In the high school cafeteria where her daughter eats lunch five days a week, Jocelyn Gougisha sat across the table from Bob Cox, a school board member for District 209. As part of a loosely guided discussion organized by administrators, they looked for ways to add value to her child’s diploma.

Gougisha was one of roughly 50 parents who met with various district leaders recently for a free-wheeling brainstorming session meant to provide educators with some insight as to how the struggling schools are perceived by the public. The meeting, held Jan. 22, was a follow up to a November event that drew only a handful of people.

Within their discussion group, Gougisha and Cox went back and forth on how Proviso’s three high schools are failing the student body and where to look for solutions. As many parents in Forest Park have historically done, Gougisha confided she would prefer to find her answers elsewhere.

“To be perfectly honest, if I could have afforded it I would have sent [my daughter] to a private school,” Gougisha, a Bellwood resident, said. “But I’m a single parent.”

Cox, who lives in Forest Park and has a son in the district, made a conscious effort to steer the conversation away from the politics that have earned his board a reputation for financial mismanagement and pettiness. Such comments have a tendency to “bounce back,” he said, as people begin to defend their views and choose sides. The purpose of meeting with parents and community members in this fashion, said Cox, is to start a dialogue that will hopefully lead to a better relationship between the Proviso Township High School District and the 10 communities it serves.

“By not focusing on the politics part and laying off a bit, we can begin to make some progress,” Cox said.

Ed Moyer, the principal of the math and science academy on Roosevelt Road where the summit was held, estimated 75 percent of the turnout included parents who are already familiar faces at the district’s magnet school. In a sense, administrators were preaching to the choir, said Moyer, but it Opportunity for input draws Proviso parents

was most encouraging to see a substantially greater turnout compared to the November meeting. Superintendent Robert Libka pointed to a number of strategies administrators are hoping will solicit more involvement in the schools from parents and community stakeholders.

Last week’s informal gathering is expected to serve as something of a jumping off point.

“This isn’t meant to be just a flash in the pan for this year, either,” Libka said.

Ranking officials in the district are expected to meet in February for a retreat, said Libka, to discuss strategies and programs that will improve student performance. Comments solicited from parents and community members will factor into those discussions. Libka is also trying to build a database of e-mail addresses to help the schools communicate with parents and community members. Right now, District 209 has some 1,500 e-mail addresses, he said, and is hoping to collect roughly 20,000.

The superintendent said he was encouraged to see a stronger turnout over the previous session, especially on a chilly night that also saw the district’s East and West basketball teams square off.

Ralph Holmes, a Westchester resident who attended the meeting with his wife, said ultimately he would like to see the district pull its actions in line with the community’s expectations. He agreed public forums give parents a chance to go on record with those expectations. Any solutions though, aren’t likely to come directly from these informal talks and will take time.

“This is an opportunity to get aligned,” Holmes said.

Meanwhile, the cross-district rivalry game between Proviso East and West erupted into a brawl that saw 13 students arrested by police. In a written statement following the post-game altercation, Libka said each of those students was suspended from school for 10 days pending the outcome of an internal investigation.