Monica Milligan: 2023 candidate for Park Ridge-Niles District 64 School Board, 4-year term
Town: Park Ridge
Age on Election Day: 44
Occupation: Chief program officer
Employer: Gradient Learning
Previous offices held: N/A
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you?
A: Nationally, our schools are facing unparalleled learning loss, teacher burnout, and leader exits. In District 64, we are not only contending with these issues, but we are also facing an unexpected superintendent exit, a divided community, and sadly, a school board that has lost the confidence of the community. At this critical time, our board desperately needs members that deeply understand the challenges that schools are facing, bring a wealth of relevant experience, and put all D64 students, not the interests of a small set of community members, at the center of every decision. I am running because I believe I can be a part of transforming this board. I bring a deep understanding of the challenges our schools are facing, 20+ years of relevant expertise as a teacher, district leader, and educational consultant, and lastly, an unwavering focus on placing students at the center of all decisions being made.
Q: What is the role of the school board in setting and monitoring curriculum?
A: The role of the board is to ensure that: Decisions are aligned to state and federal requirements as well as external best practices and research; the budget reflects the resources needed to successfully implement the curriculum; and the district is monitoring the implementation of the curriculum and sharing findings and suggestions with the board. Additionally, the board is responsible for ensuring that the district has a thoughtful communication and engagement plan for the curriculum selection & adoption process that includes: Opportunities for students, teachers and parents to weigh in at key moments; regular updates to keep all stakeholders informed; and supports to help parents understand and successfully support the mastery of new materials. This work is I know well as I spent the last decade supporting schools and districts successfully select and adopt curricular materials.
Q: Are there curriculum issues within the district that you feel need particular attention from the board?
A: Curriculum is critical to ensuring students master the content they need to succeed. Unfortunately, a 2018 TNTP study found that nationally, students only spent 28% of their time on grade-level materials, meaning ¾ of their year was spent on materials on below-grade level material. In District 64, we are in a more fortunate place, especially with regards to our math curricula. Both Eureka Math, which was launched this year in elementary schools, and Amplify, which is being piloted for middle schools this year, are high-quality, externally validated curricula that provides access to grade-level content. There is, however, an opportunity to improve our Language Arts curriculum, which external sources (like edreports.org) show does not fully provide students with access to grade-level content. Fortunately, the LA curriculum is scheduled for review next year, and I am excited for the district to select a curriculum better aligned to the latest research regarding the science of reading.
Q: How do you view your role in confronting policy or curriculum controversies: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state authorities?
A: The role of the board is to ensure the well-being and learning of all students, even when the path is unpopular. More specifically, members should work with the district to ensure stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers and families) have an opportunity to share their needs. By giving voice to stakeholders, we not only build a more robust understanding of the situation which leads to a better solution, but also helps build a stronger community that -- over time -- feels heard and excited to engage in productive debate. Additionally, members should ensure that the district is making decisions that are best for all students, even if those decisions are unpopular with a group of constituents. This means: Leveraging external expertise, research and best practices; thinking creatively about solutions to meet stakeholder needs; making a decision that supports the needs of all students; and clearly communicating the decision and rationale to stakeholders.
Q: Indecisiveness on the board held up decisions on important projects, including all-day kindergarten and building expansions? What would you do to end those logjams and delays and to get the board making the decisions it needs to make in timely fashion?
A: There is too much at stake for our children for the school board to be ineffective in its role. As a new board member, I hope to work with my fellow members to transform the board. I imagine that this would include: Learning from more effective school boards; finding time as a new board to clarify the roles & responsibilities of the board as well as commit to a set of norms; building relationships with one another to establish a foundation of trust; finding common ground in the experience of our students and our hopes for them; and addressing issues as they arise to ensure they do not fester. The work of bringing teams together is one that I am familiar with and one that I believe is critical to the future of the district. In the past 20 years, I have led teams of 100+ individuals, I have turnaround departments and organizations, and I have supported communities to come together in service of students as an educational consultant.
