A screenshot of Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Supt. James Henderson from a video posted to YouTube, Nov. 3, 2021.

With complaints about conditions inside Proviso East High School in Maywood and Proviso West High School in Hillside spreading, District 209 Supt. James Henderson recently issued a video response addressing one of what many people say is a host of problems at the school.

“You’ve seen the videos and you’ve heard about the fights that are happening in our schools; now let’s talk about it,” Henderson said in the video uploaded to the district’s YouTube channel on Nov. 3.

“Yes, some of our students have taken things that don’t belong to them, even vandalized property inside our buildings,” he said. “None of these things are acceptable and none of these things will be tolerated on our grounds.”

Henderson said so far this school year, there have already been 24 “fights or disruptions” at East and 15 at West, with more than 70% of those fights or disruptions involving freshmen and sophomores.

“Students have never had a chance to get activated to a high school learning environment because of the pandemic,” the superintendent said.

The superintendent said what’s happening in D209 is “happening all across the country,” before listing some of the steps the district is taking to address the problem, including partnering with mental healthcare agencies to confront the trauma, building a COVID-19 Task Force “to help students overcome obstacles,” partnering with Greek fraternities and professional men who will mentor students, and establishing a parent advisory group, among other things.

But the superintendent’s video message only addressed one aspect of what many people in the district have said is a multiple-alarm fire that’s about more than student fights.

Teachers, staffers, parents, students and community members have also complained about the lack of responsiveness on the part of the school board and administration, shown in the district’s decision to no longer live-stream board and committee meetings and in the stories of teachers who say their calls and emails to senior administrators routinely go unreturned.

For his part, D209 school board President Rodney Alexander has said members of the teachers union have been disrespectful to board members, which he said is the main reason he decided to discontinue the livestreams. [Ed. note: Alexander reversed his decision and livestreamed the board’s Nov. 9 meeting]

The decision to stop live-streaming prompted two board members — Amanda Grant and Claudia Medina — to host their own listening sessions. The two events, which were not sponsored by the district, attracted roughly 100 parents, teachers and community members, with hundreds more watching them online. Grant’s session took place in Hillside on Nov. 1.

A man speaks at a listening session held by District 209 board member Amanda Grant on Nov. 1, 2021. Michael Romain | Editor

During those listening sessions, parents and teachers complained about not receiving communication about parent/teacher conferences and a lack of routine communication from the superintendent about the safety issues at East and West.

Carissa Gillespie, a teacher at Proviso West who attended both listening sessions, said she watched and discussed Supt. Henderson’s roughly 10-minute YouTube address with her class.

“One of the things that came out of our discussion today is that they’re not doing anything — they’re just talking about it,” Gillespie said during Medina’s listening session, held Nov. 4 at the Fraternal Order of Eagles hall, 446 Hannah Ave. in Forest Park.

“Today alone, we had two fights,” Gillespie said. “We’re becoming numb to it and that’s not normal. Is it all of our students? No, it’s definitely not all of our students.”

Gillespie and multiple other educators said COVID-19 is only part of the explanation. Another significant reason, she said, is the chaos that attended Supt. Henderson’s major restructuring, which teachers said has resulted in fewer support staff, such as social workers, deans, IT personnel and security guards, even as district administrators and consultants receive large salaries and sizable contracts for performance that is not measurable or held accountable.

Peter Scheidler, a teacher at PMSA, said at Medina’s town hall that students are deep into the school year without planners and that there’s even been a delay on getting out schedules. He said while trying to obtain the schedule, he sent an email last year to an assistant superintendent “who has since moved on.” The woman, he said, told him the schedule was already done but waiting to be approved.

“She couldn’t send it out because the superintendent had to approve it,” Scheidler said. “When you have people hired to do things, you should let them do those things and not make them run every single one by you. The model seems to be that nobody can move without some kind of approval.”

Nicole O’Connor, a counselor at Proviso West, also attended both Grant’s and Medina’s meetings. During Medina’s meeting on Nov. 4, O’Connor recalled a meeting with Supt. Henderson that prompted an abrupt disruption in counseling services.

“At that meeting, Dr. Henderson shared that the diversity of the district wasn’t acceptable … and at that time, he told us to sit and figure out which school we felt we could be moved to,” O’Connor said. “He asked us to make that decision. We’re counselors. We don’t make administrative or human resources moves.

“We can’t recommend that, nor can we condone that. As counselors, we take an oath to support students whatever race, sex or orientation — it doesn’t matter. He referred to one particular incident of why he needed to make that decision and it was something so small that he was going to uproot all of these counselors, after a pandemic, who had relationships with students for years.”

O’Connor, echoing other teachers and staffers, complained about a climate of fear and retaliation in the district that resulted in her being disciplined for speaking out about critical issues, such as her heavy workload. At Grant’s listening session, O’Connor said she’s had to work with over 300 students and that first-year colleagues have been feeling overwhelmed.

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

During Medina’s meeting, Neil Rutstein, a teacher at PMSA, and Stephen Colwell, a teacher at West, gave a data-heavy presentation that illustrated possible reasons behind what teachers have described as a mass exodus of veteran educators and support staffers out of D209.

Some of the issues are structural, going deeper than Supt. Henderson’s tenure, they said. For instance, state data shows that the average teacher salary in D209 is roughly $74,000 — around $3,000 less than the average for districts across the state and more than $20,000 lower than the average salary of teachers from neighboring districts, they said.

Meanwhile, state data shows that of the $93 million spent by D209 in fiscal year 2019, only 36% was allocated for student instruction, they added, “far less than the state average.” Non-instructional operational spending, however, exceeded the state average by 38%, they said.

Despite the low teacher pay and spending on student instruction, Rutstein said, “it looks like we have a vast majority of the board and the superintendent who want to squeeze the teachers.” The low compensation, lack of support and low morale has fed into a teacher retention rate at D209 that’s among the lowest in the state, they noted.

When asked about contract negotiations last month, President Alexander said that no members of the board are on the negotiating team. And district administrators have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Medina said on Nov. 4 that she’ll continue to hold public meetings in lieu of the district live-streaming board meetings or agreeing to host town halls. Some attendees, not satisfied with a 10-minute video, even urged her to invite the superintendent.