Community members and district faculty take part in a listening session hosted by District 209 school board member Amanda Grant on Nov. 1, 2021. Michael Romain | Editor

Roughly 50 people, many of them District 209 faculty, gathered inside of Sheet Metal Workers’ Local Union 73, 4550 Roosevelt Rd. in Hillside on Nov. 1, for a listening session hosted by District 209 school board member Amanda Grant.

Grant said she decided to host the meeting as an individual board member, not as a representative of the district, after learning about D209 board President Rodney Alexander’s decision to suspend the practice of live-streaming board meetings.

During the Monday evening meeting, those in attendance relished what they described as the rare opportunity to vent their frustrations and concerns with someone in authority within the district, which most said they haven’t been able to do with senior D209 administrators, including D209 Supt. James Henderson.

A District 209 spokesperson could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning. On Oct. 18, Henderson announced that he was forming a Parent Advisory Board to deal with issues within the schools.

“I am looking for a group of parents to be a part of the solution surrounding student educational achievement and eliminating disruption of students in our schools,” the superintendent said. “I want parent representatives of all students from all three schools.”

For the most part, attendees at Monday’s listening session complied with the ground rules that Grant laid out from the outset.

“Any concerns that are brought forth, I would like to hear about things you have experienced,” she said. “I do not want rumors. I do not want hearsay. I do not want opinions that are just to talk bad about someone. I want to hear concerns where we can hopefully find common themes and once we find common themes, we can hopefully start looking toward solutions. That’s my goal.”

The complaints about conditions at Proviso East High School in Maywood and Proviso West High School in Hillside were numerous, with many centering on students’ physical and emotional safety.

“There’s a lack of security,” said Carissa Gillespie, a teacher at West. “We’ve been told by administration that we can make do with four or five security guards in a building of about 2,000 students and people.”

Gillespie said that last week she witnessed a teacher leave the building “on a stretcher” due to a health emergency related to stress.

“We are becoming numb to police, fights and ambulances in our building — that’s not normal,” she said. “In 20 years of teaching in Proviso, in 23 total years of teaching, I have never experienced this type of chaos.”

Community members and district faculty attend a listening session held by D209 board member Amanda Grant on Nov. 1, 2021. Michael Romain | Editor

Ashley Avila, a teacher at Proviso East High School in Maywood, said that there “there has not been access to water in our building for a month,” before sharing the story of one student who she said has been experiencing physical pain after refusing to utilize the few bathrooms in the building that are open.

“The bathrooms are locked,” Avila said. “If you came for parent night, every single bathroom was open and when you left, every single bathroom got relocked. There’s like one bathroom on the third floor for females in the building and by the end of the day, you are blessed to find toilet paper or paper towels.”

Avila said the student who told her about his pain “happens to be gay. Since there’s only one bathroom open for boys, now he can’t find a bathroom that’s less populated and where he feels he won’t be bullied.”

Avila said there used to be gender-neutral bathrooms available inside of East before they, too, were closed.

One by one, audience members approached the front of the room to share their experiences. Grant took notes, often stopping to “take the temperature of the room” by asking those in attendance to raise their hands if they had similar concerns as the person who just spoke.

When Grant asked if there were others who could vouch for the lack of available bathrooms and security personnel, hands across the union hall shot up. As the meeting proceeded, Jordan Kuehn, a Forest Park software engineer and local education activist, intermittently positioned his cellphone camera for the Facebook live-stream.

Kuehn is a member of Proviso 209 Cooperative, the private Facebook group that was launched on the day that community members noticed that the district was not livestreaming during board meeting last month.

Those watching the live-stream were able to pose questions by leaving comments on the Proviso 209 Cooperative’s Facebook page. Many of the online comments echoed the concerns brought up by those in attendance like Jaleel Anthony, a recent Proviso West graduate who said that he wants to see real “action that sticks and stays” regarding student safety and other problems within the schools as well as more feedback from students.

Donald Robinson, a D209 parent who also teaches Auto Tech at Proviso East, said he never received any communication about recent parent-teacher conferences and that there has been no state-mandated fire alarm drill at East. Robinson said he spoke to administrators about the problems a week ago, but hasn’t gotten a response yet.

Nicole O’Conner, a counselor at Proviso West, said she was disciplined after speaking out about some of her issues, including her heavy workload. She said she has over 300 students she has to work with.

“First-year social workers are overwhelmed,” she said, before echoing Robinson’s complaint about a lack of responsiveness from top district administrators.

Ernest Travis, a teacher at East, applauded Grant for holding the Monday listening session, but said he wants the board to create more spaces for “dialogue with staff, not just the superintendent.”

Travis said there’s been a mass exodus of veteran employees who were “pushed out” of the district and little to no evidence from Henderson demonstrating the work that top administrators have been doing.

One D209 teacher and union leader said the district’s teacher retention rate is around 81 percent — much lower than the roughly 93 percent that surrounding districts average, according to state education data. Multiple teachers said a lot of their colleagues have not returned this year due to the chaos and low morale.

“It’s not always money, it is are you respected,” said one teacher. “And a lot of teachers do not feel respected. A lot of teachers have a dead spot on their soul from what they get from their bosses. They love their students, their school, the parents – but you get a dead spot when someone talks to you that way.”