Q: The community and board have been at odds about COVID policies, especially masking. If the pandemic worsens, those rules could return. Did you support the state-mandated orders that students should be masked on campus and practice social distancing? Why or why not?
A: As a parent of a second- and sixth-grader, I understand how difficult it was to implement masking, social distancing, and other state-mandated orders. AND despite that, I fully supported the state-mandated, datadriven decisions from public health officials regarding masking and social distancing. Why? Because those practices were the best way that we -- as a community -- could prevent or reduce the spread of COVID across our city. And as a member of our community, I believe that we are obligated to follow data-driven, research-backed public safety orders even if it is inconvenient and/or not our preference. Inconvenience is a small price to pay to keep members of our community safe from hospitalization and/or death.
Q: Concerns are growing regarding a new resurgence of the pandemic. If another massive outbreak of infectious disease occurs, what have we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that will guide your decision making?
A: We've learned so much from the pandemic, i.e.: Students across the country had significant learning loss as a result of the pandemic; teachers and leaders were significantly stressed, resulting in burnout and resignations; and families have different opinions about masking & distancing, which has resulted in community divisions.
But more importantly, we also learned that: Our community, especially our students, are incredibly resilient; our teachers, school leaders and district leaders are caring and creative; and our community has learned many lessons and can build upon those lessons for the future. As a board member, I would push us to think proactively about a possible resurgence. Specifically, I would ask the district to work with stakeholders to: Conduct a listening tour to understand stakeholder needs; research exemplars of community responses to learn from; and create a plan that minimizes learning loss, teacher and leader burnout, and community rupture.
Q: Describe your experience working in a group setting to determine policy. What is your style in such a setting to reach agreement and manage school district policy? Explain how you think that will be effective in producing effective actions and decisions of your school board.
A: Over my 20+ years, I have had many opportunities to work with groups to determine policy. I have brought groups together at Chicago Public Schools to help extend the school day across 650 schools. I have also worked with students, teachers, principals and community members as the COO at a district in Austin to set special education policies for the district. And I have supported hundreds of schools and districts to set and execute teaching & learning policies. Across all situations, my style has focused on: Centering all decisions on what would optimize student learning and well-being; creating an inclusive space for stakeholders to share their needs; ensuring research and best practices inform decision-making; and ensuring there is a process w/ clear roles & responsibilities to help reach a conclusion. I believe these experiences will help the D64 board make decisions in an efficient manner utilizing data, research and stakeholder needs.
Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?
A: As a school board, we have much work to do on behalf of our students and teachers. We have to find a new superintendent, balance the budget and restore confidence in the board ... while we address unprecedented student learning loss and teacher/leader burnout and exits. With 20+ years of experience in the educational and business sectors, I can bring relevant experience and expertise to the board at this critical time. I have experience as: A middle school math teacher; a district leader in Chicago Public Schools; a COO of a school district in Austin, Texas, w/ 10 schools and 5000 students; an educational consultant supporting schools to improve teaching; and a chief program officer designing & supporting K-12 programming across 300+ schools. These experiences, as well as my experiences as a parent of D64 students, allow me to center students in every decision, bring an understanding of how schools & districts work, and leverage research and best practices to inform our path.
Q: What's one good idea you have to better your district that no one is talking about yet?
A: My idea is a small one, but one that I have seen transform schools or districts. It's the "Shadow A Student Challenge" from Stanford design school. In this challenge, board members, district leaders, principals, and over time, community members would follow a D64 student throughout the school day, seeing school from their eyes. Observers would go where the student goes and do work that the student does, essentially becoming their shadow for the day. While the exercise sounds unremarkable, I have led many school and district leaders in this exercise, and in every instance, it's been a transformative experience, providing leaders with a deep understanding of what it feels like to be a student at the school and crystallizing the importance of centering students in their decisions. As I think about the work ahead for District 64, I think this experience would help the community find common ground -- in the experience of our students.