MEd student Jillian Dunn serves her community on Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education

by | Jul 18, 2022

Dunn won a three-year term in April and is interested in increasing teacher satisfaction and engaging community stakeholders.
Jillian Dunn stands in front of the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education

Jillian Dunn won a three-year term on the Ferguson-Florissant School District Board of Education in April. Dunn, who is working toward an MEd in educational leadership at UMSL, is interested in using her position to increase teacher satisfaction and lift a variety of voices to the forefront of decision-making. (Photo by August Jennewein)

For more than two years, Jillian Dunn attended Ferguson-Florissant School District Board of Education meetings faithfully.

A Florissant resident, former math teacher at McCluer North High School and parent, Dunn listened to educators grappling with burnout during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and feeling like their voices weren’t being heard. She became increasingly interested in learning about the decisions being made at the district level, supporting teachers and engaging the whole community in education issues.

It led her to join the Parker Road Parent Teacher Organization, where she eventually became president, and the FFSD Strategic Plan Steering Committee. The conversations she began having with community members compelled her to take the next step and run for a school board seat.

“I realized, we’re being really successful here, and I’m getting really great feedback from all sorts of people, whether it’s the administrators at my daughter’s school, the other parents, the teachers,” Dunn said. “I thought, ‘I can do this school board thing.’ So, in December, I went and filled out my paperwork.”

On April 5, voters elected Dunn to one of two open seats on the FFSD Board of Education.

In her short time on the board, Dunn has found her voice as a changemaker and shown a commitment to increasing teacher satisfaction and lifting a variety of voices to the forefront of decision-making. In addition to serving FFSD in several capacities, she is also working toward an MEd in educational leadership at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, with an eye toward potentially pursuing educational policy in the future.

Despite her current passion for education, Dunn didn’t intend to go into the field initially.

She was more interested in pursuing a career in STEM as a high school student at the Missouri Academy of Science, Mathematics and Computing. The now-defunct residential program was founded in 2000 and put an emphasis on rigorous STEM academics.

Students such as Dunn lived on campus at Northwest Missouri State University and attended classes during their final two years of high school. Graduates received a high school diploma as well as a two-year associate of science degree.

While attending MASMC, Dunn was introduced to the Mathematics in Life Sciences Program. The National Science Foundation funded the scholarship program, which provided tuition for three years at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

The generous financial support brought Dunn to MU, where she enrolled as a mathematics major. However, a research project with Kathryn Chval, former associate dean for academic affairs and co-director of the Missouri Center for Mathematics and Science Teacher Education, opened her eyes to a future in education.

“She was doing research with ESL students in fourth grade, and it really introduced me to education and what it could look like to be a math teacher,” Dunn recalled. “So, I switched my major from mathematics to secondary education.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Dunn moved to the St. Louis area with her husband, who was attending graduate school. She quickly secured an interview with McCluer North High School.

Dunn was struck by how friendly everyone was and knew it was somewhere she wanted to teach. Within two days of her first interview, she had a job offer. McCluer North would be her home for the next six years.

As a teacher, Dunn prioritized developing strong connections with her students.

“When your kids trust you and you trust your kids, you can have that vulnerability in the classroom,” she explained. “You’re going to see achievement overall. I’m not necessarily saying 100% of my kids are walking out of the classroom with an A, but you’re going to see student growth over time. Those deep relationships were vital in order to see the kind of achievement that we wanted.”

Data-driven instruction was another centerpiece of her classroom.

“I worked with my colleagues on developing different plans for our students, so that we could really track their overall growth while in the classroom,” she added.

As Dunn nurtured the growth of her students, she also put down roots in the community. She and her husband had moved to Florissant and decided to raise a family there. When her first child approached school-going age, she became deeply invested in the district’s decision to restructure around 2018.

That process convinced her to pursue graduate school and also put her on the path to serving on the board of education.

“Once the final decision was made, I realized I want to understand better,” she said. “I want to understand why decisions are made. I want to understand what goes into making these decisions, large and small, even in a school setting. I want to be there helping to make those decisions one day.”

In 2019, Dunn enrolled at UMSL. She was drawn to the diversity of the university’s educational administration and school leadership program and its focus on developing leaders who effect change within the St. Louis community.

Associate Professor Vanessa Garry’s “Leadership for Equity” course was particularly impactful.

“She taught us a lot, not just about the content itself, but how to carry yourself as a leader and how to communicate with people as a leader,” Dunn said.

However, as she neared the completion of her first year in the program, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020. Around the same time, she found out that she was pregnant with her second child. In the interest of her own well-being, she paused her studies at UMSL.

The next spring ushered in another significant change.

After a year of remote and blended teaching while pregnant, Dunn resigned from McCluer North to devote more time to her family. Wanting to stay involved with education and her community, she joined the Parker Road PTO and the FFSD Strategic Plan Steering Committee.

The work was illuminating, especially the strategic plan, which lays out the district’s goals for the next five to 10 years and drives high-level decisions about programs to policies.

“I was getting to have very rich conversations with not only administrators and teachers in the district but also students, other parents, business leaders, elected officials,” Dunn said. “They were just these great discussions about what we want to see for our kids, and I saw how passionate everyone was – whether or not they had students in the district – about our kids.”

It inspired Dunn to run for the FFSD Board of Education with the goals of engaging community stakeholders – business leaders, community members, parents and teachers – in education decisions and improving teacher recruitment and retention.

It’s been a learning process since winning her seat, but Dunn is appreciative of the opportunity to lift her voice and make real change at the local level.

“I’ve been trying to figure out, how do I respect being on the board, one of seven, and how this works, while also keeping true to myself and my feelings?” she said.

She’s found that thoughtful questions are a powerful tool. For instance, when a new program was brought to the table, she remained mindful of the stress and existing administrative obligations teachers face and asked what could be taken off their plates to make room for it.

As Dunn continues to serve her community, she’ll also work to finish her MEd at UMSL this fall. Aside from her three-year term on the board, she’s not exactly sure what’s next but can imagine taking what she’s learned at UMSL and on the board to the Missouri Capitol.

“I’ve really gotten interested in what advocacy looks like for education at the state level,” Dunn said. “I’d be interested in continuing on in school and going into educational policy and seeing how can how I can effect change at an even higher level.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.