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The race for District 171 School Board: Meet the candidates

Raising scores, closing gaps, improving communication—District 171 School Board candidates share their priorities

LANSING, Ill. (March 5, 2021) – A global pandemic has created new realities for educators across the country. Will the way we teach our kids ever fully return to the pre-pandemic models? Given that learning in the pandemic world is uncertain at times, there’s a lot riding on the upcoming Sunnybrook District 171 School Board elections.

Board members will determine the way learning is delivered in the short and long term at Heritage Middle School and Nathan Hale Elementary School. This year, voters will choose from a roster of five District 171 candidates seeking election to the seven-member board.

Seeking office are incumbents Timothy Terrell and Kenisha LeSure, the current president and vice president, respectively.

Nicole Thompson, Elissa Veloz, and Cassie Hill are eyeing their first term on the board. Board member Desiree Ambrose is not seeking another term.

Learning in the pandemic world

District 171 students are currently engaged in a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they can return to full classroom participation is unknown. Whether or not any instructional gaps can be traced to virtual learning, several of the District 171 candidates believe that standardized test scores need improvement.

Terrell, a clinical researcher, said that he is keenly focused on raising standardized test scores for students, with greater focus on science and math education.

“We have to make sure our kids are ready for the next level,” he said. “I want them to continue their education beyond high school.”

District 171 School Board
Kenisha LeSure (Photo provided)

LeSure, a paralegal, is concerned that a learning gap may in fact have been created through virtual learning. For that matter, she believes it’s important that any deficiencies in student performance are addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“We need more student support programs to close any gaps in learning,” LeSure said. “Our focus should not be so much providing support across the board, but addressing the needs of individual students.”

Thompson, an occupational therapist, believes one of the keys to addressing educational challenges lies in more open dialogue between teachers and parents.

Moreover, the schools should place greater emphasis on teaching subjects on standardized tests over “teaching how to take the test.” She added that she would focus on securing grants to fund school library and technology labs. “My main goal is to make sure we’re not only performing well on standardized tests, but excelling beyond those benchmarks,” Thompson says. “I’ve seen our scores steadily declining.”

Veloz, president of the Sunnybrook District 171 Parent-Teacher Association, says that education in general will ascend with more parental involvement, as well as by boosting morale among faculty.

“We lost a lot of teachers a couple of years ago, and I believe that had a lot to do with morale,” Veloz said. “I’m not saying there’s a problem now, but our teachers are paid lower than what they are in surrounding school districts.”

District 171 School Board
Cassie Hill (Photo provided)

Hill, a pharmacy technician, said that she would endeavor to “create a template to ensure to track progress and checking in on meeting educational goals.” Relative to COVID-19, she wants to focus on keeping safety guidelines in place to protect all people in the building from the spread of illness. Working with local health department officials and designating staff for decontamination purposes will help ensure the overall health of students and staff, she says.

Contractually speaking

One key item District 171 candidates can put into the rearview mirror—until its expiration on June 30, 2023—is the teacher’s contract that was approved in January after six months of sometimes difficult negotiations.

LeSure points to her role serving on the contract negotiations committee, which she described as a “fair agreement to all teachers, district staff, and school support staff.” She adds that she enhanced her base of knowledge by completing classes that certified her as a “master” school board member.

Referencing board policies and district-wide rules and regulations, Veloz believes there needs to be more transparency in decision-making. For her, it’s a matter of improved communication and clarity involving all stakeholders.

“I was part of the district’s strategic planning initiative, and I want to make sure that it’s fully implemented,” Veloz said.

Terrell sees some unfinished business with the new contract, and he hopes to address them the next round of negotiations. That issue, he says, concerns teachers’ daily planning period, which the faculty chose not to relinquish in lieu of more classroom teaching time.

District 171 School Board
Nicole Thompson (Photo provided)

Thompson believes the contract will be only as strong as the communication and collaboration between the board, teachers, administrators, and parents. She intends to be proactive in seeking input beyond the dialogue among board members, and she believes they should be more collaborative and present with other local governing bodies, such as the Lansing Village Board.

Hill also regards communication as a key issue, particularly when the next round of contract negotiations begins. “We had a rough time before,” she said.

More about the District 171 School Board candidates

The financial solvency of the district and fair wages/salaries are high on Terrell’s list of key issues, as is the pursuit of new and progressive teaching methods, be it virtual or in-person learning.

“My kids went through this school district, and it was a wonderful experience for them,” Terrell says. “I want to give back and make it even better.”

Thompson describes herself a “cheerleader” for parental involvement. She says she will be accountable for her performance as a board member.

“I am a very involved parent,” Thompson says. “I believe that children should choose their own destiny, but it’s up to us to show them they can be successful in life.”

Elissa Veloz (Photo provided)

Citing a common refrain—“It takes a village to raise a child”—Veloz said she has seen from school hallways the impact that fully engaged teachers and parents can have on overall student success.

“As PTA president, I spend a lot of time in the schools,” Veloz said. “I’m always looking for ways to improve things for our kids. I see what’s going on in our district.”

LeSure wants to see Heritage Middle School return to a grading system of quarters rather than the current trimester system. She added, “Designing ‘sensory hallways’ at Nathan Hale will provide ‘high-energy’ students with movement breaks that will help prevent disruptive behaviors from occurring in the classroom.”

Hill, whose three children attend District 171 schools, notes her ability for “sound decision making” and a “reputation for working with integrity, honesty, and reliability” as qualifying attributes to serve on the board.

“I’m ready to give back to the community and want our school district to flourish,” she said. “Any decision I make as a board member will be done with the best interests of our students first and foremost.”

Timothy Terrell and Nicole Thompson are running against each other for an unexpired two-year term on the school board. Kenisha LeSure, Cassie Hill, and Elissa Veloz are unopposed in the election for a full four-year term.

Voting information

Lansing voters will have their first opportunity to vote when Early Voting opens on March 22. The closest Early Voting locations for Lansing residents are:

Election Day is April 6, and voters will then be required to to visit their own polling places. Polling places are determined by address. Voters can find their polling place using address-based search tools at the Cook County Clerk’s website:

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Jim Masters
Jim Masters
Jim Masters grew up on 191st Street in Lansing. He attended Nathan Hale Elementary, was a member of St. Ann Church, graduated with the first graduating class at Heritage Middle School, and graduated from TF South High School in 1981. Inspired by his journalism teacher Joe Hyde, Jim earned a BA in Journalism from Northern Illinois University. He has more than 25 years of experience as beat reporter, specializing in government, politics, criminal justice, human interest stories, and education.