The upper floor of Brian Boru Irish Pub in Forest Park was packed Tuesday night for the “209 Together” rally to support two Forest Park hopefuls running for Forest Park Proviso Township High School District 209 school board. Claudia Medina and Nathan ‘Ned’ Wagner spoke to the group, as well as current board members Theresa Kelly and Kevin McDermott. About seventy people filled the space. Petitions were circulated to have the candidates placed on the ballot. Many participated in the public discussion that followed the speeches. It was not a “Forest Park-centric” meeting, as voices were heard from Maywood, Bellwood, Westchester and Broadview.

Local officials in attendance included District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo, Park Commissioner Matt Walsh and Village Commissioner Chris Harris. Also present was Princess Dempsey, a former candidate for 7th District State Rep. and Lindop school board member (D 92).

Connie Brown acted as MC. The genesis of the “209 Together” movement started in her Forest Park Brown Cow ice cream parlor, when twenty concerned parents met there on Nov. 2. “These were people who love their community,” Brown said, “They’re a lot of people like us. We have 150-200 people in our network who want to make these schools better.”

Brown introduced Kelly as the first speaker. The veteran board member and Maywood native began, “I’m so disappointed in Proviso East. That parents would pay more to have their children educated, or leave the town they love. That towns work tirelessly to de-annex from the district. I’m tired of the poor academic performance and the poor excuses. The kids in my neighborhood aren’t inspired to get educated, because they don’t believe anyone cares. Teachers don’t care because they think the board doesn’t care. This attitude has also filtered down to our feeder schools.”

“But when our kids see how much we care, their attitudes will change. We want to make Proviso East one of the best high schools in the state. We care!”

Nathan ‘Ned” Wagner followed her to the podium. Like many in attendance, he was wearing an orange “209 Together” button on his lapel.  Referring to the initial gathering on Nov. 2, Wagner said, “We thought of negative solutions like de-annexing but we want to be positive.” The first positive action the group took was to attend a D209 school board meeting Nov. 18. At the meeting, Wagner saw many parents expressing anger that their children had been expelled for fighting.

“The school board was so cold, I thought, oh my God it’s true, there’s something wrong with the board. I made a scene with my comments. I was so angry but I’m not angry anymore because I’m doing something about it. We’re going to stand up as American citizens and make democracy work!” Wagner acknowledged that he is not an educator but very concerned with the state of the schools. “I don’t feel like I’m on the campaign trail yet,” he added, “It’s already been a wild and crazy ride and it hasn’t even started.”

Claudia Medina is an educator. The native of Bogota, Colombia, has been a Montessori teacher for 25 years. “I create an environment where children can learn,” Medina said, “I’m also a lecturer who has trained teachers in Europe and South America. Finally, I’m a mother of three beautiful children and I’m a wife.”

She lamented that, “So many incredible people are moving away from Forest Park, the movers and shakers of our community.” She was thankful that there was a “rainbow of people” at the rally. She spoke of District 209’s large Latino population having no voice. “I want to be the voice for them, too.”

“I have looked at the Illinois report cards for all three high schools,” Medina continued, “These report cards are not OK with me. They say academic failure, they don’t say hope. Every child deserves the dignity of a quality education. The data shows the schools are failing but there’s no specific strategic plan to address this.”

“We want to be proud of Proviso’s academics, its leadership, environment, teachers and parents. I’d like to be on a board that can say we have academic excellence. I want us to proud of being part of Proviso. I want to be part of this amazing team to help our schools get to where they need to be. Let us be the voice for very strong schools in Proviso Township!”

District 209 Board member and Westchester resident Kevin McDermott was the next speaker, greeting friends from Broadview and Maywood. Speaking of the failing high schools, McDermott said, “It’s our problem.” He asked the crowd, “Who are the only people that can change it?” and they answered, “Us!”

“It’s not the fault of the maintenance crew or the administration,” he continued, “The problem is the leadership on the board. Some members are controlled by a political machine that has run the district for years.” He praised Kelly’s long service on the board as a voice for change. Turning to Medina and Wagner, “These are great candidates.  It’s a long road but we’ve taken the first step.”

Over the next hour, many took the microphone to voice their concerns with the high schools. Kevin Leonard, a resident of the 600 block of Marengo noted that many families had left his block. “We should have a public high school we can count on.”

An educator from UIC urged parents to go to the website to download the data on the high schools. “If this data is packaged the right way, it can be used in campaign literature. We can go to all 14 communities in Proviso and ask residents, ‘Is this good enough for your child?'”

Medina added that the data shows, “The schools are not just failing, they’re demoralized.”

Some noted the scarcity of newspaper coverage of the schools and lack of positive stories. A female resident claimed that Forest Park had turned its back on Proviso East. “There are no posters about the schools in stores, no one’s house is being tee-peed. Our community has to buy in.” Another woman suggested the group have “boots on the ground” in all ten feeder communities. She believed that having whites campaigning in predominantly black areas, and vice-versa would get the attention of voters and show the group’s strong commitment to change.

The next step for “209 Together” is to get as many township residents as possible to attend the next D209 school board meeting. It is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec.9, at 6:30 p.m., at Proviso Math and Science Academy, 8601 W. Roosevelt Rd., Forest Park. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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