Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart

Yesterday, I sat down with District 209 Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart to discuss how this new school year is shaping up, some of the obstacles students, teachers and staff may be up against and the solutions the District’s devised to tackle them. I should note that before I could setup the first question, Dr. Collins-Hart directed our conversation to the seemingly widespread negative perception about District 209 schools.

I sensed that something of a tipping point had been reached with respect to the stigmatization and the Superintendent could feel it. So the interview began with her describing some of the recent efforts to combat the stereotypes and the public perception, because ‘if a child continues to be told that he or she is bad and his or her school is bad, they internalize that message–it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ Dr. Collins-Hart said, in so many words:

In what ways are you all dealing with the negative perception?

We’re going to start monthly tours with a partnership committee, so people can come into the schools, because, to a person, when people get into the schools, they say, ‘It’s not at all like I heard it was.’ This demonstrates the perceptions that people have of our schools [based on what they haven’t seen]. The tours will be like orientations for people to learn about our schools and see what they look like with real, live children doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

You talked about a partnership committee. What is this, exactly?

The committee came out of a partnership with Triton and a group of citizens, led by Pat Shehorn, who wanted to do something about preparing students for colleges and careers. At first, they partnered with us to do the Parent University, but then they decided to do tour the schools themselves. Out of that idea, they suggested we do structured tours for all of the residents in the community. Mr. Daniel [Rob Daniel, the District’s community and public relations coordinator], came up with the theme of, ‘Take Another Look.’ Many people have written our kids off based on what they believe and what they hear, not on what they know.

Has this intense focus on branding always been a priority with District 209?

I think we’ve always been aware of our ‘brand’, but the incidents last year at East and West made me realize that we have to be proactive, because with an aggressive social media, we ourselves have to very aggressive in [framing the message]. There was a lot of fallout that came from just two fights. [And unfortunately, when they happen at predominantly black and brown schools, these negative events get blown out of all proportion]. Oak Park and River Forest, for instance, had a big fight last year, but you didn’t see it on television. Same thing with Riverside-Brookfield.

We wish these things wouldn’t happen, but our students are products of the community in which they live and they bring in [the problems that exist] in the community. However, given that we have 5,000 students contained in a few buildings, most of whom are relatively well-behaved–that’s [a feat]!

Do you think that the lack of a realistic perspective of the schools and what you perceive as a vast misconception about District 209 schools stem from a deeper lack of parental involvement? Perhaps the community would be more informed if the parents were more informed.

While we want more traditional parental involvement, I think it’s unfair to say that they’re not involved. And again, that’s what happens when people label certain parents. We know our teachers have communication with parents through PowerSchool [a system that enables parents and teachers to communicate with each other online]. That’s at a base-level. In addition, when you’re at an athletic event, you’re going to see parental involvement. All of our schools have Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs).

But I’d like to see the definition of parental involvement be broadened to include advocacy for the schools and heightened advocacy for our children. I also want to see more structured avenues for parents to get involved, such as our Bring Your Parent to School Day and Back to School Night. We had a pretty good turnout at those.

On a personal level, I was always a working parent, so I wasn’t necessarily [always at the school and always involved in extracurricular activities]. But if someone were to say I wasn’t involved, that wouldn’t be true. I may not have been on school grounds everyday, but [I was active in my children’s home life]. So, when people talk about an involved parent, are we only talking about the stay-at-home mom type? What are the kind of structured things that define involvement?

I don’t have negative commentary about our parents. I think we’re often accusatory and quick to label, instead of finding solutions to problems. For instance, at our last Parent University, we only had about 100 parents. But that just means that we need to have more of these events. [There may have been a variety of legitimate reasons for the low turnout]. So, we’re looking for multiple avenues and opportunities for parents to get involved and I think we’re doing a great job of that. Moreover, the Board of Education seems invested in that, as well.

We’re going to start having School Improvement Forums again. We had a Safety Forum in July and we want to follow that up with one sometime this Winter. We also have Back to School Night, Bring Your Parent to School Day, Principal Meet and Greets, a Forum on the Common Core and articulation with feeder schools.

The Board has indicated that we really need to do more outreach with our feeder schools [the elementary schools in Proviso Township that send students into District 209 high schools]. Even though people might not think of freshman transition program as parental involvement, it was really designed to support parents who had those freshmen who were transitioning from middle school. We got really good comments from parents when we did that. Freshmen had the opportunity to begin the school year three days before classes officially began. They participated in workshops that promoted team-building and they learned about school culture. They had fun while they were learning how to transition their mindsets and physical bodies to high school. That transition can be an intimidating.

How’s the beginning of the school year going?

The beginning of this school year seems quieter than usual. One thing we attributed it to was that we’ve allowed the students to keep their headphones in their ears while walking the hall during passing time. It’s not as loud, they’re listening to their music. It’s quieter in the halls during passing time, now. I think it’s a good idea. Rather than spending time telling kids to take that headphone out of their ears and fight a losing battle, we allow them to keep the headphones on. But at the same time, we expect them to respect the fact that they can’t use them in class. We’re dealing with a different generation, [so we have to adjust our techniques]. I have to say, it’s miraculous seeing over 2,000 people move from one place to another within five minutes! I don’t think I can get adults to do that. [laughs].

