Smile Politely

Questions for candidates: Lara Orr for Urbana School Board Sub-District 3

Urbana School Board Sub-District 3 will have two new candidates to choose from, as the current school board member Ruth Ann Fisher is not running for re-election. Lara Orr and Connie Dillard-Myers, both alumnae of Urbana schools and active community members are vying for the seat. Sub-District 3 includes a portion of east Urbana. You can find the boundaries of each district here.

Smile Politely: Tell me a little about yourself and your background.

Lara Orr: As an Urbana School alumna and now a parent with children in those same schools I have a unique and welcome opportunity to reflect on the ways our schools serve our students and how we can improve. Living in Urbana for over 30 years, I was a student at Leal Elementary School, Urbana Middle School, and Urbana High school. Once I graduated I left for a short time to complete my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis before returning back to Urbana a few years later to complete a graduate degree in Art Education from the University of Illinois as well as my Illinois
professional educator’s license. Although my ambitions to teach art in a classroom setting have morphed into other goals, my desire to support and serve students in my community remains a priority.

Over the last six years I have volunteered in classrooms, organized various fundraising events at Leal, attended PTA meetings, participated with the Iquales group to establish a new Leal pledge with a focus on equity and inclusion and later became the PTA president. I have worked to collect signatures for an open letter to the BOE, spoken out at public comment and attended several BOE meetings pre-pandemic. I also served as the Mentor Coordinator for the district at Yankee Ridge and Wiley elementary schools. My time in our schools cemented my motivation to engage in meaningful change in our school system and to advocate
for families that felt unwelcomed, excluded, or underserved.

SP: What is something you think the Urbana School District is doing well?

Orr: Growing and developing the Dual Language program in the district. It has not been
without challenges, but I believe the majority of families opting in to participate feel the program offers a supportive learning environment for English language acquisition. I find that as a parent of children in the dual language program we are able to foster relationships with new families in our community that otherwise might have been lost.

SP: What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing the Urbana School District?

Orr: Teacher recruitment and retention and how to build up and out of COVID. As part of
addressing racial disparities and a commitment to equity in our schools we see the need in our ability to hire a diverse body of educators, administrators and staff. Recruitment programs have been established with some of our state higher ed learning institutions to support this call but as a district it will be imperative to build on these programs and cement this efforts to support equity building.

COVID has challenged our schools in monumental ways so providing robust, innovative solutions to best support our students, teachers, and staff will be unavoidable moving into summer programming and next fall. We have seen our Urbana teachers be nimble, creative, and committed to helping all students reach their full potential this year. As a board we can lean on this vast pool of excellent educators to help lead us in solutions that work. As a board member I know we also need to lean on students, they too have course corrected this academic year in new ways that we can build off of. We have such talent here and such an opportunity to use new post-COVID funding opportunities to build something incredible.

SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?

Orr: Awareness and training are beginning layers for a school district to implement change, but they have to be surrounded by accountability of our actions past and present. It will require structural improvements in district policy that address issues of implicit bias, discipline disparities for our black and brown students, absenteeism, and the opportunity gap to name a few. Genuine, active buy-in from disenfranchised students and families; teachers, and administrators will be imperative. So making feedback opportunities frequent and accessible for students, families, and staff that cannot always feel heard in online surveys would go a long way. This will mean more work, going door to door, scheduling meetings after working hours, providing transportation, making sure translators are abundant, and calling families and caregivers to name a few, but it will also dramatically add value to the district’s ability to implement change. I would also advocate for a frequent, welcomed diverse student voice at the table.

It has long been suggested to the board to adopt a student liaison in some capacity. Building student body buy-in will also aid in the rebuilding of school building culture in Urbana.

SP: What are your thoughts on having School Resource Officers in the schools?

Orr: Working on removing SROs for over a year from our schools has led me to these
three main topics in support of my argument: Cultural awareness, transparency, and budget.

Understanding the current cultural climate in the schools and in the community is priority one. We know there is a growing body of research that states that increased police presence in schools does not make schools safer and in fact has a higher correlation with increased juvenile incarceration feeding the school to prison pipeline. Nationally we have seen a much needed shift in mainstream thought as thousands of individuals and families took to the streets this summer to stand with BLM protesters pointing to this very same argument. If we are to act on addressing systemic racial inequalities in our schools then we have to look at the ways previous systems were built around false narratives and in this case one around safety. Our student body is a reflection of our community and school policies need to catch up and work to support all our students and especially those that have been historically underserved.

From the start of the Intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the city, our current board was not transparent in seeking stakeholder buy-in and rushed the process. The IGA was brought to the BOE October 1, 2019 and just 49 days later barely passed with a 4 to 3 vote. Several calls were made to allow for more time for a more in-depth review from stakeholders and current board members. Typically such a contested issue such as this would have gone to committee and did not. The process as it played out ignored the BOEs commitment to racial equity made back in 2018 and ignored.

Finally the budget to support one full time SRO in the Middle School and one full time SRO
in the High School is over $321,000. This is an astronomical sum of educational dollars to support uniforms, new vehicles, guns, gas masks, training (not trauma informed or child informed), and salary for a mere two employees. Parents, teachers, support staff, students, and community advocates were making calls to instead use that money for more social workers, counselors, and tools to better support restorative practices, yet instead the board cemented this use of educational dollars to hang on to an outdated view of safety.

SP: How should USD be approaching plans for the fall, regarding in person learning?

Orr: This is in the forefront of my mind now and for many families and students as well. The school district should, as soon as possible, begin clearly communicating about planning what learning will look like for students and families returning to school. I see our community vaccine roll out working exceptionally well and I fully support the critical decision to provide local teachers the vaccine as soon as we did.

Providing frequent and updated data to families about COVID cases, in schools, percentage rates of vaccinated teachers, staff, and administration, and community rates would continue to support efforts for a safe return. New relationships will need to be forged with families and caregivers that have been lost or strained. The district will also need to amplify the current 1 to 1 device access for all students in the district in classrooms and at home. Commit to making sure neighborhoods are outfitted with internet accessibility and continue to work with carriers to provide free or reduced rates for in-home internet connections.

Teachers, support staff, and administrators will need to also be part of the back to school safety plan and resources will need to be abundant. What do their classrooms need to feel safe, how will teachers easily communicate with families about and changes one school starts, what are expectations for families for a safe return. We are increasingly aware of the growing research that supports a safe return to in-person school with strong systems in place. This is vital to restoring the ability to support the socialization and emotional development of our youth. Our district can be a leader in this process with strong communication and a willingness to use the guidance and support structures that have helped other communities  do the same.

SP: How will you stay connected to staff and students who do the day to day work and live with the policy decisions you enact?

Orr: I would work to establish open lines of communication within the framework of an active board member. I know that frequent, reliable communication between teachers, students, families, staff, and community will be the key in moving forward with any new policies established. Although email will likely remain the most frequent avenue for communication, I also plan to continue to actively engage in our school communities as a parent with kids in the schools and by attending PTA meetings, school events, staff meetings, and public happenings.

You can learn more about Orr from her campaign Facebook page, and hear from both candidates in their recent League of Women Voters candidate forumChampaign County Voters Alliance has information about all candidates running in the April 6th election.

Top photo provided by Lara Orr.

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