Finalists meet with teachers, parents

CHAMPAIGN – All three finalists for the principal's job at Kenwood Elementary School have connections to Champaign-Urbana.

Parents and teachers heard from the three candidates and asked them questions at a public forum at the school Tuesday night. The school board is expected to vote on a recommendation for the job at its May 8 meeting.

John Kosco, of Santa Claus, Ind., is principal of Chrisney Elementary School in rural Indiana. He has been a principal for 20 years, and has spent his entire career as a teacher and administrator in Indiana.

He received his bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University, a master's degree in special education from the University of Illinois and his doctorate from Indiana State University. While studying at the UI, he taught in the preschool program at the old Colonel Wolfe School, and he worked for the UI for a year, promoting special education services.

Kosco said he has made Chrisney Elementary School a "full-service school" that offers support to students and parents for issues standing in the way of a child doing well in school. That has included mental health services, dental care, health and wellness information, family fun nights to make parents feel comfortable in the schools, mentoring for students, and training for teachers and mental health workers on methamphetamine issues.

He meets weekly with teachers in "learning communities," and this is the third year he has received a Fulbright scholarship to travel to London with a group of teachers. He also teaches some classes in the district, and entertains students during lunchtime by playing the piano.

Kosco was asked about his experience with a diverse student body. He said 1 percent of the students in his current school are black, many of the students are impoverished, so he has experience with students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

When asked what he would do to close the achievement gap between black and white students, he said what worked with students in his district was a combination of dedicated teachers serving as role models, mentoring, and frequent parent conferences.

Murial Bondurant of Champaign is principal of Mary W. French Academy, a K-6 liberal arts academy in Decatur. About half its students are black. She has been principal there for four years; she previously taught at Jefferson Middle School and Urbana High School and served as coordinator of services for children with behavior disorders in the Urbana school district.

At the Decatur academy, Bondurant has used data to help make curriculum and program decisions. She said she has also used discipline data to identify problem behaviors better, and she has revamped middle grade reading instruction.

She said the school teaches students the behavior teachers want to see and make expectations clear. She said the Decatur academy has a much more formal atmosphere in terms of dress and behavior, but she would not implement changes if the parents and staff didn't want them.

Bondurant said she would like to see Kenwood expand its use of technology, reduce the achievement gap and improve the connections of parents and the community with the school by encouraging volunteerism. In Decatur, she used "kindergarten teas" and other events to get parents in the school, then provided them with information about how they can help their children do well and let them talk about their concerns.

Bondurant has master's degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Eastern Illinois University.

Zanita Willis of Champaign is an instructional specialist at Stratton Elementary School, where she helps develop curriculum. This summer will be her third as principal of the district's summer school program.

Willis wants Kenwood to develop a plan for being named a Blue Ribbon School, a national recognition for academic excellence or dramatic improvement in achievement.

She said she'd like to have a wider variety of students in the school's intersession programs.

"We serve those kids who are struggling because they are the ones we notice," Willis said. "What about the kids (performing) at grade level or above? What do we do for those kids?"

She believes schools need an organized program for parent involvement, to let parents know how they can help the school. At Stratton, she and other administrators sent personal invitations to parents they wanted to reach and offered food and child care, then talked to parents about how to help their children.

Although Willis has not been a principal, "I believe I have experience with the type of leadership activities that require you to think, to be creative, to work with students and work with teachers," she said.

Willis' husband is a teacher at Kenwood. She said he would ask for a transfer to another school if she were offered the principal's job.

Willis earned her undergraduate degree from the UI and is working on her doctorate there.

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