Dozens of Forest Parkers gathered Jan. 24 at Forest Park Village Hall to share ideas about improving Proviso District 209, to meet school leadership — including newly hired Superintendent Jesse Rodriguez — and to brainstorm solutions to several persistent issues, including student underachievement.

The town hall-style get-together is part of a series of meetings organized by District 209, with school officials and board of education members heading to each Proviso feeder community to hear from community members and parents. D209 hired Rodriguez in July 2016, a year after a new slate of reform-minded members, including two from Forest Park, joined the high school board and signaled a renewed effort to revive the troubled school district.

“We have competition. We have many schools in the area,” Rodriguez said. “But we love our public schools and we can compete. Our public schools need to serve our families.”

The town hall featured remarks by Supt. Rodriguez, Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone and several school principals. District 91 officials, including Supt. Louis Cavallo, and board of education members Mary Win Conner and Eric Conner, were also in attendance, indicating the importance of cross-district collaboration.

“This is encouraging. There’s a renewed energy,” Calderone told the Review. “It has to start with parents. They have to say ‘We are taking charge.'”

The meeting’s several dozen attendees broke into three smaller groups — each led by one of Proviso’s three principals — to talk through concerns, express frustrations and ask questions. The discussions produced a wide-range of issues, including building maintenance, lackluster graduation rates, and the less-than-stellar public perception of D209, particularly in Forest Park.

Several attendees mentioned the need to shift the negative narrative surrounding Proviso schools. In years past, D209 made headlines for student fights and a fire, which forced class cancellations. Several attendees said the public’s view of Proviso has discouraged Forest Parkers from enrolling their children in the district.

Indeed, according to data provided to the Review by D209, there are 168 Forest Park students in the district’s three high schools as of January 2017. The only other community with fewer children enrolled is Northlake with 113 students. Other communities, including Maywood and Melrose Park, send a much larger student population to D209.

Even accounting for differences in general population, Forest Park still sends a relatively smaller group of students. Hillside, for instance, has around about six thousand fewer residents than Forest Park but sends nearly double the number of students — 324.

Forest Park has a troubled history with D209, including efforts to leave the Proviso school system several years ago. For decades, many Forest Parkers have opted to send their children to private or parochial schools instead and, save for this latest election, community representation on the board of education has not been robust.

Attendees acknowledged this history but also steered the evening’s conversations toward what is working well in the district, including more extracurricular activities, the district’s new leadership, and the feeling of renewed optimism from parents and community members.

The event concluded with attendees gathering in a circle and sharing one word to describe the past few hours. A sense of optimism was palpable as attendees chose words such as “inspired,” “empowered,” and “proud.”

Positivity aside, challenges still exist.  The district’s 2016 four-year graduation rate was 73.5 percent, more than 10 percentage points below the state average, according to the Illinois Report Card, the state’s official source. Other metrics, including the rate of graduating seniors enrolling in two- or four-year colleges is also below state average. District performance on statewide tests, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) also leave plenty of room for improvement.

“It’s a work in progress,” Claudia Medina, one of two D209 board members from Forest Park, said. “We have to engage the community.”

A few attendees felt energized by the number of people at the meeting but mentioned the need to keep momentum moving forward.

“The turnout is good,” Forest Parker and Proviso East alum Jeremy Horn said. “It’s a stepping stone. Let’s support our high school district.”

Other expressed their approval for the new D209 administration.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Rodney Alexander said of Rodriguez’s leadership. “He’s engaged and has a pulse on the schools.”

Alexander said he’s already decided to send his young son, who is in fourth grade, to Proviso for high school. Alexander is running for a spot on the D209 Board of Education in the upcoming April 4 election.

“Change is possible when people get involved,” Alexander said. “We gotta roll up our sleeves.” 

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