I understand that one of the District’s constant priorities is standardized testing. How are you all dealing with the pressure to raise the scores?

Those don’t occur until April, but in terms of preparation, we start the first day of school. We have some Board goals, such as graduation rate and scholarships and extracurricular courses. The Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) is a nut that we haven’t yet cracked. We’ve made significant growth this year, but we want to make sure we continue to climb every year, because our goal is to meet or exceed the state average. We’re looking at our curriculum to make sure that what’s being tested is in our curriculum, we’re providing practice workbooks in the content classes, online test preparation tools, and extended test prep as part of our Saturday School program.

In addition, we’re structuring several test days to kind of simulate the testing environment, so students feel prepared for that long a test. So we have a very aggressive testing protocol. However, I don’t want people to think we’re all about the test. That just seems the one thing we haven’t made significant headway on, because whether I like it or not–and I don’t like it–our schools are defined in the public largely by how our students score on the tests. People may know we have a great band [and all these other assets], but when they look at those test scores, their perception of our schools is adversely affected.

Can you elaborate on why you don’t like that testing shapes public perceptions of schools to such a large degree?

I don’t like that schools are defined by how they perform on a single testing day. Unfortunately, that’s how people form an opinion about the academic program of your school. But that’s the law of the land now.

I know that Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) recently added Advanced Placement (AP) courses to their offerings. Does whether or not schools offer AP courses affect how the public perceives them?

I don’t think it did with PMSA, since it has selective admission and all of the classes are honors. But over a period of time, like anything else, people have begun to ask why PMSA cant get AP, as well. We’ve always had dual-enrollment classes [students can take high school courses for college credit], but we didn’t have the AP at PMSA until we got a grant this year.

Tell me about the Leadership Cadre that was recently implemented?

It’s designed to be sort of a grow-your-own-staff-for-leadership program in the district. When I envisioned this a few years ago, the first goal was for people who might want to move into administration to learn about the district and enhance their leadership skills. But it was also designed for people in current administrative positions (deans, principles, etc.) to enhance their leadership skills. My third goal was to have a problem-solving venue and think-tank for things that might be going on in the district.

We have a new teacher support group that was implemented this year, too. It’s designed to help new teachers get acclimated to the school. It’s comprised of informal outlets for ongoing communication, talking, sharing, etc. Anything that we can do to make faculty and staff feel good about their work is a plus for students. When people feel good about their work, they tend to perform better. My theme for the year has been ‘Teamwork’. People are saying it feels good and they’re beginning to come together for some positive teamwork.

As you know, I’ll begin covering the District’s Financial Oversight Panel (FOP) for both The Village Free Press and The Forest Park Review. [The FOP, is basically an outside panel of budget experts brought in by the District some years ago to help guide it back to financial health]. What are your opinions on the FOP’s performance?

In 2008, the Board of Education, along with the State, sought to have a voluntary financial oversight panel, because at that time the District was experiencing some financial deficits. At that time, all across the nation, money was drying up, so we needed fiscal support and assistance. I view them as providing financial oversight and technical assistance. Sometimes it can be good to have someone who’s not looking at the same thing everyday to give you assistance. And while people don’t always like oversight and restrictions, sometimes you have to have that balance.

I think we’ve struck the right balance now. The board and the financial oversight panel have been having more joint meetings, where they’re talking together about how we can better the system academically. Initially, all the talk was about cutting money and that was frustrating. But I’m proud of the fact that the district buckled down and made the cuts, as painful as it was to do. And so we’ve brought some balance now. Presently, we’re moving into what I believe is the next phase of stability. We have clean audits, a balanced budget—we’re stabilizing. I see a shift to discussions about how to continue to be fiscally stable and how to move toward programming that improves student academics. We’ve made progress.

Finally, what is your vision for this upcoming school year? What things do you want to see done?

I continue to be excited about this year. I see people coming together in a more positive way than I’ve seen in the five years I’ve been here. There’s momentum. We’ve solidified programs for students, we’ve welcomed two new principles, we’re seeing more consistency in programming at the District. One of our visions is for us to continue to have interventions for students who are having difficulty and interventions for those who just need something different (via Saturday School, ACT Prep, AP preparatory courses, mentorship workshops during Saturday School and course credit recovery) beyond the school day so they would feel supported. Another vision is maximizing professional development and supporting our teachers more. I want us to provide more textbooks, more instructional materials, more technology upgrades. We also need to prepare ourselves for the common core and new state assessments.

This month, the board approved goals for the next three years, which include gaining on our graduation rate (matching or exceeding the State average), meeting the minimum requirements necessary to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), raising test scores, reaching out to the community and positively branding our District.

Read the Village Free Press here: www.thevillagefreepress.org

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