Last Thursday, the editorial staff of the Review took a field trip to Proviso East and to the school district’s administrative offices atop the Proviso Math and Science Academy. It was a gratifying and encouraging excursion as we sat down first for a conversation with Dr. Jesse Rodriguez, the new District 209 superintendent, and then toured East with both Rodriguez and Dr. Patrick Hardy, the school’s principal.

There is an energy at work at Proviso East and in the district headquarters that is radically improved from even the recent past. Rodriguez and Hardy share a charisma and an intensity that is seemingly contagious. You see it in the enthusiastic and personal interactions with colleagues, from security guards to teachers to school secretaries. 

With Hardy, who appears to be omnipresent within the hallways and classrooms of East, you see it and appreciate it most in his casual and purposeful connections to students. Walking through a lunchroom — a space that is calm and happy — he is pointing to individual students who soon gather around our group and with a minimal prompt introduce themselves with poise. Ask them anything, he says, and the students tell of why they are at East and what their experience has been.

East is an old building where perpetually bad district management left most all maintenance on the long-deferred list. But last summer the district invested $7 million in invisible and unglamorous fixes. And with diligent work, the building is clean and welcoming, its hallways filled with attentive adults and a diverse student body, which on this day was relaxed and focused as it moved from class to class.

For Forest Park, a village that has consciously turned its back on this school over decades, Hardy is encouraged that so far this school year he has hosted four groups of Forest Parkers for tours after seeing none in his first year at the school. And last night, after press time, the district’s rolling listening tour came to Forest Park’s own village hall. This is, of course, unheard of.

A couple of years back in our last visit to the fifth-floor lair of district administrators at PMSA, we found an entrance locked to any casual visitor, darkened hallways and an array of mostly empty, beige offices. And that doesn’t even touch the subject of the defensiveness of the administrator we talked with then. 

Now with Rodriguez having gathered most of his team to the same floor, having put some color on the walls and some school mascots on display, the HQ felt purposeful and on the offensive. Rodriguez and the district’s new communications person, Cynthia Moreno, actually offered documents and data and went and found more information on student demographics and enrollment that we asked for.

This was a confident and realistic welcome by administrators who have an actual plan of action, who acknowledge the abiding challenges of the district but seem determined and hopeful that they are already seeing the first signs of momentum among students, teachers, parents and the Proviso community.

With a school board election in April, Forest Parkers can support this developing momentum by paying attention and engaging.

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