE Guidance requires that "social distancing be observed, as much as possible." Stevenson High School, with over 1 Million square feet of space, can certainly accommodate this guidance if it gets creative.
If necessary, I would re-purpose space at SHS and secure external space (empty corporate, mobile units) as needed so SHS can safely accommodate every student that wants or needs to attend full in person 5 day per week school.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: As adults, we know that life is full of peaks and valleys. I've experienced enough of each one to have perspective on future events. But at 15 or 16 years old, most teenagers just don't have that capacity to look forward with hope. Most teens have a narrow focus on life, and can't fully understand how hardships one day can lead to the twists and turns that at some point, will have a purpose.
I've had conversations with High School athletes who were abruptly cut loose from their dream of participating in their sport, and the chance to build alliances with teammates. For many athletes, sports are a metaphoric lifeline, and it doesn't just fill time, it fills a tremendous void in many of their lives. in the case of team participation, athletes effectively draw on the strengths of all team members. And from that strength, they develop social skills, camaraderie and most importantly, self-confidence. I wholeheartedly believe that we shouldn't just consider it, we NEED to allow high school sports to continue. One student told me that "sports is the backbone that he believes will make him successful for the rest of his life."