By Nona Tepper
A former Forest Park District 91 teacher and president of the teachers union has entered the race for the board of education, with three open seats in the upcoming April election.
After almost five years out of the district, Katherine Valleau, owner of Exit Strategy Brewing Co., said she's ready to return. She misses teaching and the business has been stabilized. "Once an educator, always an educator," she said. Valleau feels passionate about personalized, differentiated learning, equity in D91's curriculum, and students' social and emotion well-being, among other issues.
"As a taxpayer and business owner and former teacher, we're all Forest Park, all the time. Live, eat, breath, sleep, play Forest Park," she said. "I miss education dearly. When I was a teacher I always felt like I was making an impact. We have small people who are the future of the village, future of everything. We need to do right by them and make sure we are leading by example."
During her 12 years at D91, Valleau taught fourth and fifth grade at Betsy Ross Elementary. When the district switched to grade centers, Valleau became a Latin teacher, and also served as the differentiation instructor for D91 educators involved in kindergarten through fifth grade. In that post, she counseled teachers on how to structure lessons plans and create personalized, project-based assignments that hit all students' learning styles. She holds a Master of Arts in teaching and an advanced degree in school leadership, and was involved in the D91 teachers union for 10 years.
"I've been on the teachers' side of negotiations," she said.
Valleau named equity as the district's biggest challenge — D91 scores in state tests have consistently revealed an academic gap between majority and minority students — along with hiring qualified staff. As the pace of education changes rapidly, Valleau said it's hard for every district, including D91, to find teachers who understand the latest technologies, curriculum changes and federal and local initiatives. "If I were to step back into a classroom right now, I would need a solid number of weeks to get up to speed," she said. D91 uses the Second Step Program to teach students social and emotion skills. Valleau is a fan.
"Students focus so prevalently on social media, technology all the time, and it trickles down and affects their learning. You can't be academically successful without focusing on students' social and emotion well-being," she said.
Valleau said D91 struggles to keep young families in the district, noting that there are three types of families in Forest Park: those who will stay in D91 from kindergarten through eighth grade and then wonder where they will send their children to high school; those who stay in-district from kindergarten to fifth grade and then move out of Forest Park for school; and those who move out of the village before their children enroll in school. This division has helped create a divide between parents whose children are enrolled in schools on the north and south sides of town.
"Retaining our young families is something that has been an issue for a number of years," she said. "We do a wonderful job, K through 8, and our struggle is that we are not working with our own high school — 209 is doing a fabulous job improving all those things, and the math and science academy is great. We're getting where we need to go and it's been through the efforts of a lot of wonderful people that we're doing so."