Dr. Patrick Hardy, Proviso East's principal for the past six years, is headed to Oak Park River Forest High School. | File photo

There’s a gas station near Proviso East High School, and not long after Dr. Patrick Hardy began as principal in 2015, he realized that people who weren’t students waited there to start fights with East kids.

“I needed my kids to get home safe every day,” Hardy said. Not to mention that fights outside of school would spill over into the school day. School security guards weren’t allowed to leave campus, so Hardy said he and Assistant Principal Fred Aguirre decided to take things into their own hands.

“We were going to reclaim that gas station as part of Proviso East,” Hardy said. So they stood at the gas station door every day before and after school.

Hardy took it farther, asking local restaurants to stop serving kids during morning school hours because they needed to make it to their classes on time. He’d drive the neighborhood looking for students who were supposed to be at school.

Dr. Patrick Hardy | Photo provided

“They hated to see us,” said Hardy. Once the students began to recognize his car, he switched to another vehicle. He hid at a nearby body shop and surprised students as they passed by. Go to school, he’d tell them. They weren’t always happy about it, but for the most part, they’d go to class.

Hardy is leaving his position as principal at Proviso East after six years. His new position is at Oak Park and River Forest High School as executive director for equity and student success.

But Hardy wasn’t planning to leave Proviso District High School District 209. Several months ago, Proviso’s new superintendent Dr. James Henderson set the stage for a major administrative overhaul, reclassifying or failing to renew the contracts of dozens of individuals. Administrators were invited to reapply for their old positions or for new ones. The principal of Proviso Math and Science Academy will now be a grade-level principal at Proviso West, a position that comes with decrease in salary of around $10,000. And, in fact, several of those who stayed on after the reclassification took salary decreases to do so.

Hardy said he applied for three different positions in-district, but when he didn’t hear back, he couldn’t sit around and wait, so he looked elsewhere and accepted the position at OPRF, a new opportunity he said is exciting.

There’s regret, though, said Hardy, that he doesn’t have more time at East to continue what he started there.

“We didn’t get it perfect, but not for lack of trying,” said Hardy.

“Perfect” might refer to test scores not improving. And they didn’t. But Hardy said his first move when he came to the school six years ago was to work on the climate and culture. Then, he said, grades and scores would be the focus. That’s why he stood outside the gas station. That’s why he personally showed up at a hotel party that involved vanloads of students, some from East, making sure they got home safely and nobody was arrested, even though the police had been called.

Hardy is responsible for significant marks of improvement in the school. On the day he walked into East, there was only one advanced placement (AP) class, said Hardy. As he leaves, there are 15.

Proviso East has dual credit programs with Triton College, and since his time as principal also with Indiana University.

The school went from offering six clubs and activities to 52, many founded by students, and Hardy fostered an environment in which kids felt comfortable coming to him with ideas for organizations at the school.

The school’s Illinois State Report Card shows a graduation rate of 62 percent in 2016. In 2020, it was 77 percent.

And under Hardy’s tenure, Competency Based Education was brought to East, though Hardy admits he needed to be convinced at first. It was a community decision, one he’s glad was made. In 2015, Hardy said, administrators in the district met with the community and asked: “What do you want?” The answers led to the Competency Based Model, in which graduation credit can be earned in other ways than traditional coursework, such as through hands-on experience in addition to time spent in the classroom.

Hardy says he was a quick convert.

“The public school system continues to fail students en masse, especially students of color and immigrants,” Hardy said. “Competency based education works for everyone. It addresses equity issues.”

Hardy said he hopes competency-based education continues to provide paths of knowledge and training for students there, one reason being that it is an example of innovation in education, something that’s rare these days, Hardy said.

Hardy held up his cell phone. He explained that 5 years ago, his phone was different. Bigger. Clunkier. With less functionality. And 20 years before that, much different still. As a child, there weren’t things like cell phones, he said.

“If you look at almost every industry in the world, you see constant change and innovation,” said Hardy. “So why does education continue to look the same?”

Hardy said it’s problematic that education designed to teach white men a long time ago is still, by and large, run the same way it always was.

“Competency based education allowed me to lead and do school differently,” Hardy said. “It was a chance to lead systemic change in education. I got to lead actual innovation.” When asked, he said, “I am not sure the district will remain committed to competency-based education.” But he hopes it does.

Other improvements that occurred while Hardy was principal at East include an 80 percent reduction in disciplinary action and a 100 percent reduction in expulsions. Reduction in discipline, Hardy said, refers to out-of-school suspensions and disciplinary referrals to the dean. That, said Hardy, meant giving teachers more support. But equally important was putting the responsibility on the students.

“We increased the expectations for the students. We said, ‘You can no longer be tardy. You can’t disrespect your teacher,’” said Hardy. “And then, we were hard the first year. You can’t bluff. Kids have to know you mean it.”

Hardy said he’d track down kids who weren’t doing their work or were missing class. He’d find them in P.E. class, a copy of their grades in his hand. Why did you miss so many classes? he’d ask. What’s going on with these Fs here?

When he first came to East, said Hardy, the school was lost. And so he had to take a hard stance.

“Restorative justice can come later, after the school is regained,” Hardy said.

That was the climate. The expectations for students and support for teachers. Standing outside gas stations and fast-food joints to make sure your kids were safe.

But culture was important too. “Culture is what you believe, your mindsight,” Hardy said. “What do you believe about kids? And do we believe that all kids deserve to be here?”

At an open house at East a few months ago, students lined the hallways, standing near tables with giveaways for guests and hand-made posters about the clubs they were representing. They were excited. Poised. Proud to talk about cross country and gardening and theater. The teachers and administrators at that open house were proud too, explaining the different academies as part of the competency-based framework. There was an almost tangible excitement in the air. No small part of that was Hardy greeting people with his kind confidence as they entered, welcoming them to see Proviso East.

Leaving Proviso is bittersweet for Hardy. He said he’s excited about his new position at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

“I’m impressed with the team,” Hardy said. “The incoming superintendent seems incredible.” And he applauded the school board for  its focus on important issues of race.

“OPRF had the courage to establish a focus on racial equity and to do it in policy,” Hardy said. “I’m glad for the opportunity to stretch myself in this way at OPRF. They got to me first. My first instincts were to stay at Proviso, if they would have me,” Hardy said.

He’s leaving the district thankful for the chance to work there, and with thanks for the community that welcomed him with such open arms.

“I got to lead one of the most historic schools in the state for six years. What an honor,” said Hardy. “I got to work with the best parents. The teachers and staff are the very best. Your kids are going to be well cared for at East, from the teachers to the custodians.”

He thanked former superintendent Jessie Rodriguez for allowing Hardy to be himself and allowing him to lead an innovation in education.

And he said he’s thankful to both school boards that have come before him in his tenure. “They gave me a chance,” Hardy said.

He wants to express gratitude to the parents and his former and current students.

“These are great kids, and their potential is absolutely limitless,” Hardy said. With a laugh he added: “And I expect them to achieve, or I will find them all. They better achieve great things.”

Although he regrets not getting to finish what he started, he said, “But I know I’m giving the community the school back better than it was given to me.” His final words? “I had a ball.”