Whitnall School Board candidates share what they've learned about teaching students during a pandemic

·7 min read

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 7 to reflect that Karen Mikolainis is an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scouts Troop 598 and a library aide at Greenfield High School.

Two incumbents and three newcomers, including an 18-year-old college student, are vying for two seats on the Whitnall School Board.

A primary election Feb. 15 will trim the field to four candidates for the spring election.

To help voters make their choices, we asked candidates what they've learned about educating students during a pandemic and about the most pressing concern facing the Whitnall School District.

They were asked to provide written responses to the questions and limited to 100 words in their answers.

The candidates, appearing below in alphabetical order, were also asked about their occupations, community involvement and about any prior experience as an elected official.

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What's the most important thing you've learned about educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic and how would that knowledge guide you in future decisions about teaching students during a pandemic?

Steven Butz: The pandemic was a challenge for everyone. What I learned is that it was best to be thoughtful and not just reactive to a changing environment. It is clear to me that most students learn best in person as our system was designed to do. However, we did learn how to be more effective in the virtual environment when needed. The district paused to support the change in teaching styles, surveyed parents for internet access, continued to provide food for all families that chose to collect it, and surveyed families prior to planning the 20-21 school year.

Jon Cohn: The best learning and experiences occur in-person. In-person then becomes our goal with a focus on how to achieve it. Guidance is important but it evolves and changes. As leaders, we must take guidance and come up with clear guidelines that fit with the goal and clearly communicate it through varied means. All must remain respectful as there are a spectrum of opinions. I believe that out of every challenge comes learning and opportunity. I have hope that we will be more resilient and better prepared for future challenges.

Jason Craig: One of the biggest truths that we learned is the notion that one size fits all really doesn’t apply. Solutions for infection or mitigation are different between second grade and 10th grade. With that said, the board and the administration need to empower the principals and teachers to make thoughtful, measured, and effective decisions that will allow for staff to do what they excel at, in-person learning.

Alex Lopez: I believe I am uniquely positioned to understand and respond to this matter, as I was a Whitnall student during the first half of the pandemic. The most important principle the pandemic has taught me is the necessity of a holistic education. Our students need a strong foundation and support system to build lasting habits such as healthy eating, exercise, and social interactions with peers, as well as a network of individuals who are on the same page (parents and teachers) that hold the student accountable. This allows the student to focus on their individual learning.

Karen Mikolainis: We must avoid disrupting children’s academic and extracurricular opportunities through quarantines of healthy children. Also, mask requirements restrict children’s abilities to communicate, socialize, and learn effectively. We must use common sense and refuse to be ruled by fear. Healthy children need to be at school, and sick children with symptoms need to stay home to rest and recover.

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Aside from the pandemic, what's the most pressing concern facing the Whitnall School District and how would you address it as a school board member?

Butz: The primary function of any school district is preparing students for success in the future life they choose. What that means to me is supporting our strategic goals of student achievement, district culture, and financial responsibility. I will work to create an engaged culture in our staff that improves student performance. I also want to ensure student deficits from the pandemic are addressed and have an effective structure to move student achievement in a positive direction. Lastly, I believe that our money needs to be spent wisely and this can be seen in our continually decreasing mill rate for taxes.

Cohn: Certainly, we must strive for the best education and experiences. But how? Create an environment for learning by addressing mental health, wellness, bullying, social media, building resiliency. Second, recruit, retain the best staff, build a positive culture. Third, prepare students for their future, despite not knowing what that exactly looks like and change is happening fast. Expose students to other post high school opportunities including vocations and trades. Increase job shadowing, mentoring. Always, be fiscally responsible. We cannot simply focus on standardized testing scores as our benchmark. There is much more to creating successful, future individuals and a strong community.

Craig: Student achievement is the first priority. Especially on the edges — special education and advanced placement. Academics has to be examined through the prism of special education. For those kids that have special needs, are they getting the best education that they can possibly get? The flip side of that view is part of the need to achieve balance. Ensuring that the neural normative children get the best education that they can receive as well. Also that the more advanced students have opportunity to be challenged and flourish just as much as every other student.

Lopez: The main problem is we will have a poor starting off point and a poor system of preparing students to maximize their individual potential. We should take advantage of the high rate of learning of many students, and tailor the education system to divide students mainly by a mixture of age and ability rather than just age, as well as automating success structures. Teaching the real process of entrepreneurship starting in elementary school, teaching how to elongate the human lifespan through exercise and diet, and teaching exactly how, why, and what percentage of net earnings to invest in capital markets.

Mikolainis: In the past five years, Whitnall has suffered significant declines in reading and math proficiency, and our district’s 2020-21 composite ACT score fell below the state average. This is unacceptable. We must fully commit to continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Professional development must be personalized and relevant to classroom learning in core subjects, and we must have fidelity to a proven, research-based curriculum. I will push for detailed monthly reports about our classroom-level improvement efforts. I also recommend the adoption of a science-based early literacy curriculum with code-based, systematic instruction that supports struggling readers and increases reading proficiency.

Steven Butz

Steven Butz
Steven Butz

Age: 54

Address: 4385 S. 116th St., Greenfield

Occupation: Physician

Previous elected experience: Whitnall School Board member since 2018

Community involvement: School board treasurer; WSD Finance Committee chairman; WSD Policy Committee alternate; WSD Medical Advisory Committee; Whitnall Falcon Booster Club; Whitnall Music Boosters (former president); Whitnall volleyball parent; St. Mary Church, Hales Corners, member; Milwaukee Kickers youth coach

Contact info: SButz@Whitnall.com; Facebook.com/ButzWhitnall

Jon Cohn

Jon Cohn
Jon Cohn

Age: 51

Address: 5351 Robinwood Court, Hales Corners

Occupation: Fire chief

Previous elected experience: None

Community involvement: President, Milwaukee County Fire Chiefs Association (2020-current); board member, Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin; past president of Wisconsin Fire Chiefs Association (2017); past volunteer camp director and counselor of Wisconsin Burn Camp for Injured Children; former Whitnall Youth Basketball Coach

Contact info: joncohn4wsd@gmail.com; Facebook.com/JonCohn4WSD

Jason Craig

Jason Craig
Jason Craig

Age: 45

Address: 11710 W. Shields Drive, Franklin

Occupation: National sales representative

Previous elected experience: None

Community involvement: Hales Corners Lutheran Church, Upward Basketball referee, Crossroads Career Network

Contact info: 414-678-9823; jason.craig53132@gmail.com; Facebook.com/Jason-Craig-for-Whitnall-School-Board

Alex Lopez

Alex Lopez
Alex Lopez

Age: 18

Address: 4480 S. 114th St., Greenfield

Occupation: Full-time student, Lubar School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Previous elected experience: None

Community involvement: volunteer at The Ridge Community Church

Contact info: 414-750-2728; Facebook: Elect Alex Lopez for Whitnall School Board; Snapchat: @aberration99

Karen Mikolainis

Karen Mikolainis
Karen Mikolainis

Age: 51

Address: 12140 W. Luther Ave., Hales Corners

Occupation: Library aide at Greenfield High School, mom of three Whitnall students

Previous elected experience: Three years on the Whitnall School Board (elected in 2019)

Community involvement: Assistant scoutmaster, Scouts BSA Troop 598, Hales Corners; Member, choir, cantor, St. Mary Catholic Faith Community, Hales Corners

Contact info: 414-525-0813; karenmikolainis.com; Facebook.com/karenmikolainiswsb

Contact Bob Dohr at 262-361-9140 or bob.dohr@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BobDohr1.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Whitnall School Board: Here's what candidates learned from pandemic

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