The Proviso Township High School District 209 Board of Education, at a Feb. 23 special board meeting, voted unanimously to hire Dr. Jesse Rodriguez to replace outgoing Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart, according multiple sources.
Rodriguez was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist was Dr. Eric Gallien, a deputy superintendent with the Racine Unified School District in the greater Milwaukee area.
Both Gallien and Rodriguez, a regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools, toured Proviso schools and met with various community stakeholders on separate occasions earlier this month.
“Both [candidates] seem to be transformational,” Kelly told the Forest Park Review at the time both men were being considered for the job. “They are both saying they would be visible in the community and are up for the challenge.”
“This is a major decision for the Proviso community,” Kelly said of the board’s selection. “We need [the community] to be there and to share their voice. This is why I want the community to come out. I feel it’s very important [for the public] to hear from candidates and speak to them.”
But some residents chafed at the news.
Soon after learning of Rodriguez’s hiring, Barbara Cole, the founder of area nonprofit Maywood Youth Mentoring and an outspoken youth advocate, sent out a statement, by way of email and social media, advising the board against hiring Rodriguez because of what she considers his heavy accent.
The statement was shared in various Facebook groups and included in multiple email chains. Before praising the board for exhibiting “good governance” by opening up the hiring process to community input and complimenting both finalists on their credentials, Cole said that Rodriguez’s accent presented a prohibitive barrier to his hiring.
“It is compelling that Dr. Jesse J. Rodriguez’s language accent is so heavy and dense that it places a number of factors at risk and therefore his hiring as the superintendent would, in our judgement, not be a prudent choice for the 209 school district,” Cole wrote.
In a recent phone interview, Cole said she was at a public meeting during which Rodriguez was presented to the community and she couldn’t understand much of what he said, adding that he mispronounced “Proviso,” among other nouns.
“The majority of the people there who I talked to acknowledged that there was a heavy accent that might interfere with communication,” Cole said in the interview.
“Even the people who I sent the email to felt that it was a valid consideration,” she said. “Our concerns should be a priority in terms of him hitting the ground running.”
Cole insisted that the criticisms she and other community members have made about Rodriguez’s accent have nothing to do with his ethnicity.
Antoinette Gray, an outspoken Proviso East alumna and student advocate, said she was “very disappointed with the board’s decision” to hire Rodriguez, because “he wasn’t the best qualified or the best fit for D209.”
Both Gray and Cole, who are African American, criticized Rodriguez’s lack of teaching experience. Gray also complained about “all sorts of grammatical errors in his presentation packet” which “may speak to the concerns of many constituents […] regarding the accent and language barrier.”
Gray disparaged the board’s pick for what she considered to be Rodriguez’s inability to “mend the racial divide and bring unity to a dwindling district and community.”
But many other residents expressed support and enthusiasm for the hire, with some noting that they had no significant problem understanding Rodriguez during his community meet-and-greet earlier this month.
“I was in attendance and I understood the entire presentation,” said Jennifer Smith. “[The name Proviso] was mispronounced, but that is a regionalism. In our small focus group, that did not happen as he became aware or someone advised him. Again, not a big deal as the message, vision, models, and energy [were] unbelievable.”
D209 board member Claudia Medina emphasized Rodriguez’s qualifications and urged community members who may take issue with his accent to focus on the district’s deeper problems.
“As a Latina,” Medina said, “who has encountered this stance over time in the U.S. […] I would like to ask all people in this conversation to rethink what we are saying, and what we are teaching the generations below us about integrity and diversity,” she said. “No person should be excluded by the way they sound, but by the content of what they say.”