The Forest Park Review sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Review’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.
Name: Claudia Medina
Previous Political Experience: First Latina elected to D209 board, member for 8 years
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Founding member of the Brown Cow 20 that launched Proviso Together, spearheaded educational reform and financial restructuring of D209 under leadership of Dr. Jesse Rodriguez, including serving on committees addressing the master facility plan, HR hiring processes, financial stability and equity curriculum research; advocate for workers’ rights and minority rights—helped with the passage of bills at state level leading to equity and safety for all minorities; outspoken advocate for national and international human and women’s rights; vocal critic of current administration of D209
Occupation: Teacher, administrator at Bilingual Montessori Lab Academy, teacher trainer and advocate; long-time board member and former chair of West Suburban Action Project (PASO)
Education: Psychology, music therapy, music education, B.S., specialized in early childhood and elementary Montessori AMS and AMI.
1. Please describe what, in your opinion, have been specific accomplishments made by District 209 over the past two years.
As a sitting board member seeing what has unfolded in our district over the past two years, makes this a very difficult question to answer. Of the strategic initiatives Dr. Henderson proposed upon arrival, none have been met. Our whole staff is in trauma over the leadership style and fear for their jobs. Every time we see a cost savings, there are crucial jobs being cut, services unfulfilled and positions that are needed, eliminated which are touted as cost savings. The Five-year Strategic plan for improving academic outcomes never came to fruition. The following goals were stated and addressed to the Board and community stakeholders’:
- Transparency, trust, and collaboration would be his mode of operating to ensure effective and positive Board – Superintendent Relations.
- Increase student achievement and close the achievement gaps for ALL students.
- Increase organizational effectiveness and efficiency by providing excellent support and service to schools, students, and parents in each city of the PTHSD community.
- Create a culture of trust
- Establish trust and confidence from the community at-large by creating opportunities to listen and learn from a multitude of stakeholders.
Dr. Henderson has not met one of these goals and has never been evaluated for this failure. Only rewarded with a five-year contract with a substantial contractual increase by the sitting board majority, coined a “Golden parachute” by the community.
Since Dr. Henderson’s he has gotten rid of Deans, cut security, gutted the technology team, increased class sizes significantly, ceased to report outlandish credit card expenses, engaged in several no bid contracts and special payroll contracts for friends and family of his and certain board members. The system he created is producing fear and violence, dismantling the progress we had made. When you cut security, you’re cutting the safety of the students that are placed in our care. Security is not just physical, but also emotional.
Student achievement and investment has plummeted with the implementation of his policies. According to the latest ISBE Report card data, District 209 devotes only 29% of its budget to the instruction of students, far below the state average. Our spending habits do not reflect equitable instruction for Proviso students. D209 gutted over $6 million from support services, in a district where the English Learner population increased considerably in recent years. Our district now has one of the highest chronic truancy rates in the State of Illinois, and we have no attendance policy being implemented.
Proviso invests only 29% of the budget in students, as reported in the Illinois State report card. While neighboring districts like Morton (HSD 201) allocate 45% of its tax base to student instruction and Lyons Township (HSD 204) contributes 55% of its budget to the instruction of students. We are on the wrong track and it shows, we have done better and can change direction. I have been there to do so before and will do it again.
2. Dr. James Henderson has had both supporters and critics of his administration since his appointment as superintendent of Proviso Township High School. Please provide your opinion of the work he has done at D209, including his relationship with faculty, his communications with parents and community, his management of a complex organization through a pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic the Superintendent did not wear a mask or have a fail-safe procedure or protocol that kept staff and students informed about the risk, safety and spread of Covid in the schools. During the Pandemic Teachers, staff and students were afraid. There was no follow through on masking, ventilation investment, sanitation and reporting who was sick, where, or how long to isolate defying state regulation to stop the spread of Covid in our schools. Some teachers, students and staff had to leave due to illness, or family obligations and there was little to none support regarding the risk involved for teachers and families returning to the school. The lack of preparation in the roll out to student return to classes and care for the students was inexcusable.
