A years-long effort by a coalition of Proviso community members, business people and parents, determined to transform the township’s underperforming high-school district, culminated April 4 in an election-night sweep of the four open seats on the District 209 Board of Education.
The April 2017 win for the coalition, Proviso Together, followed an earlier election victory for the group in 2015 that saw three of its candidates — then-newcomers Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner of Forest Park and incumbent Theresa Kelly of Maywood — secure spots on the board. Those three then supported Proviso Together’s 4-member slate in this year’s election. Now the group has a solid board majority for at least the next four years.
Proviso Together’s success in the last two election cycles, which resulted in six new members on District 209’s seven-member board, required coordination among dozens of volunteers in Proviso’s 10 feeder towns and included networks of concerned community members who had been working — with varying levels of success — to transform D209 for many years.
Forest Park gets involved
As reported by the Review in 2014, a group of Forest Parkers were chatting online in a Facebook group called “Forest Parkers For Better Schools.” Eventually that fall, some members of the group agreed to meet in person at Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, a local business run by one of the group’s members, Connie Brown. The group is sometimes referred to unofficially as the “Brown Cow 20.”
Brown, like others in the group, had children and said her family was wrestling with the decision to move out of the area in search of better schools, a common issue for many prospective Proviso parents. Soon, the group divvied up tasks and split into three clusters. The plan at the time was not to find candidates for office, Brown said.
One bunch was to concentrate on learning more about the Proviso school board and start attending meetings. The second was to investigate possibilities at the state level and the third was to brainstorm ideas on tutoring or scholarship programs.
Expanding the network
Brown and now-board member Ned Wagner were part of the school board contingent and went to a meeting in November 2014. While there, the pair met two D209 alumni, also in attendance, Antoinette Gray and Arbdella “Della” Patterson, and realized there was a shared frustration with the underperforming school district. The group also attended board meetings at Proviso feeder schools and continued to chat with Proviso residents.
“The more people we talked with, the more we realized that the conversation we were having at the Brown Cow that day was the same conversation that people were having in their living rooms or at the library or outside their school in every town,” Brown, Proviso Together’s political committee chairperson, recalled on April 8. “As we started to talk with people, the group just started growing and it just gained momentum.”
Brown said Patterson, who had previously run for the D209 school board, encouraged her and the rest of Proviso Together to think about running a Forest Park candidate in the upcoming April 2015 election, then about six months away.
Hats in the ring
“We thought ‘You know what? Maybe we should do this,'” Brown recalled. “Let’s start by making the biggest impact, and let’s just start by putting education- and child-focused people on the school board.”
In November 2014, Wagner and Medina, who was also at the original Brown Cow meeting, announced their intention to run.
Forest Parker Ken Snyder, a community organizer in Chicago and former political director for a hotel workers’ union, saw a picture of Ned Wagner in this newspaper and recognized the then-candidate as a fellow parent at Betsy Ross Elementary School. Snyder, who had seen some of his neighbors move out of Forest Park in search of better schools, offered to volunteer with Proviso Together when he saw Wagner at parent drop-off before school one day.
Snyder thought the Proviso Together group had a shot at winning and knew the mayoral election in Forest Park would help drive voter turnout.
“The important thing to understand, especially from Forest Park’s perspective,” Snyder said April 8, “is that the ‘Brown Cow 20’ was really like Forest Park catching up with a lot of other towns that already had people who were active in trying to make District 209 better.”
Forming a slate
A few weeks into 2015, the group held a kickoff fundraiser. There, Brown said, they met Theresa Kelly, an incumbent board member and Maywood resident. Wagner, Medina and Kelly decided to run as a slate.
Both Brown and Snyder stressed that the 2015 campaign saw coordination among residents across many Proviso communities, including Maywood, where Proviso East is located.
The aforementioned Antoinette Gray, a Proviso East alum, had returned to the Chicago area around 2010 and began planning a 15-year high school reunion. Proviso East, Gray said, prepared her well for life after high school. She had gone on to graduate from Olivet College and now runs an insurance agency in Maywood.
But after returning, Gray realized the status quo had changed at her alma mater. Determined to restore the school, she began working with other alumni on a variety of programs, including a nonprofit athletic association, and eventually met Della Patterson.
“She and I started working together to advocate on behalf of students,” Gray recalled April 9. “Della had been doing this since 1999, she had been attending every board meeting.”
Gray went on to help Wagner, Medina and Kelly with stump speeches and debate prep. She also canvassed and volunteered on Election Day.
There were Proviso Together volunteers in other Proviso communities, too.
Karen Thompson, a longtime Bellwood resident, introduced the Proviso Together slate (then called 209 Together) at a meet-and-greet coffee hosted by Gary Woll, a retired Elmwood Park High School teacher and longtime resident of Maywood, in early 2015. The slate’s message of reform immediately resonated with Thompson, who had followed D209 happenings for years.
“I was very impressed with them and liked what they were trying to do,” Thompson recalled April 9. “Their message needed to get out and I knew there were other people [in Bellwood] who were concerned about what was going on in the high schools.”
