An Oak Park principal will replace Merryl Brownlow this summer as the top curriculum administrator in Riverside Elementary School District 96, although two members of the Board of Education voted against hiring her. 

On March 20, the District 96 school board voted 5-2 to accept the recommendation of Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye to hire Angela Dolezal as the district’s director of teaching and learning starting July 1. Brownlow held the title of assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

“I changed the title, but we did not change the job description,” Ryan-Toye said. “We did consider people with less experience and less seniority as part of our process. We ended up hiring someone with a good amount of experience.”

Dolezal received a one-year contract and her annual salary will be $135,000. She has served for nearly 13 years as the principal of Longfellow School, a pre-K through fifth grade school, in Oak Park.

Brownlow is leaving District 96 after four years to become a superintendent of a small school district in Palos Heights.

School board President Jeff Miller and the board’s education committee chairwoman Shari Klyber voted against hiring Dolezal, saying they were concerned about a pattern of declining test scores in Oak Park District 97 where Dolezal currently works.

After outlining significant improvements in test scores by students in District 96 under Brownlow, Miller said that he just couldn’t vote to hire someone whose experience has been mostly in a district where test scores have been trending lower.

“Over the last three years the percentage of students in District 97 who met or exceeded expectations have declined by large margins,” Miller said. “Our numbers have gone up; their numbers have gone down year on year over three years.”

Klyber, who not only chairs the board’s education committee but was the only board member involved in interviewing the candidates for the position, said she, too, was troubled by declining test scores in District 97.

“Dues to gaps in our interview process, I will be a dissent vote,” Klyber said. “I’m interested in promoting our own achievement growth through those with background and with those with background in content expertise and pedagogy from districts with upward trending achievement similar to our own.”

Other board members followed the recommendation of Ryan-Toye.

“I trust that process that occurred here and I’m looking forward to really great things,” said board member Rich Regan.

Board member David Barsotti said he trusts the people who recommended Dolezal and that it wasn’t all bad that that Dolezal comes from a district that has seen worsening test scores.

“There’s a lot to be said in learning what goes on in districts that might not be doing well,” Barsotti said.

After the vote, both Klyber and Miller said they wished Dolezal well, vowed to support her and work with her, and repeated that that their no votes were in no way a reflection of their views of Dolezal personally.

“I will work with you and will support you in your efforts to raise these standards here in District 96 and for our students, 100 percent support,” Miller said

 Klyber, a former teacher, said that there were many things she liked about Dolezal.

“She in the interview really committed to being visible, a teacher voice, building relationships with staff,” Klyber said. “Her view that assessment is more than a unit test and making sure we pre-assess every child to know where they are when they start was amazing and amazingly appropriate and she has such energy so I really look forward to working with her.”

In a telephone interview, Dolezal said she was not troubled by the two votes against hiring her and chose to look on the bright side.

“I’m really excited to work with board members who are so committed to student growth,” Dolezal said.

Scores on the state-mandated PARCC exam at Longfellow School have outperformed the District 97 averages for the past few years. Last year 58 percent of Longfellow students met or exceeded the state’s standards in English Language Arts and 60 percent did so in math. Test scores have been also been declining at Longfellow, however. In 2015, 72 percent of students met or exceeded the state standards in ELA.

One factor in the declining test scores in District 97 may be that a greater percentage of students in Riverside (98 percent) took the state-mandated PARCC exam than did so in Oak Park (88 percent). 

Dolezal said she believes opt-outs come from all sorts of students, but, at least in District 96, Brownlow said students who opt out generally are strong performing students.

Ryan-Toye said that Dolezal was the strongest candidate among the more than 100 people who applied for the position.

“She’s an excellent educational leader, very collaborative, and very student-centered,” Ryan-Toye said. “She did an incredible job throughout our interview process and emerged as our finalist.”

Dolezal said she knows that Brownlow will be a tough act to follow.

“It’s exciting to come in and continue to work off the foundation that she and the team has built and to continue on that level of improvement,” Dolezal said.

Like Brownlow, Dolezal is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was a flag twirler for the marching band. She grew up in Bellevue, Nebraska, and was a teacher for eight years before becoming the principal at Longfellow School in 2006.

She earned a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision at the University of Nebraska and is currently a doctoral student at Loyola University.

This story has been changed to correct the percentage of students in Oak Park District 97 who opted to take the PARCC exam in 2018.