Q and A with Laura Polanco, candidate for District 99 school board in her hometown of Cicero

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

Laura Polanco, 34, is a parent who was born and raised in Cicero. She’s currently running for school board for Elementary School District 99 and hoping to advocate for other parents like her in the district where she attended school. She is one of four candidates running for three seats up for re-election on the board in the April 2 elections.

 Medill Reports: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Laura: Sure. My name is Laura Polanco. I’m a lifetime resident here in Cicero. I went through District 99, District 201 [high school], and I’m an alumni of Morton College. I was born here and I grew up here. I’m married and I currently have two kids. My oldest is currently at Columbus West (elementary) and that’s one of my biggest reasons that made me pursue [running for school board].

Can you describe a little bit about what it was like growing up in Cicero? Describe the town to someone who has never been here, never heard of it.

Laura: I come from a Mexican-immigrant family that immigrated here to the United States. I’ll tell you a little bit about my background. I was born in Cicero, but we moved to Mexico when I was 3 months old. So I was in Mexico my first six years. I was raised there. Then we moved to California for three years. So I’ve been here since I was 9. I’m 34 years old – I’ve been through all the systems here in Cicero. As I was growing up, I would be surrounded by a lot of gang members. And my parents were over protective. So I never got to go outside with my friends because it was dangerous in the streets. I think stuff has changed since then, since I grew up. My parents were always working as I was growing up. They didn’t have time to do homework with me because they were busy. There’s a difference I want to make in my daughter’s life and I want to be a little more involved. Believe me, when I get home from work, I want to do nothing, but it’s important for me to help her do her homework, you know?

What made you want to run for school board?

 Laura: So, a lot of parents don’t know that once a month there’s actually a board meeting, that they can actually come out and bring their concerns to the school district. And a lot of parents don’t know that if they’re bringing up their concerns to the school, but the school is not responding, you bring it up to the [school board], which is actually the one that oversees all the schools here in Cicero. There’s a lot of parents that don’t know that a lot of schools are under-performing. And this is where I want to step up and say, I want to be the voice for a lot of parents who are busy. They work a lot of hours and I want to come and say, “You can come. You can also run for board member.” It’s not only for my kids. It’s for a lot of parents here.

As someone who went through the same school system, what was your own education like? Do you remember any problems or issues that came up or any challenges?

Laura: My parents couldn’t help me and a lot of times the school, the programs were not available for me to get help after school. We need programs that can help a lot of students with reading that can help with numbers, for math.

So is this the first time you’ve ever run for office?

Laura: Yeah. I am nervous you know, but something pulls me that I can do this. I’m not gonna give up. I need to try. Not only for my daughter, for my kids, but also for the community, a lot of Mexicans, a lot of immigrant communities that we have here in Cicero.

Laura Polanco is running for school board in District 99 in Cicero

What has this whole process been like? Describe what your campaign has been like so far since you first announced.

Laura: So when I took my first step forward and said I want to run for this, to be a member of this school district board, I was like, “Yeah I want to do this, this is what I want to do.” Little did I realize that it was actually going to be a lot of doors slammed in your face because people didn’t want to support you. You know I would go and I would say, “I’m a mother of a first grader here in Cicero and I was raised here and I went to schools in District 99, District 201 and I’m a Morton College alumni and they’re just like “Yeah I don’t want to hear you.” And they would close the door. So at the beginning I really wanted to give up, I’m not going to lie to you. I would go home and it was kind of draining. I’m doing this for good, for a lot of people that can’t. A lot of immigrant families that can’t actually step up, that are afraid. So it’s been a little up and down.

From my understanding, a lot of your signatures on your candidate petition were challenged. Can you talk about what that was like?

Laura: I can tell you it was bittersweet. I stood there and I was like I can’t believe they’re doing this to us. We want to do this for the good of our family and our community and they don’t want us. And this is what gets me mad. This is what gets me upset but it’s also like I want to continue doing it, you know? Stuff like this wants to make you– and they want us to give up, but we’re not going to. Yeah it was hard. I can’t believe there’s people out in this world so mean. We overcame it.

Could you explain what exactly happened?

Laura:. So what they do is some person in Cicero goes to the county and says “You know, I don’t believe these signatures are real. These people didn’t go and knock on doors. They got someone to write their signatures.” So they sent us a letter in the mail. The county sends us a letter and says you have to come to court and actually prove that these signatures are valid or you have to come with your lawyer to attest that these signatures are valid. By the end of the court [proceeding] it came out to be that I had 97 valid signatures even though all my signatures were valid. I actually went and knocked on doors and people signed. But, our minimum to actually get on the ballot is 50.

Is there anything specific you want to change about District 99?

Laura: I want parents to be more aware of District 99. I want parents to be more aware of anything that happens in our [board] meetings. Why are we not telling our community? We need to bring all this out there. This is for community. Our kids go to school in this community. Why not bring our voice outside? My biggest thing is, bring the voice of what happens in the district [schools] outside to community. If we have to print in paper, if we have to put in social media, let’s do it. But our parents have to notice what’s going on, the changes that we’re doing. If we’re doing changes to a building, if the kids are under-performing, if the schools are under-performing, parents need to know this.

What have you enjoyed the most throughout this campaign?

 Laura: Knowing that it’s young Latinos that are pushing to make a difference here in Cicero.

Photo at top: Laura Polanco is running for school board in District 99 in Cicero. (Ankur Singh/Medill)