Ryan VenHorst

District 208 School Board Candidate

Age: 41


Why are you running to be on the school board? What motivates you and what experience and perspectives would you bring to the job? How would those be valuable as an elected official? 

As a member of this community, I have an interest in seeing the public education thrive. Despite the circumstances of our current world, I believe this shake-up is a chance to build on what was done well before the pandemic making our high school a place where students see opportunity in their futures. 

I have been in the public education system for my entire life. I moved to Oak Park in 2003 and began my 18 year teaching career at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I’ve seen many aspects of learning, teaching, and mentoring, and I hope to bring my experiences to the board room as we navigate the changes that have so heavily impacted our lives over the past year. 

As a career and technical education teacher (CTE), I have a strong desire to be making connections with students in the classroom. I’ve participated in discussions to find ways to create an in-person experience while also listening to the concerns of families, students, teachers, and administration. I believe that I can be an objective person listening to community concerns, weighing myriad options, and making leadership decisions that attempt to best serve the community. 

As a school board member you will be asked to balance what’s best for the district as a whole with what might be in the interest of specific groups. How will you do that? When have you had occasion to do something similar in the past and how did you accomplish that?

I have worked the better part of my adult life reconciling what I thought I knew from the perspective of my upbringing to where my life has ventured beyond the walls of childhood. I have spent over 20 years in reflection of an upbringing that offered expansive opportunities, and I don’t think there are many people who would say I have held fast to any belief without first questioning its origin and utility in life as I move forward. 

In that spirit, I hope to be an honest broker deciding on any issue that arises in the community as it relates to the high school. I have been a teacher, a wrestling coach, and a parent, and each of these roles requires balancing the interests of various groups. While I can be a passionate person in some aspects of life, being a board member requires a level of thoughtful, dispassionate consideration. I am willing to reflect on the needs of a curious student population, a dedicated teaching staff, the loving parents and families, and the hard-working leadership of the district.

The past year has been a challenge from the perspective of balancing the social, emotional and academic needs of students with the need to ensure the health and safety of all in the extended school family. What could the school district have done better to achieve that balance and what succeeded? What planning is needed to respond more quickly to any future disruptions in the traditional learning environment?

While I appreciate this question, I do not believe that we can fairly begin to fault the actions or intentions of the school leadership or the board of education over the course of the last year. The communities of North Riverside, Brookfield, and Riverside have been met with immense adversity, and the desires to return to the world we were familiar with is the natural reaction.

I appreciate the fact that the board, administration, and a group of community stakeholders met and devised a plan that was well-intended for the students. While I don’t know all of the discussions that took place, I have heard that there was some pride in the unanimous vote, and I applaud that work being done on behalf of the community. I believe now is the time to consider creating an action plan for any potential future disturbance in the typical education process. I’d begin by suggesting that the plan create a method for temporal stability regardless of the situation. 

The teachers and students have adapted to the best of their abilities. Building off the framework RBHS faculty and administration has created during the pandemic, the school can solidify a system to bridge future interruptions. Taking into consideration the concerns of the community and individual stakeholders, a collaborative plan addressing the concerns for the unknown will need to be adaptable and intentional.

How do you define equity? How has your thinking around the subject of equity evolved and what should District 208 do to address that subject?

Equity in my perspective is the ability to meet the needs of the individual while tending to the good of the whole. I am a 41 year old cis white male. My lived experiences will undoubtedly inform my view of the world, but I do not begin to believe that my lived experience can describe the perspective(s) of our student population. 

I have been a part of rich professional development in the course of my teaching career at OPRF that has allowed me to challenge the world I understood as a child, teen, and young adult. In no way do I believe that my growth has ended, and I won’t attempt to claim that I know when the goal of true equality has been met. I’ll continue to listen as I age to understand the lived experiences of others in order to best meet the needs of every individual while serving the good of the whole. 

My vision is to create an experience for every student to have access to career pathways that can lead to a meaningful and successful future. I believe this is paramount in our education system. The success of our community is reliant on our youth finding purpose in their lives as contributing members of society.

As a school board member you will play a role in budgeting. How will your values inform your approach to budgeting and fiscal planning?

The public education budget is a circular discussion topic, so I will not be able to answer the question in a simple form. Illinois is a unique state in the way that it forms school districts. Because of the nature of local funding, we have communities that are inextricably linked to the strength of public education which relates to many economic impacts on the community. 

If we agree on a mission statement, it becomes easier to approach the topic of budget and fiscal planning because we’ve collectively expressed our values. If I were in a position to begin the conversation on budgeting and fiscal planning alone, I would ask the questions that revolve around students seeing their community as a place where they would like to continue to grow as an adult. 

What about this community is valued by the students? How do we create a plan for their education where they would want to be an invested member in the future? If we are creating a place where teens value their education, I believe our community will appreciate our budgetary priorities.

What are the biggest challenges facing District 208 and how should the school board address them?

District 208 is going to be a part of the nationwide discussion around the “look” of education as we make our way through and beyond this pandemic. This will likely continue to be a concern on the minds of our community for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Beyond the most basic question of what next year will bring, I think District 208 is continuing to look at issues around field space and parking shared with the Brookfield Zoo. Another topic that will be facing our students and families year after year is the prospect of opportunities after high school. Ideally, we’ll provide career pathway options for our students at RBHS by working in conjunction with our feeder districts to set the stage for productive conversations around education and careers in the future.