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Q&A: School board president Martha Ross says there's still work to be done in a new term

Peoria school board president Martha Ross is seen here at a school board meeting in this 2015 file photo.
WCBU file
Peoria school board president Martha Ross is seen here at a school board meeting in this 2015 file photo.

Martha Ross is the current president of the Peoria Public Schools board of education. She's also its current longest-serving member.

Ross is running against Keisha Alexander for another five year term in the April 4 election. In this interview with WCBU's Tim Shelley, Ross talks about issues at the district and why she's running again.

You have been on the school board a very long time. Tell me why you decided you on the run for another term?

Well, I've been on school board for 21 years. I was appointed first. And then I was elected. And there are so many projects and so many kids that I'm working with now in different areas that I'd really like to just continue to work with, and continue some of the projects that we're doing. Programs like a Black history curriculum, I brought in the Parent University. I mean, one of the main things we need to do is to get our parents involved with their kids' education. We have a new set of parents that we really need to bring on board. So there's just a lot of things, and probably I'll never finish them, but a lot of things I'm involved in, I wanted to continue with.

So the Black history curriculum, I remember when that was first brought in. Tell me a little bit about how the implementation of that's been going and how that's been working.

We set up a committee that was in, I think it was 2019, when the governor (and the General Assembly) passed legislation that we needed to do Black history, 365 days a year, ironically. The Committee of 12 people looked at all the different curriculums across this country. And we came up with this one called Black History 365. We initiated it first, in the high schools from nine to 12. But ninth graders were targeted, but anyone else from 10th, 11th, and 12th, could also participate.

And it is a choice, as you know, an elective. So we had quite a few students from each one of those grade levels in those programs at all three of our high schools. And then the phase in of the middle schools was to phase that particular piece into the Social Studies Division. And they phased that in this past year, which will be a whole year. When this year is up, then in 2024, we're phasing in the I believe it's second through fourth grade. So second to fifth, because we have sixth, seventh and eighth now.

The goal is to really make this part of the curriculum throughout the educational journey.

Exactly. And we're also working on financial literacy to try to initiate that as a committee, looking at that as well. So just things that we think kids, young people, need to know as they grow into adults.

Financial literacy isn't something you ordinarily see. I know when I was in school, you don't really learn how to balance a checkbook in school, you don't learn how to do your taxes in school. So why is it important to place emphasis on that?

It's important because our kids, you know, they need to be prepared, when they go off to college. Many of them are bamboozled into getting all this money and signing this and signing that, and not keeping up with what it's going to cost them in the long run. I know, my daughter had a like an $80,000 financial commitment after she got two master's degrees. Kids need to be prepared to either do entrepreneurship or to just count their own money. And, you know, we did a summer program, SCUC did. And we had kids open bank accounts, and actually keep up with their funds and spend and save.

You mentioned Parent University. Tell me a little bit of the origin story of that. And you mentioned it as being one of the things you'd like to continue. Where do you want to go with that?

Well, we have a brand new kickoff, working with one of the administrative directors. That's coming up, I think it's May 18, we're going to do what we call a Parent University celebration. This is going to be the new kickoff. What we hope to do is to get...we have parents that participate, but the parents that would really need to participate. We want to entice them to come. And we want to do that by involving businesses.

In other areas. when I brought Parent University here, I actually studied it in Atlanta, and they had a lot of businesses working with the school district where if you had a parent that work for you, you would allow them an hour off with pay to participate in their kids education, and also they had businesses that sponsored maybe a breakfast or lunch. And it was a learning opportunity for young people, for parents to learn how to work with the teachers, how to work with administration, and they get credit for even going online and sending an email or taking them to the library. And at some point, I'd like to make it a kind of thing where they get credit that could go towards something.

One thing I did want to talk about would be how the school district deals with trauma and various mental health and behavioral issues. Now, of course, there's the Wraparound Center at Trewyn, when but what do you see in terms of your vision for that, in terms of helping the district really help students and families with those things?

Well, the one entity, as you mentioned, is the Wraparound Center, which does deal with families. And they don't even have to be Peoria Public School families, just anyone that that needs the assistance. But there is a lot of trauma out here. And so we have individuals in our schools, and almost in every school, basically, that are counselors, and then also aids from different companies that we pay to deal with issues that kids have.

And we have another program down that tree went to for the younger kids, to if they can't make it in a regular classroom, they go there to kind of get ready to go back into a regular classroom. And then we have the alternative programs, which deals with things like the Wraparound, the Game Changer, which deals with students that just are not ready to be in a classroom with other students, and they have therapeutic kind of issues. And they have people there to help them with that.

So we have a lot of outside entities helping with our kids mentoring, and, and now what they have to do is identify the need, and then attack that need as we go along. I'm a therapist by trade, counselor from here at Bradley. But I just know, we just have to attack it right now. Otherwise, you know, we have 10 year olds doing things that normally adults would be doing. So yeah, there's a lot going on.

So it's definitely an approach that's going to be it's really an all hands on deck thing. It's not just Peoria Public Schools, it's Peoria Public Schools plus a lot of other people.

And that's one of the things I've been wanting to do, is get the community more involved. Because it's all of our issue. I always say if you either pay now or pay late. So if we can get them to invest, and a lot of them are, there a lot of things that we do, and people don't even know about, like the D Squared program. When you graduate from high school, you know, you can get out of high school and have a two year certificate at ICC. So it makes it a lot of stuff that we do that people just don't know about.

A problem that a lot of schools are dealing with teacher shortages and teacher retention. That's that's been coming out reports for year after year after year. That's a major issue. How do you think Peoria Public Schools is dealing with that? And do you have any thoughts on other things they could be doing?

Well, you know, we've offered incentives. But the most recent thing that we've done probably the last few years, is that we brought in teachers from other areas. I remember when, I've been through six superintendents, have helped hire six superintendents, but we brought people from Spain, and then we brought people from the islands. And this year, we've brought in about 30 people so far. We have to get them from somewhere.

So we have the Grow Your Own program, that we have a few people that have come out of that, and we want to enhance that. So it is a shortage everywhere. I mean, it not just in the school district, but in businesses. You hear people say they can't find people, especially in childcare, and early childhood education. They just can't find people, so so I think that we need to be more aggressive, and working with colleges to actually recruit, and help people come from go into those areas and help them somehow, in a way, pay the bill, pay their tuition, so that they can come to work for us.

We do a lot of that already in our recruitment. If someone is graduating, we'll give them a letter of promise that they're going to they can come to us, and there's been some people who we Grow Our Own by taking some of our aides and sending them to school to help them get their education so that they can come to work for us. But it is a shortage of teachers.

And one thing I asked every candidate that comes in here. Obviously, as a member of the school board, you are one member. So in order to get things done, you've got to be able to work with the other members to get things done. Tell me a little bit about your track record on building consensus and getting things done.

Well, I think I'm pretty good at that. I don't know if anybody else thinks that, but I think I'm pretty good at building consensus and working with other people. If I hadn't been, I probably wouldn't still be on the board all this time. Most of the people ever respected me with the history that I have, felt, asked me 'well, how has this been done in the past?' kind of thing.

So it's just about working with other people and actually valuing people's opinions and looking out for their best interests as well, because it seems like everybody that comes on to any kind of board has an interest. Mine is more of a passion. You know, I want to see education enhanced, and I want to see kids succeed. And others, they probably have some of those passions too. But I think I've worked pretty well with most of the most of the board members and have always. I've been through a lot of board members.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.