The District Administrative Organization has been restructured. Said structure does not support the faculty, has put more work on the teachers, and does not support student needs. The rotation of administrators clearly depicts his inability to create a vision and follow through and has created chaos and instability in our schools leaving families to scramble to try and find out any basic things about their students.
Dr. Henderson exercises a tyrannical style of governance. Several of his hires were made due to previous relationships and or familial ties. Professionals that loved and supported our students have left and contracts were not renewed for several of our long time administrators leaving an institutional vacuum for district knowledge fundamental to our operations. consequently, the district now cycles through a ludicrous number of administrators and no- bid outside consultants with previous ties to the superintendent. We need ethical leadership which has the power to bring people together and foster enthusiasm with excitement and ambition of building our district. We need our educational staff to thrive and be supported with the possibility of growing as a person, of growing within the institution. A leadership that offers the opportunity to improve, to do good, and to be treated honorably. A despotic leader can only have employees or accomplices, never collaborators or partners; followers, but never colleagues, and therefore impactful Educators are leaving our district. We are hemorrhaging teachers.
The results have been plummeting performance, evident in the data which shows no positive educational direction. Books are scarce to nonexistent in essential classes, and we are no longer investing our resources for student excellence. Teachers have not been provided essential supplies for their classes that started in September. Classroom budgets are not being funded, yet teachers are consistently criticized for their performance. Currently we are under investigation of our Ell( English language learners) and Special Ed lack of State compliance. Our students experience and needs are not being met, and when teachers have advocated, they are threatened or fired. Excellence should not be optional, but a requirement. We had been on such an upward trend, and we can bring it back, the work is essential.
3. As a board member, how would you respond to complaints and protests brought by students concerned with their education?
Students are the voice we need to listen to. As a long time educator and advocate, I have always listened to our students, met with them, and heard their concerns. They live the policies we enact. As a local school board, we are required to adopt and enforce all policies necessary for the management and governance of the public schools. Our written policies guide the board, which directs and empowers the superintendent to function as chief executive officer in managing day-to-day district operations. The Current board majority does not follow through on any of the policy violations committed by the Superintendent. Accountability is essential to maintain a student-centered focus, and credibility. Not in 209. Instead of investing in teachers and relationships which change student learning we have invested in programs like Epiphany that are owned and operated by a close friend of the superintendent. The program has not addressed student learning needs, or enhanced student performance, in fact it has dropped. This makes no sense. (Programs I have not voted for). Other spending continues to escalate at a rate more than double the state average and it has been prioritized over the instruction of our students! The Policy and spending allocations in the district are directly impacting the future of our students. Students do not get to relive their high school experience, we need to make it the best one, because it is their only one!
The actions the Board majority has continuously engaged in, speaking to those attending in a condescending tone, accusing others of racial inequity, interrupting, and shouting down speakers, has accelerated and amplified the tensions in our district. The unprofessional tone our board has taken is alarming. We need to promote thoughtful policy and compliance, these are the backbones of a well-functioning and effective boards. What we need are return to forums for the community, the ability for students to voice concerns, listen and engage our community in Town halls that promote dialogue, bring empathy and care for our students back to the board room, and focus on actions and policy that directly impacts students positively. This will bring proper functioning of our district. What we currently experience is an angry free-for-all, and it is this Board’s actions that are to blame. As board members we are required to study the needs of students and the community. Our decisions should be based on those needs. Equity needs to start first in the board room, it is hard to have an open mind if you do not have an open heart. Embracing diversity, equity, inclusion, representation, and an overall sense of belonging can significantly change perceptions of the world around you and change the student experience quickly. As the first latina ever elected to 209, it has meant a lot to the students to see leadership that looks and sounds like them, most importantly that cares about them. Representation matters.
4. Do you believe that the strike by teachers last year was unavoidable? How do you believe the district benefited by the strike’s resolution?
