Frank Evans

Get back to basics. That was a constant refrain from three of the seven candidates for the Lyons Township High School Board of Education during an 80-minute online forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area on March 13.

Frank Evans, David Herndon and Tim Vlcek spoke often about academic performance at LTHS, saying it has declined in recent years. 

They noted that only 49 percent of seniors were ranked as proficient in English Language Arts and just 53 percent were considered proficient in math based on the state-mandated SAT exam they took last spring as reported in the most recent Illinois State School Report Card.

David Herndon | Provided

“It’s just not acceptable, and we need to rethink everything we’re doing and how do we get that up,” said Herndon, who served on the LaGrange District 105 Board of Education for 12 years before being defeated when he ran for a fourth term in 2021. “We need to focus on our lowest-level learners. They are really struggling. And how do we differentiate in the classroom. How do we set them up for success.”

Like most schools, LTHS’s academic performance declined after a more than a year of remote and hybrid learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, before the pandemic, 59.9 percent of LTHS juniors were considered proficient in ELA and 64.4 percent were considered proficient in math. 

Timothy Vlcek | Provided

LTHS’ scores last year were still much higher than the state averages, where only 29.8 percent of public high school juniors were considered proficient in ELA and 29 percent in math.

“Our scores actually at LT now put us in the top of 11 percent of proficiency,” said school board President Kari Dillon, who along with fellow incumbent Jill Beda Daniels and school administrators Tim Albores and Justin Clark are the four other candidates in the race for three seats on the school board. “Does that mean we have room for improvement, absolutely, and I think talking about doing a growth-level approach and looking at how our students grow from year to year is really another good way to look at doing that.”

Tim Albores | Provided

Clark, who is the associate principal at Richards High School, said student growth and improvement should be the focus, not just proficiency.

Evans, Herndon and Vlcek put much of the blame for declining test scores on the grading system, which has since been modified, that was adopted a few years ago which didn’t count homework toward a final grade and allowed nearly unlimited retakes of tests.

“Just get back to the basics of things that made LT a top tier school for many, many years,” said Evans, who owns and runs CBA Pensions, a financial risk management firm in Chicago. “I understand the past couple of years have been difficult for the school, been difficult for a lot people, but that’s over and we need to move on. We need to make sure that these kids are being prepared.”

Kari Dillon | Provided

This year, homework does count toward a student’s final grade and test retakes are limited, but not eliminated.

Vlcek, a 1978 graduate of LTHS, said that the school is not doing as good a job of preparing students for college and other post-high school opportunities as it did when he and his four children attended LTHS.

“I’ve talked to many students that who have graduated over the last two to three years and I’ve also talked to a lot of parents and, unfortunately, a lot of these students are not ready for college, they’re not ready for the next step,” Vlcek said. “They don’t know what it’s like to have to do homework. They don’t know what it is like to be prepared for a test.”

Jill Beda Daniels | Provided

Albores, who is a director of student services at Plainfield District 202, said LTHS must do a better job aligning its curriculum to the SAT, but he also said that he didn’t think SAT results necessarily reflected how much student learning was going on.

Evans, Herndon and Vlcek also made much of LTHS’s 28.1% rate of chronic absenteeism last year. Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing 10 percent or more the school days a year. 

Absences were up across the state last year. The pandemic was apparently still a factor as was a new state law giving all students the right to take five mental health days as excused absences. 

LTHS’s chronic absenteeism rate was actually slightly lower than the state average of 29.8 percent, but it was more than double the rate during any time at LTHS in the past five years and more than four times the 6.4 percent rate of 2021.

Justin Clark | Provided

Differences among the candidates were apparent on some other issues. In response to a question about fostering a sense of inclusion for all students, particularly minority students, Daniels praised the hiring of Jennifer Rowe two years ago as the school’s first director of equity and belonging, calling it one of the biggest successes in her two years on the school board.

“She brings a really neat perspective to all of us, to learn from her and to engage the staff and the students,” Daniels said. “And what I like about it is that she sits at our board table and she brings a lens, an equity lens, to all.”

Evans said all students should be given the resources to succeed without regard to race or ethnicity. He wanted to see evidence that Rowe’s hiring has made a positive impact.

“Just hiring somebody doesn’t mean that’s a success,” Evans said. “Spending money is not working. Now what I do know though is there has been a change in the culture at LT that has created more tension versus lowering tensions, and I’d like to explore why that happened and advocate for change where it is needed.”

Clark said that he hasn’t seen evidence of improvement in the test scores of minority students.

“I have not been able to find any data that shows that what people are trying to do in regards to making it more equitable is paying off in regards to the growth data, at least when it comes to the data point of SAT,” Clark said.

All the candidates said they supported social-emotional learning, but Evans wanted to see more evidence and information about SEL. Vlcek, who is the director of plant operations for Weinstein Wholesale Meats and a volunteer in the LTHS InCubator business program, said SEL is critical. 

“I think our students today, probably somewhat related to COVID, have a lot of anxiety, isolation and depression and I think we need to be aware of that,” Vlcek said. “And I think we need to maybe work on teaching coping skills to get past some of the problems that they have.”

All the candidates opposed book banning, but Evans said that he would like to see a review of the books assigned at LTHS. 

“I would like a review of what is offered as well as community and parent engagement,” Evans said.

Three days before the forum, the school board announced it was no longer seeking to sell the approximately 70-acre parcel of land the school owns in Willow Springs. An attempted sale to an industrial developer, which generated vociferous opposition from those who live near the land, fell through in January.

Evans criticized the way the school board went about the sale.

“The way that they did it in secrecy with zero transparency or input from the community was wrong,” Evans said.

Herndon accused the school board of violating the Open Meetings Act by apparently discussing the possible sale in numerous closed sessions from April until November without specifying in the motion to go into closed session that they were going to discuss the possible sale of property.

Dillon said that the school board has learned from the experience and would put that knowledge to work should it decide to explore selling the land in the future.

“We’re continuing to listen to the community members, and we are going to be using that information that we gather and that we’ve learned through this process to inform decisions should the board decide that they do want to move forward with it,” Dillon said.

In her closing statement Dillon, who was elected to the school board four years ago as something of an outsider, defended her record on the school board.

“I helped navigate through a pandemic, changes in grading practices and social unrest, and in the face of all that we established the first-ever equity statement, expanded our student services, adopted LT’s first-ever strategic plan and completed a facilities study with community input,” Dillon said.

The entire 80-minute forum can be viewed at