Nettie Collins-Hart

Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart, Superintendent of Proviso Township High School District 209, knows all about school desegregation. Her days as a student began in segregated schools in North Carolina, and by the time she graduated from high school, they were integrated.

Then as the curriculum director in Topeka during the time when that school district was trying to implement the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, she heard stories from people who had actually lived through the turmoil of desegregation. She asked her colleagues, “Why is everyone so angry?” The responses she heard became a major piece of her Ph.D. dissertation. “The story of Brown from the perspective of the African Americans who actually experienced it,” she said, “that voice was never captured in text books.”

When she became superintendent of Dist. 209 in 2008, she entered a school district which was in effect segregated—not because of any unconstitutional behavior on the part of the school board but because of demographic changes. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Maywood’s African American population was three percent in 1930. The statistics for the village in 2012 show that white population to be 3.8 percent—almost a complete reversal. The same kinds of demographic shifts have been true to one degree or another for all of the school districts feeding into Proviso East, including Dist. 91 here in Forest Park. Whites comprise 2.2 percent of the student body at Proviso East High School with blacks accounting for 57.1 percent and Hispanics 39 percent.

The changes haven’t been just racial, but socio-economic as well, and that affects the amount of money spent on each student. According to the Illinois Report Card Dist. 209 spends $6,352 per student in a category called Instructional Spending while in Dist. 91 the Forest Park Middle School spends $10,266 and Oak Park River Forest High School lays out $11,908.

So, sixty years after the Brown decision, how do you respond to the massive challenges facing you as a superintendent?

In terms of racial balance, Collins-Hart acknowledged that one motivation for starting the Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) in 2005 was to “bring back” the white students in the district—those who remained following white flight during the 1970s—who were going to Fenwick, Trinity, Walther and Nazareth. In that regard the PMSA strategy has not produced the hoped for results. Even though 73 percent of PMSA students met the Prairie State Achievement Exam standards last year and 65 percent  are deemed ready for college (compared to 67 percent at Oak Park and River Forest High School), 10.4 percent of the students there are white. Collins-Hart bluntly concluded, “Certain people don’t want to go to school with certain other people.”

Regarding the culture of Proviso East, some parents state that race is not the reason they don’t send their children to the schools in Maywood. The reason is culture, a culture which includes fighting, profanity and a lack of seriousness about education. Chronic truancy for example. Dist. 209’s own data revealed that 46.5 percent of their students missed nine or more days of school last year without a valid cause. At Proviso East, the number was 79 percent in 2012-13. Collins-Hart readily acknowledged the problem but said that the institution of the Alternative Learning Opportunities Program (ALOP) for truancy, though not without its problems after the initial launch, is a sign that the issue is being addressed. The program’s plan includes a “support services component” consisting of a one hour group meeting facilitated on a daily basis by a counselor and social worker. But it will only serve a total of 60 seniors next year at Proviso East and West. 

Fighting is another example. Rob Daniel, the Dist. 209 Community and Public Relations Coordinator, acknowledged the problem of fighting. His complaint was that the media misrepresents the facts and focuses on the negative. “I spent over a week trying to correct misinformation last year about the fight one day after school,” he said. “The media reported that 300 students were fighting on the campus of Proviso East. No. That wasn’t the case. The fight was close to Ninth and Madison which is seven blocks away.”

Pointing out that requiring uniforms this coming school year is one tactic in the overall attempt to change the school’s culture, Collins-Hart said that she wished people in the district would see that the Dist. 209 cup is half full as well as half empty, and that the changing of culture is a huge task.

 “We have issues, she said,” and we have lots of problems, but we have lots of promise too. I wish that somehow we could get people to physically come into the schools and see the school with real live children and real live teachers during a real live day.”

This artcle has been updated to correct the student racial percentages for Proviso East High School. 

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