Just a month after deadlocking over a contract with an Arizona company that would work to improve teaching methods, the Proviso Township District 209 school board Monday night decided with little fanfare to approve a contract with that firm.

Key to the change of heart for the three board members who voted against the contract in December was an assurance from Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart that the U.S. Department of Education would provide a grant to cover most of the costs. Additional funding for the contract, which could reach nearly $1.5 million if further phases are approved, will come from a federal Title I grant and from a school improvement grant that Proviso East High School recently secured.

Monday night the school board approved spending up to $458,009 for the first phase of an agreement with Evans Newton Incorporated in which ENI will work with staff at all three district high schools to improve curriculum and instruction in reading and math.

“I’m very pleased, very pleased,” Collins-Hart said after the meeting.

Collins-Hart had recommended in December that the district hire ENI. She said that its expertise and experience was needed by the district, which has been performing woefully on standardized tests for years. Collins-Hart told the board Monday night that for three years the district has lacked the administrative staff necessary to improve the curriculum.

“We have virtually no central office curriculum staff,” Collins-Hart said.

Monday night the board filled that void by voting to hire two administrators. Cheryl Pruitt was hired as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. The district has been without a person in that position for 37 months, according to board member and Forest Park resident Bob Cox. The board also approved the hiring of Joan McGarry as the director of professional development, teaching and learning. Both administrators are scheduled to begin work next week.

Even with these two hires Collins-Hart said the district lacked the internal staff to do a speedy and thorough review of curriculum and teaching and needed to hire ENI to “jump start” the process.

ENI consultants will examine the district’s curriculum and textbooks and point out gaps in instruction. The firm is also expected to work with teachers to align the curriculum with state standards and make sure classrooms methods are effective.

The first phase of the work will continue until September 2009, at which time the board will decide whether to continue to employ ENI.

Proviso East and West have had some of the lowest test scores in the state in recent years and both high schools have not met adequate yearly progress standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

At December’s board meeting, school board President Chris Welch and board members Brian Cross and Dan Adams voted against hiring ENI while Cox, Sue Henry and Theresa Kelly voted in favor of hiring the firm. Board member Robin Foreman missed the December meeting.

Welch had said the main reason he voted against hiring ENI was his concern that the district couldn’t afford it. The funding commitment from the Department of Education helped change his mind, he said.

“We now have a verbal commitment form the Department of Education.” Welch said Monday. Welch also said Monday that he thought the proposal was brought before the board in December without adequate vetting.

Ultimately, Welch said he is relying on the recommendation of Collins-Hart, who has strongly pushed for hiring ENI.

“At the end of the day the board acts on the recommendation of the superintendent,” Welch said. “I hope they do what the superintendent says they’re going to do. I hope they improve our test scores. I hope they approve our curriculum.”

Last month, Welch also said he was concerned that Kelly, a frequent critic and opponent of his, had gone on an expenses paid trip to Arizona to attend an ENI convention with two other district employees. On Monday, Welch merely said that Kelly should not have had an opportunity that other board members did not have.

Kelly, who brought ENI to the board’s attention last year before Collins-Hart was hired, said she felt gratified.

“I feel vindicated,” Kelly said. “I feel it’s something our students need and I’m happy we’re going to finally get it.”