As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Laura Hruska was laid off from her position as certification director for the American Osteopathic Association. She pivoted to working the dock at UPS, working 10-hour midnight shifts in the midst of the pandemic and picking up additional hours driving a grocery delivery truck for Jewel.
The 60-year-old Brookfield resident admitted that her experience during COVID played a part in her impatience with teachers at Riverside-Brookfield High School, where she has served on the school board for 16 years.
She criticized opposition from the RBHS teachers’ union to expand in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year, saying the teaching staff were “bullying” families by insisting on a hybrid model she felt was failing students.
“Some of the meetings where I was a little angry with the teachers, I was at [the UPS loading hub],” Hruska said. “There was a thousand of us every shift, every day, so that your dog food, your Chewy order, your crayons, pencils and everything you were ordering [got delivered]. But it was OK for us to work.”
Hruska ended up being the lone vote against a new three-year teacher contract approved last year.
“I just felt like they needed to take a pause, and say thank you for what [the school board] did for us during those two years of COVID,” Hruska said. “Because I took a $40,000 pay cut from COVID and I know a lot of other families are scratching.”
Still working part-time as a dispatcher at UPS, Hruska now spends her days working as a substitute teacher in Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 and is working toward a master’s degree through a program at Western Illinois University so she can teach high school math in the future.
This spring, Hruska is one of five candidates running for four four-year terms on the RBHS District 208 school board. She is by far the longest-serving incumbent, first elected in 2005 to her first term. After losing in 2009, Hruska has been elected in three consecutive elections, despite being an occasional thorn in the side of the teachers’ union.
Her time substitute teaching in Elmhurst has her believing school districts that feed into Riverside-Brookfield High School would benefit from consolidation into a unit district, something that’s really never been considered seriously in the past.
Unit districts offer teachers more mobility, Hruska said, allows sharing of resources and provides better long-term planning in preparing students for high school.
“You would have to get the unions of every [district] together,” Hruska said. “When you’re a unit district, your grade-school teachers do better. The high school teachers are going to fight it, because they are not going to get those Cadillac salaries. But we’ve already put some things in motion to cap those high salaries.”
Hruska says RBHS can do a better job reaching students who are not planning to attend college by perhaps expanding vocational offerings and lowering graduation credit requirements.
That would allow students to graduate in three years, Hruska said, giving them space in their fourth year to take dual enrollment classes in cooperation with Triton College that would also provide them college credits or professional certification affordably.
“I feel senior year of high school for a lot of students is a waste,” Hruska said. “They don’t want to be there, they’re checked out. But if they’re getting their first-year college credits, OK then it makes it worthwhile to stay engaged.
“We need to think about school differently.”
Her feelings about delivering education differently is again informed by her own experience. Hruska said she graduated from Morton West High School in three years and then enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Why is this [idea] so painful?” Hruska said. “I did this in 1980. This is 42 years later. When a kid is done, you’re not doing any service by forcing that kid to stay in school.”
In terms of meeting the needs of a more demographically diverse student body – RBHS’ enrollment is about 40% Hispanic – Hruska said she favors all communication between the school and families needs to be in both Spanish and English.
“We have to be better at that, knowing there’s a need in the community and make sure that any kind of information that goes home about your students is in both languages,” Hruska said.
Hruska said she believes RBHS delivers an excellent education to its students, but that school board members need to realize that expectations around education have changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The resources are amazing and I hope our students realize that,” Hruska said. “Now I want to be part of it to say, ‘How do we take everything we have and move it in this new millennium to make it fit our new lives?’
“I’m reinventing myself, the students are reinventing themselves, you feel that. I feel students are reinventing high school right underneath us.”