Thompson decided to volunteer with the campaign and began telling friends and family in Bellwood about the slate.
Katrina Arnold of Broadview, another Proviso community, met the Proviso Together group through a mutual friend in Westchester in January 2015. She heard the candidates’ platform and was soon asked to help spread the message to Broadview. She agreed and started canvassing.
“I want my tax dollars to work for me,” Arnold, a mother of two, with one son currently at Proviso East, said April 9. “I liked what they were saying.”
All three Proviso Together candidates won in 2015 and the group resolved to keep up the effort.
Sustaining the effort
“There was a plan, definitely, to have another race in 2017,” Brown said. “… We thought if we could just pick off one [seat] at a time, eventually we would be able to transform that board. But it happened so much faster.”
Gray, Thompson and Arnold all said they stayed up-to-date with D209 goings-on even after campaign season ended.
There was significant leadership turnover at Proviso schools in the months after the April 2015 election. The board of ed — which now included Wagner and Medina — approved the hiring of Principal Patrick Hardy at Proviso East in August 2015. Less than a year later, in July 2016, a new superintendent, Dr. Jesse Rodriguez, began his tenure.
As the 2017 campaign ramped up, Proviso Together was able to reengage some of the same volunteers and community networks from the previous election cycle. This time, there were no Forest Parkers on the ballot.
The 2017 slate of Amanda Grant of Westchester, Rodney Alexander of Bellwood, Samuel Valtierrez of Melrose Park and Della Patterson of Maywood was up against three incumbents and a fourth newcomer.
Board members Teresa McKelvy of Berkeley, Brian Cross of Westchester, and Daniel Adams of Melrose Park, along with Jacqueline Walton of Bellwood combined to form the Proviso First slate.
Gray, Thompson and Arnold all volunteered again, and, in some cases, expanded their responsibilities.
Gray’s good friend, Della Patterson, was now a candidate and Gray resolved to help in any way she could. Brown, Proviso Together’s campaign manager, asked Gray, who had fundraising experience from previous work in Michigan at a nonprofit as well as her college sorority, to head up Proviso Together’s efforts.
“I know what it takes to raise money,” Gray said, while also crediting her team. “I just kicked it into gear.”
Arnold met Together’s 2017 slate at a Maywood tea in February 2017. Their message and experience, particularly as Proviso parents, was appealing. Arnold volunteered again, going door to door in Broadview.
Thompson, who had known Patterson for years, met the rest of the slate at a fundraiser at Edens Lanes Bowling Alley in Westchester in February 2017. The candidates’ experience as Proviso parents was a huge factor in Thompson’s support. Valtierrez and Patterson were also Proviso alumni, another selling point for Thompson, who helped candidate Rodney Alexander spread his message in Bellwood.
“They were concerned about getting the word out in Bellwood,” she said. “He’d only been in Bellwood for a few years. I said ‘OK, well let me show you around.'”
Snyder, Together’s volunteer coordinator, emphasized that the campaign was an underdog in both the 2015 and 2017 races. But there were some differences between the two contests.
“This time around we had three board members who could help shape the message,” said Gray, Together’s fundraising coordinator. “To have three board members who supported the candidates, that helped tremendously.”
The right candidates
The four candidates also had been active in their own towns, so each brought a network of supporters and a history of community involvement. Valtierrez of Melrose Park, for instance, was involved with the local District 89 school district. Amanda Grant of Westchester had attended D209 board meetings in the past and was co-director of the Westchester Food Pantry. Rodney Alexander of Bellwood had worked with Wagner on a board of education policy committee.
That fact, Snyder said, was key.
“People coalesced behind Della and Amanda and Sam and Rodney because they believed they were the best people to improve the high schools,” Snyder said. “If people don’t believe those are the best candidates, they don’t volunteer, they don’t help, they don’t give their money.”
“We had a bigger team, a bigger base to start with,” Brown added. “And now that we were geographically dispersed, we had even bigger groups of people coming together to continue the momentum.”
The geographic spread, however, did lead to some logistical and planning difficulties and finding time to meet with everyone’s busy schedules was tough, Brown said.
There were also funding disparities between the two slates. But Proviso Together was able to gather many small donations — $50, $100 or $200 at a time — from a network of donors.
A message that resonated
And as in 2015, Together’s 2017 message of reform seemed to appeal to Proviso residents frustrated with the underperforming district.
On Election Day 2017, the slate’s four candidates swept into office, establishing a strong board majority.
As Snyder noted, many Proviso community members have been “in the trenches” for years and years. But in 2015 and 2017, significant change at the board of education finally happened, which Snyder, in part, attributed to the genuineness and commitment of the candidates and campaign volunteers throughout Proviso.
“All you have to do is listen to them for five minutes,” Snyder said, “and you’ll know that they’re going to spend every minute on the school board trying to do the best they can.”
Brown concurred and mentioned enough Proviso parents and community members finally mobilized together to change the status quo, stringing together the years-old pockets of frustration across Proviso.
“We pay taxes into our schools. Instead of running away from the problem, which we’ve done for years and years, let’s address the problem and change our schools,” Brown said. “That was something that resonated with a lot of people.