During passing periods at Proviso East High School, Principal Patrick Hardy plants himself in the middle of a school corridor like a tree growing midstream.

As the students pass by, his arms reach out like branches. He offers an open palm for a shake, gives a student a fist bump, or as needed, pulls one in closer for a short conversation before they are released back into the roiling current of bodies on the way to class.

He asks those students about their day: Was it better than the last? Was the issue they were dealing with resolved? How?

As he does, the student will look away, avoiding direct eye contact. The interaction is slightly awkward and the student looks embarrassed, but at the same time, they nod, they answer, they talk, and most important, they smile.

These short personal interactions, and the fact that he is seen and accessible during these moments, matters a great deal to Hardy, who started as the principal of Proviso East High School on Sept. 1.

Sure, it’s a way to watch over students, he said, but more than that, it’s an opportunity to learn something about them.

“It matters less if they shake my hand or not,” Hardy said. “It does matter that they know [they] have a principal who is accessible and that I am truly happy to have the opportunity to be with them.”

Hardy’s optimism about the position and his passion for the work comes from how lucky he feels to have been hired to do it, he said. The position was exactly what he was looking for: An opportunity to work at a school facing challenges with a high ratio of minority and/or low-income students.

“I wasn’t looking for a percentage but a place where we could make a difference,” he said.

According to the Illinois School Report Card, 83 percent of students at Proviso East High School are classified as low-income. Nearly 52 percent of the student body is black and 45 percent is Hispanic.

Prior to accepting the job at Proviso East, Hardy worked with the Network for College Success through the University of Chicago as a leadership coach, primarily collaborating with principals, he said. Although he loved the job and found it fulfilling, he wasn’t actually working at a school, which was something he missed.

“I don’t get to teach classes,” he said, sounding a little disappointed, “but hallway time is my time to be with students. I get a pulse there.”

Hardy has an impressive educational background of his own. Although he wasn’t a high-performing high school student, he hit his stride in college. Hardy earned a bachelor of arts degree in history and secondary education from Xavier University in Louisiana, a master of education degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a second master of education from Cambridge College in Massachusetts. Then he completed a doctorate in ministry from Andersonville Theological Seminary. And he’s not out of school yet, as he’s currently pursuing a second doctorate in education from Capella University. As an average student in high school, he said, he received no scholarships. He’ll be paying off student loans until he goes to heaven, he joked.

When asked what led an average high school student to pursue such an aspirational educational career, Hardy cited two very influential people in his life: a minister at his church in Chicago and Dr. Loren J. Blanchard, who served as chair of the education department when Hardy attended Xavier University. Both men instilled in him a desire to excel, he said, because he didn’t want to disappoint them. In fact, he wanted to impress them. A good mentor, Hardy said, allows the protege to figure out their own way forward, not lead them to it but guide them along the way.

“I see the role of principal as a mentor to students and teachers,” he said.

The influence of those men can be felt in the way he approaches school administration, he said, especially for a group of students he calls the “unseen middle.”

Hardy talked about that at a school assembly in which he was introduced to students and staff, Sept. 1. Addressing students at the assembly, Hardy told them that ultimately the responsibility for their success rests only with them.

“Because the [teachers] can’t do it without you,” he said. “The guy standing on the stage has nothing that he can offer without you.”

To Hardy, the greatest obstacle for students is mindset.

“Poverty is a temporary fact of life, not an unmovable mountain,” Hardy said. “I can say the same thing about several other conditions in our school. The challenge is convincing both adults and students to have a mindset that is positive, determined, and filled with hope. The world is a very negative and pessimistic place these days, which makes changing mindsets a very hard thing to do.”

That same sentiment also applies to teachers, parents and the community, he said. And so, in the 70-some working days he’s been principal, Hardy does not have a five-point plan to reinvent Proviso East High School. He doesn’t have a list of educational objectives for teachers he wants them to complete. Instead, he said he’s focused on watching and learning.

Hardy said he does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Each school will have to figure out what works for them, and it will be many, many small initiatives that will lead them in a better direction. Students, teachers and the community are the ones that will ultimately come up with the best ideas, he said; they just need the opportunity to vocalize them and try them out. What works best will be repeated. That’s a more positive approach than focusing on what’s wrong and how to improve it, he said.

“I’m the new guy,” Hardy said. “I don’t want to come in and say do this, do this, do this. We need to work together … and build up.”

At his introduction assembly, Hardy spoke to teachers and students about casting off prior baggage at Proviso and starting anew, which he demonstrated via student volunteers carrying bags of bricks.

“There are those of us who walked in this week, this day, this year [who] have no idea what we wanna be, what we wanna do, where we wanna go, how we’re gonna get there, what’s it gonna take … what will we sacrifice to get there,” he told the room. 

But, that’s not to say people don’t need a hand, some guidance — a mentor, perhaps. 

Returning to his passing period interaction with students, above all else Hardy wants them to know he is available for them, will encourage them and will support them. All they have to do is ask.

He told a story of two students, both seniors. One was failing to regularly attend class and another was failing to complete classwork. He started meeting with them after they approached him together for help, and he began working with them. After a recent meeting, they both reported that all classes were attended with all homework complete.

Now that, he said, could be a temporary success or the beginning of something to be built upon. But the important part of the story to him was the students’ reactions at their meeting.

“Both of them were smiling with these big, ridiculous smiles as we completed our check in,” he said. “They were happy and they should be. Remember, I said the students initiated contact; the students are asking for help; the students indicated they want to change. I did nothing more than respond to their efforts and am happy to do so. 

“You see, hope can leave you with a really good feeling.”