Election 2023: Woodstock School District 200 candidates pitch raising test scores, teaching life skills

Four candidates vie for three seats on Woodstock School District 200 Board

A composite of the four Woodstock 200 School Board candidates. They are incumbents Michelle Bidwell and John Headley on the top row, and incumbent Jerry Miceli and challenger Gina Willard on the bottom row.

How Woodstock School District 200 should handle the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students is what several school board candidates called one of the most important issues facing the board.

Four candidates are running for three four-year terms on the District 200 board.

Jerry Miceli, Michelle Bidwell and John Headley all are incumbents looking to hold on to their seat, while Gina Willard, who has a human resources background, is running for public office for the first time.

The election is the first competitive one the district has had since 2017, when 10 candidates ran for four seats, according to McHenry County election results.

For school districts across the country and in McHenry County, the pandemic prompted many schools to begin remote learning, causing students to be away from their physical schools sporadically over the course of almost two years.

In District 200, math scores were a focus after students returned to in-person learning, spokesperson Kevin Lyons said last year, noting that many districts across the country took a similar approach.

The needs of this ‘COVID’ generation of students will continue to evolve over the course of their academic career.”

—  incumbent school board member Michelle Bidwell

Bidwell, a licensed clinical psychologist, said she considers the effects of the pandemic the most pressing issue the district faces – both in terms of curriculum and social-emotional support. Some work on evaluating how the pandemic affected students needs to be done, she said.

Bidwell praised the district’s approach, pointing to some programming District 200 implemented even before the pandemic, such as training on how to use “trauma-sensitive methods.”

These methods take into account potential trauma a student has faced when figuring out how best to respond to a student having behavioral or emotional challenges, rather than just applying discipline, she said.

Bidwell said that going forward, she thinks students whose learning was affected by the pandemic will have different needs than students of earlier generations.

“The needs of this ‘COVID’ generation of students will continue to evolve over the course of their academic career,” she said. “Our district needs to be continually assessing their academic and social-emotional needs for the foreseeable future.”

For Willard, she said she feels some students are where they should be academically, but added others need extra help, and she isn’t sure the district is providing it.

She added that she thinks some students are being advanced through grade levels without meeting expectations.

“I feel like there’s probably more that we can do,” Willard said. “I’m not going to say that we’re not doing anything … but I feel like there’s a lack.”

With mental health becoming a bigger issue for students, Willard said a stigma still exists around students reaching out for help. She thinks it could be beneficial to provide students with personal skills and tools to help them overcome their challenges and treat social workers as a second option.

“Maybe students look at themselves as not being OK if they reach out for help,” Willard said. “Instead of them feeling like they’re judged, maybe treat [reaching out] as a next step and have tools be a first resort.”

Beyond this, Willard said she would have to wait until she was on the board before she felt she could pitch concrete programs or resources that the district is missing.

Miceli, a former teacher, said the social workers given to the district to help deal with learning and social issues are “overworked” but she thinks the students are doing better overall.

“I think the kids have lost their social skills sometimes,” Miceli said. “But we’re getting there. I think we’re getting back to normal.”

On the board’s role, Miceli said he looks to the district’s administration to provide them with the information needed to make decisions. He views it as the district approaching the board with recommendations and the board sorting out what the best path forward is.

At this point, Miceli thinks a number of district programs are beneficial, including college readiness classes, programs to help students falling through the cracks, and the district’s dual language program, all of which he supports.

“I think the district is doing a fantastic job,” Miceli said. “I’m always amazed at what the district is doing.”

Headley, also a former teacher, said improving math and reading scores has been a high priority for the district coming out of the pandemic, efforts that he thinks have been paying off. He pointed to things such as extra class time as an example.

“I want to see those things continue,” Headley said. “The board we currently have is almost all on the same page when it comes to that.”

However, he noted that while scores are improving, they are not yet where they need to be in several areas, including math, but he said he is optimistic about the direction the district’s curriculum is heading.

On the social-emotional side, Headley said things have improved, but there still are issues of student engagement. On future resources, he also pointed to the administration’s role in bringing ideas to the board, which then votes on the path forward.

“This year’s better than last year,” Headley said. “Our job as a board is to oversee it once it comes to us. We can ask for it … but we want to hear from the experts in the field.”