Niles D219 High School students question board candidates on priorities

Diversity and creating a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds were topics that dominated a forum for candidates running for Niles Township High School District 219′s Board of Education.

Candidates also discussed their budget priorities and potential changes to school security at the March 9 forum, held at Niles West High School.

There are seven candidates vying for four seats on the board, including two incumbents: Mateo Farzaneh and David Ko.

Three newcomer candidates – Celia Stennett, Amber Wood and Kennya “Ken” Durr — are running together, calling themselves the equity slate.

Candidates will appear individually on the ballot, regardless of their campaign associations.

Ko is running alongside newcomer Ramsen Sheeno. They are appearing together on flyers that have circulated on social media.

Also running is newcomer Sidney “Sid” Stein, who emphasized what he sees as a need to get more students into Advanced Placement or AP classes and boost the district’s sports programs.

“First and foremost, we need to have rigorous classes that are going to take our students out of their comfort zone,” Stein said. “We’re competing with other schools, but we’re also competing internationally.”

Sheeno shared Stein’s conviction about improving the sports programs on offer within the district.

“Our sports programs are lacking a few things; For instance, a football team,” he said. “We need feeder programs to put freshmen in the right position to excel in the programs in which they want to play.”

Later in the forum, Stennett said the district should place athletic offerings below its measures to ensure food security for low-income students. She made the comment while answering a question about how to ensure that all students have access to good lunch options.

“If you have low-income students that don’t have food but we have a robust athletic program, something is wrong,” she said.

Supporting students of different backgrounds, identities and income levels took up most of the student-led forum, which had candidates answering how they might change district accommodations for students who celebrate Ramadan, how to eliminate racism and antisemitism within D219 schools and how to better meet the needs of disabled students.

In regard to assisting students with disabilities, Ko said the students’ question was the first he had heard of the district failing to meet those needs.

“If we’re not providing it, we should be providing it,” he said. “If there are needs that weren’t addressed, our goal is to make sure it is addressed.”

Durr said the district should set goals and ways to measure its progress in meeting those goals, adding he preferred the term “different ability.”

Many candidates agreed that eliminating racist behavior and biases at District 219 schools needed to be a priority.

Ko said the sitting board was working on implementing strategies to reduce inequities and racial bias, though he noted that it might be happening more slowly than some observers would prefer.

“Our goal is to make sure we make all the right moves as we go in, because we speak 86 different languages in our community,” he said.

Wood offered a different take in what appeared to be a direct response to Ko: “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said. “I would suggest to you that the most important piece of making sure that hate has no home here is ensuring that the board acknowledges the humanity of those children.”

Wood later said the school board should have responded directly to students who were protesting incidents of racism at Niles North and Niles West High Schools.

Farzaneh, a sitting board member, said he would have preferred to see the body make a more direct response to those protests, saying that the district’s strength was in its diversity.

The candidate panel was sponsored by the Niles West and Niles North Parent Advisory Council, but students at both high schools came up with the questions asked, said Nikki Frey, who sits on the council and has two children in the district.

“It shows civic engagement for our students and it gives them an opportunity to ask questions to candidates that will potentially be representing them on the school board,” said Frey.

Niles West senior Ajla Dervisevic, a timekeeper at the event, said students at both schools discussed their experiences and also sent questionnaires to students in order to come up with many of the questions.

Niles West freshman Avinn Shrestha was also on the student committee that helped develop questions for the candidates. He said violence and racism in the district were two important issues students considered as they decided what issues they wanted the candidates to weigh in on.

“It’s important to talk about that,” he said. “Even as a first year student at Niles West, I see these issues being brought up, even attacks against other students being brought up every single day. It’s a serious issue and that’s why we’re here.”