Improving trust and building relationships among teachers, administrators and students in Proviso Township High School District 209 was the top priority chosen by school board members at the board’s annual retreat, Sept. 2. The gathering was held at McCormick & Schmick’s steak & seafood restaurant in Oak Brook. This was the board’s second retreat. Six of the seven members attended, with Dan Adams absent.

Using vocabulary from the corporate world, educational consultant Jeff Cohn of Brave Dialogue helped the board identify threats and strengths in the low-performing district. Cohn explained how the board was accountable to the district’s stakeholders.

“You, as board members, are responsible for the district’s brand,” Cohn said. “The oath you took is to protect the district’s assets, and the district’s brand or reputation is an asset.”

Over swordfish and steak, board members and Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart brainstormed threats to the district, including poverty, community violence, financial uncertainty from the state of Illinois and local property taxes, and the public perception that “the schools are not good enough to send their kids to.”

While it was not yet public, Collins-Hart had already told board members she would not stay on past June of 2016. 

Board member Theresa McKelvey complained about “negativity in the community,” but Cohn reminded them, “You all, in this board room, have control over threats to the district.” 

Rumors and political alliances were damaging the district’s reputation, board members agreed. Ned Wagner, of Forest Park, said “political stress” was felt within the administration and faculty.

“There are rumors that people are put into place for political reasons or because they are family members,” Wagner said. Collins-Hart disputed that, describing the district’s hiring protocol. Cohn said the board could influence the hiring process through policy. 

Using the analogy of a dance floor and balcony, Cohn said participatory democracy belonged “on the dance floor.”

“On the dance floor, the voters are the constituents, but in the balcony [where board responsibilities reside] there is no constituency,” he said. “How do you tell a child, ‘You’re not in my constituency?'”

Board members agreed they needed to tweak the district’s vision statement, which currently reads: “The Vision of Proviso Township High Schools is to be the best high school district in the state of Illinois.” 

“Let’s try to get up to state average,” said Brian Cross. “It took the Cubs three years to get to where they are now.”

Cohn also urged the board to look at strengths in the district, things that “are good now and with effort and a little money could go to great.” 

Board members identified sports, band programs, and the increase in AP classes and district capital improvements as positives.

Board President Theresa Kelly said schools needed to be “cleaner and well-maintained” because students would perform better “if they are in a good environment.”

The board chose “climate” as the area they want the administration to focus on for the next 18 months. 

Board Secretary Claudia Medina, also of Forest Park, urged the administration to “build a climate of respect and trust throughout the district for everyone at all levels.” 

The Illinois State Board of Education’s “Five Essentials Survey” tool would be a place to gather data, said Vice President Kevin McDermott. Five Essentials is an online survey completed by teachers and parents.

“The survey says we have issues with faculty satisfaction,” McDermott said. He added that two dozen veteran teachers were planning to retire shortly. “How do you replace senior people and their institutional memory?” he asked.

Collins-Hart said retaining good teachers was a challenge.

“Just like our families are leaving, our teachers are leaving too,” she said.

At the retreat’s end, Cohn congratulated the board on their focus and prioritization.

“You’ve had your chance now to tell the administration what’s most important,” he said. 

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...

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