Bolstered by a growing sense of continuity and robust figures for student attendance, Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart says she’s enthused by the start of the school year in Proviso Township high schools. Though administrators and state officials continue to wade through an almost crippling financial forecast for District 209, educators do have some new tools at their disposal, according to the superintendent. So there’s cause for excitement.

A busing system, introduced during the winter months of the previous school year, has improved attendance dramatically at Proviso East, in Maywood, and Proviso West, in Hillside. Now, says Collins-Hart, teachers are working to “set the tone” that school hallways are a place for travel – not for hanging out.

“This is some of the most significant improvement that they’ve seen in years, just with getting students into class on time,” Collins-Hart said.

A third high school in the district, Proviso Math and Science Academy, at Roosevelt Road and 1st Avenue in Forest Park, hasn’t suffered from the low attendance rates seen at East and West.

With more students in the classrooms during the opening weeks of the year, teachers are being asked to implement new curriculum strategies meant to improve performance on high-stakes exams. During the summer months, about 400 of the district’s teachers, social workers and administrators met to coordinate lessons in their respective disciplines. The idea, said Collins-Hart, is to make sure students get a dose of civics in their English classes, for example, and vice versa.

“It is an understatement to say that we’re off to a good start,” Collins-Hart said.

Putting the strategy into practice, however, is a disgruntled and frustrated teaching staff, according to Mona Johnson, president of the district’s teachers’ union. Johnson, a social worker in the district, pointed to a lack of communication from the top as the root cause of several issues.

“It’s not good,” Johnson said of morale. “It’s definitely not a good mood.”

Because of the district’s financial constraints, a hiring freeze was put in place by administrators, which meant existing staffers had to be juggled to meet classroom needs. Teachers were transferred to different campuses, asked to lead new subjects, work with larger classes and take on additional assignments. Johnson said union members were unhappy because a prescribed method for instituting those changes, which is spelled out in their contract, wasn’t followed. A grievance was filed with the school board and denied.

Collins-Hart, now entering her first full academic year as superintendent, acknowledges lapses in communication, but says she has every confidence in the abilities of the staff.

“It may not have been as ideal a process,” Collins-Hart said.

As for class sizes, the numbers are still somewhat fluid. Collins-Hart estimated that classes are averaging 25 to 28 students.

“If one class is smaller, another class is larger,” she said.

Though Johnson pointed to concerns with the district’s management, she said front-line employees remain committed to their work.

“We really want to support our district,” Johnson said. “We’re going to buckle down and do what we can because our teachers love to teach and want to give kids the best education we can.”