“Both sides of the desk,” is how six Proviso East High School alumni characterize their new Common Roots Initiative scholarship.

The high school friends, now in their mid-30s, wanted to promote academic learning at their alma mater in the most effective way. They decided to form a scholarship – not just for students, but for teachers as well.

The Common Roots Initiative will award two $1,000 scholarships on June 7, one to a teacher and one to a student. This year’s scholarship from the new 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation is funded mostly by donations from members of the class of 1996. Other funding came from another local nonprofit foundation and many individual contributions.

Glenn Lid, a conceptual, honors, and AP chemistry teacher won the teacher award. Lid says he’ll use the money to integrate iPads with the new Prometheus Board used in his classroom. “This should make chemistry become more interactive and visual,” he said.

Lid said he knew the CRI alums when they were in high school and couldn’t be more impressed with their achievement in setting up a scholarship fund.

“They sure did it the right way,” he said. “They’ve been planning the thing for over a year.”

The friends include the fund’s founder and president, Soumya Rao, who grew up in Forest Park and graduated from Proviso East in 1995. Rao lives in Bolingbrook and works as a client consultant for a health insurance company.

Rao gathered old friends from high school to create the organization. Other CRI board members who graduated from Proviso East in the mid-1990s include Kesha Green, Jonathon Bus, Jennifer Cassell and Ashuman (Shay) Rao. The group’s members also include educator Mike Cavallo. Reggie Wright, a state champion Proviso wrestler in 1995 also has been in contact, said Lid.

“These former students are a great example for Proviso students,” said Lid. “They were once in the same desks. They paid attention. They all did some kind of sports, if I remember. They worked hard and they’re successful. By standing there, they prove this hard work is going to pay off in the long run. It proves that it doesn’t matter what your roots are; education is the equalizer.”

Lid has taught in the Proviso district for 33 years. He also coaches baseball at Proviso East and will be one of five teachers nationally to be inducted into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame next year. He won a national Disney teacher’s award in 2004.

He brings his chemistry students on exchange field trips to wealthy schools such as Niles West in Skokie to expose them to environments they may never have seen. Last month, he took a group of students to the Chicago River to help with the Friends of the Chicago River clean-up. Students tested water for Ph balances and caught crayfish and other animals.

On the last day of school, each year, Lid’s classes test the colligative (freezing) properties of liquid by making ice cream.

“Common Roots understands how important the teachers are in the classroom,” said Lid. “Dedicated, passionate, well-trained teachers are what kids need. We have quite a few at Proviso. They are passionate and it’s a mission to try to reach out to students in need and students of color and want to see them have the same opportunities.

“Young teachers coming up – with a little publicity – will be eager to apply for this next year,” he said.

The winner of the student scholarship is graduating senior Konstantin Kuksenko, who plans to enter Biblical Studies at Wheaton College. Kuksenko, who lives in Broadview with his parents and four siblings, came to the United States from Krasnodar, Russia when he was 11. His brother will also graduate from Proviso this year, and two sisters are currently studying medicine at the University of Illinois – Chicago.

“Wheaton College is expensive and our family is not able to support four college students at once,” he said. Kuksenko heard about the scholarship when a Common Roots member came to Mr. Beidas’ physics class. “They want to help those who are interested in going to college to get a degree so they wouldn’t have to take as many loans,” he said. “It inspired the students for sure. I thought that was pretty exciting.”

Kuksenko takes his faith seriously. He and his family have travelled throughout South and Central America on summer mission trips to Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

“We bring clothing and go to schools. We do puppet shows and help buy food for them,” he said, noting that students in the schools he visits have “very little opportunity, if any.” But, he adds, “with the help of God, everything is possible.”

“I would like to thank the Common Roots Initiative and the class of 1996,” he said.

For Glenn Lid, the Common Roots Initiative organizers are an example of the kind of adults he’s helping to conduct into the wider world.

“Common Roots Initiative – they actually couldn’t have thought of a better name for their group. They’re different, but they all have common roots,” he said. “They’re organized, persistent and professional. You can’t deny there’s an extreme amount of credibility to their group. They’ve walked the talk.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...