Smile Politely

Time for Urbana School District to stop, collaborate, and listen

Photo of Urbana Middle School entrance. Background is a blue sky, there is an American flag to the front, right of the image. The building is brick with a white awning with the school's name written on the awning in brown, capital letters.
Urbana 116 Schools

Some of you reading last week’s editorial entreating Unit 4 schools to get it together might have wondered why Urbana schools were spared a critique. Make no mistake, Urbana schools also need to get it together; we thought their problems were thorny enough to merit individual attention. It’s not every day you get a group of teachers so concerned that they sacrifice their face-to-face instruction time with their students (not to mention their own paid time off) to stage a sick-out in protest of the inconsistent handling of disciplinary infractions that led to an atmosphere in which a student in a wheelchair was injured twice by rambunctious students running in the hallways. 

That kind of collective action and sacrifice deserves our praise. It often takes this kind of organized protest to affect real change. We should note that the teachers placed their requests for time off on a Friday afternoon to give plenty of time for conversion to an e-learning day and/or communication about the problem. The administration waited until Sunday night to send out a message about the conversion to an e-learning day. They then announced a new policy that no students would be permitted in the hallways between classes unless accompanied by a staff member. 

In a school district impacted by the statewide teacher shortage and related understaffing issues — there are more than 160 vacancies currently listed on the Urbana School District employment board — this policy (which fails to address the behaviors that led to the inciting incident) is a rash decision that is difficult to enforce, and exemplifies the broader issues in how decision-making is handled in the district. 

To wit: Parent groups are also frustrated with administration and leadership’s lack of transparency and poor planning in decisions around collapsing the dual language schools and the closure of Wiley Elementary. Coupled with the superintendent’s push to create a standalone sixth-grade learning center in the shuttered school, despite credible concerns that this is a bad idea voted through in a biased process, we agree with the guest commentators in The News-Gazette in saying that the Urbana School Board and administration need to take a step back and engage in some thoughtful strategic planning with a longer range view. 

Another concern is the recent resignation of Urbana sub-district 2 board member Dr. Ravi Hasanadka. Following his resignation, he said the following to The News-Gazette about his experience serving on the school board: “When district administration is gatekeeping information and gaslighting individuals who question plans, then you start to wonder what you’re doing … if ultimately situations will be manipulated to get a desired end result, yet you are regularly told there is no hidden agenda.” The lone applicant to replace him was sworn in on Tuesday, April 16th. 

We feel compelled to point out that the decisions of administration and leadership aren’t just making it a difficult experience to serve on the board. Perhaps more importantly, it impacts the students whose ability to learn is impeded by the chaos in having to face multiple school transitions, hasty policies, and turnover in staff and leadership. 

To be fair to the administration and leadership, we want to underscore, as we did last week, that we do not believe there has been any intention to cause harm. We believe those in charge have the best intentions for students and families in our community. Furthermore, we acknowledge the reality that Urbana’s property tax base is lagging compared to other nearby towns. But it’s obvious that things are not going well right now and rather than continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results, it’s time to acknowledge the extent of the problem and change course.

Editor’s Note: After publication of this article, WCIA reported that the Urbana School Board voted in the affirmative to fill the board vacancy, and for Yankee Ridge to become the new dual language school.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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