The strike was completely avoidable. The results have had no benefit to the district, teachers, or students. Henderson’s negotiation created utter chaos. As the sole district negotiator, he did not show up to meetings consistently for over a year. Then the union members voted overwhelmingly — 98% — to authorize a strike. The inconsistent negotiations attendance by Dr. Henderson consisted of a narrative to the that Union that he did not have the authority of the board to provide what the teachers sought. The contract was negotiated with no board members present to support integrity of negotiation as had been done in the past. To the board, Dr. Henderson suggested very low salary increases citing teacher incompetence. His rhetoric to the board has been to discredit teachers due to grades, test scores and skin color. This consistent narrative from the Superintendent has promoted the idea that most of the teaching staff was not representative of the black and brown community they served. The effect is evident, division. The strike wrought chaos, teacher resignations and students experience has been impacted with lack of services, compliance and Student needs not being met. Educational leaders should inspire the staff and support them for excellence.
The teachers effectively received a demotion, larger class sizes, more class assignments, and no student benefit. Union members were seeking an agreement that would attract and retain education professionals to ensure our primarily Black and Brown students receive high-quality education. The result of the negotiation on the district has been touted as a cost savings by the board majority. There is now an 8-period day for the district, which is beneficial, but the Superintendent increased class sizes to 35 students per class, rather than hiring more teachers to effectively staff the district, he lowered the teacher count. The district has now become academically and professionally impossible for teachers to address student needs.
The roll out of those negotiation decisions, then brought chaos in class schedules, lack of transportation, security for the students, and the use of online credit recovery classes to supplement our teacher shortage. Students, staff and teachers are frustrated, scared and desperate. When they have come to the board to protest the impact being experienced, they have been received by attacks by the sitting and previous board president.
5. If you are elected to what continues to be a divided school board, what skills would you bring to governing productively?
I will promote thoughtful policy and compliance, the backbones of a well-functioning and effective board, using experience, data, transparency, documentation, and implement transparent hiring protocols. I would immediately apply OMA compliance to board communication.
As part of a group that turned this District around before, by ensuring transparent protocols were followed, and we did so with accountability, compliance, and in-depth study of cost analysis prior to voting or proposing any program or change in the district. You have to go slow to go fast a wise man once said.
As a board, a divided one at that, we rebuilt and refocused information items into board books, so a month before any action item was presented to the board, we could see the budget, what fund it was coming from, what the cost benefit would be for the district, the students, or the staff. Decisions were made collaboratively. This provided an opportunity for conversation, questions, and teamwork. Prior to voting on any project, contract, we had special board meeting and did outreach with the community. This needs to return. We had implemented committees, information sessions and town halls where questions from stakeholders were respected and answered. Information items were discussed. When the body of the whole is presented with District decisions, vision and work, the return is, healthy decisions necessary for District Governance. With the current expensive “Chat and Chews”. We have made crass mistakes and are not ever in a place where we discuss the future of the district as a team. Select board members receive pertinent information for governance, others of us do not receive any, in this manner we will continue the “Circus”.
My dedication to my community as a teacher, administrator and education consultant and first latina elected to the board, has been to make Proviso a choice for every student to desire to come to our district and we were on that path. I am a student focused educator sitting on the board. The only board educator that continuously asks for the best for all our students. I govern first with my heart for the best interest of the kids. Parents and students deserve to have the district be the choice. To be able to choose the best education and future for their high school students using their tax dollars. Are we there yet? Not having any other option available leaves many families questioning the options that we are providing. Open communication, information items, and respect for Diverse and different opinions is crucial to impacting all students and staff needs in the District. Our many backgrounds, experiences, interests, and passions create a beautiful and unique world that impact our community. The combinations of these differences enable us to connect unexpectedly, which entangles the rich tapestry that Maya Angelou speaks of in the quote below.
“The workplace (District) is one of the best scenarios where these differences can engage, support, challenge, and inspire curiosity. Championing diversity in an organization leads to better outcomes and greater success for individuals and teams.”