Jenny Barbahen, a lifelong Forest Parker, described our village as a “fight or flight” community. Due to concerns about their children getting a quality education, many families move out of Forest Park when their children reach high school age. To stay in town, families can send their kids to private schools. This is expensive and only benefits their own kids. Jenny is fighting for all the district’s students, staff and teachers by running for the District 209 Board of Education.

She is not alone in this effort but part of a slate of candidates, known as Proviso 209 United. This is a diverse slate that includes Westchester residents Sandra Joseph-Hixson and David Ocampo. Their initials lend themselves to a slogan: “HBO Let’s Go.” 

Hixson graduated from Proviso East High School and has been a substitute teacher at Proviso West. She has also served on the District 88 Bellwood School Board. Ocampo is a data engineer, who is expert at analyzing logistics and financial data. Barbahen works full-time for the Jenner & Block Law Firm and has four children. Her oldest, Donovan, is a senior at Proviso East.

Jenny knows firsthand how not having a quality high school tears apart Forest Park. She recalls how her eighth-grade graduation from Forest Park Middle School was devastating. 

“We were all crying because we wouldn’t be seeing each other in high school,” she recalled. She sees losing childhood friends as detrimental to a child’s mental health.  Jenny was fortunate to have one of her childhood friends attend Trinity High School with her. 

Her younger sister had more options and was in the first class to attend Proviso Math and Science Academy. Jenny has never lost her desire to improve Forest Park schools and our under-performing high school. She is on the PTO for District 91 and a member of the Proviso East Parent Advisory Council. She was a Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 107.

Jenny was a volunteer for the Proviso Together party, helping Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner win election to the 209 Board in 2015. Proviso Together formed a majority on the board and made great progress in changing the dysfunctional culture at District 209. However, infighting among Proviso Together members caused it to disband in April 2022. 

Meanwhile, Jenny and other concerned parents watched the D209 board disintegrate into a “sad circus.” She watched as Superintendent James Henderson made controversial decisions. The district suffered from a lack of accountability and transparency. The final straw was when Board President Rodney Alexander decided not to record and live-stream the Oct. 12, 2021 board meeting.

In response, Jenny and Westchester parent Kathleen Franzwa co-founded the Proviso 209 Cooperative Facebook group. The group grew and grew as the district’s problems increased. The “toxic work environment” triggered the longest teacher’s strike in Proviso’s history. Jenny saw “mass resignations” of teachers. Students didn’t have the resources to succeed. 

“There were no goggles in science class,” she said. “Spending on instruction was at an all-time low.”

There is no need to dwell on Proviso’s woes. They have been well-documented. 

“Schools are the most important element of a community,” says Jenny. She believes Proviso has many good students. But they need the “safety, stability and structure to succeed.” Jenny and her slate hope to restore the district’s “positive trajectory” that it had when Proviso Together first held a majority on the board.

Proviso 209 United will also hold a majority if elected because board member Amanda Grant has promised to support them. Jenny and her slate have different skillsets but share the same goals. 

“I can’t wait for April 4th,” she said.

Let’s hope Forest Park voters are just as eager to support them.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.