It wasn't until Jessica Beeson had children of her own that she started involving herself in schools — going to PTA meetings and the like. But her "soft spot" for disadvantaged kids quickly got her included on a districtwide level.
In 2009 she joined an ad hoc group of community members interested in protecting schools from closing. Her son's own school, Cordley Elementary, was one of several that was at risk of closure. But Beeson said it was the thought of other children losing a neighborhood school that pushed her.
"I remember distinctly thinking, 'if they close Cordley, my kid's going to be OK at New York or Kennedy,'" she said. (The district did not close any schools then, but shuttered one in 2011.) "The schools that were on the table were also schools that primarily housed the majority of our racial minorities, low-income students. A lot of special, vulnerable populations that we need to be mindful of."
Address: 1720 Mississippi St.
Occupation: Director of alumni and community engagement, KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Education: Bachelor's degree, Kansas University; master's degree, University of Arizona
Family: Husband, Billy, and two children.
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She then joined official district bodies, one to evaluate school building efficiency, which recommended the closure of Wakarusa Valley Elementary in 2011, and another to advise the superintendent, who was new at the time.
Now, she's one of seven people hoping to be elected to the Lawrence school board April 7.
"To me education is incredibly important," she said. "I think Lawrence is a really good community for providing this canvas for kids to create their future."
Beeson, 39, is a native Lawrencian, with diplomas from Lawrence High School and Kansas University. She is the director of alumni and community engagement for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU, where she also lectures occasionally in leadership studies and African and African-American studies.
Her biggest interest, if elected to the board, would be leveling the playing field for all students in the district, something she has already been actively engaged in over recent years.
She has volunteered for the United Way of Douglas County and Douglas County CASA, which advocates for abused or neglected children under court protection. She also organizes an after-school program at Cordley, called Helping Hawks, that helps make sure disadvantaged students don't go without basic items such as socks and underwear.
Beeson said she has "always been concerned about vulnerable populations."
"That's just who I am," she said.
Beeson also recently finished three years on the board of Just Food, the community food bank, where she saw first hand how many kids in Lawrence rely on community services.
Toward the end of her time on the board, she proposed a program to provide students who rely on free or reduced-price lunches at school with food on snow days. Just Food CEO Jeremy Farmer said a "solid" program should be in place by the time winter 2015-16 sets in.
"We do a pretty good job of hiding our poor in Lawrence," Beeson said. "We never draw too much attention to the fact that" 38 percent of students in the Lawrence district are on free or reduced-price lunches, according to the Kansas Department of Education.
If she had another priority while on the school board, she said, it would be to eliminate some of the fees that come with enrolling in some classes.
"It opens the door for all kids to have the same opportunities presented to them by the school district," she said.