By Tom Holmes
If you ask Forest Parkers what they think of Proviso East High School, most will respond with words like "failing" or "without white kids" or "low test scores" or "fighting in the halls" or "not going to send my kid there."
Patrick Hardy, who took over the position of Proviso East principal a year and a half ago, acknowledges there was some truth to those perceptions … in the past. To make the point that the high school located on First Avenue in Maywood just west of the Des Plaines River is on the road to transformation, he quoted board member Kevin McDermott as having said at a recent District 209 school board meeting, "Doctor Hardy, I have been on this board for many years, and this is the first time I have felt hope for Proviso East High School."
To prove that this was not just wishful thinking, putting a positive spin on a hopeless situation, Hardy ticked off some statistics:
Fighting was not among the top 10 offenses by students this semester.
The percentage of freshmen on track to graduate rose from 54% to 61% in one year.
After the first quarter this year, 78% are on track to graduate.
Chronic absences have decreased by 9%.
The number of Fs has gone down by 26% in one year, i.e. 457 fewer Fs.
The Straight "A" Club has doubled in size in one year.
Ninety students have been added to the honor roll.
The out-of-school suspension rate has decreased by 90%.
Participation in the school has gone up. The number of clubs increased from five to 22.
Barbara Burchill has taught accounting, business and technology concepts and consumer education at Proviso East since 2013 and at Proviso West for 10 years before that.
"In the last year and a half," she said, "I have seen vast improvements. I have seen kids hurrying to get to class on time. I am seeing kids willing to come in after school to do make-up work here."
Regarding the rising statistics on academic achievement, Burchill pointed to the students in her class, each working at a PC.
"Today," she said, "we're going to be talking about interest rates and how to figure out how much interest we have to pay on a loan or interest you can earn in a savings account and putting it on a spreadsheet."
The class objectives taped to the classroom wall listed class goals, including 1) students will be able to define gross domestic product, 2) students will be able to describe the measures of labor, explain causes of inflation and deflation, and 3) students will be able to describe future concerns of economic growth.
To the notion that the academic achievement gains might be due to the lowering of standards, Hardy responded, "We always get that question, and it's grounded in sarcasm and disbelief. You are entitled to your opinion but you are not entitled to getting the facts wrong."
Pointing to the aforementioned data, Hardy said, "My teachers would be insulted if people think the only way to do that is to cheat. It's not OK to call either my integrity or my staff's integrity into question. More importantly, it will put into question the brand we are trying to create. We're going to put the correct data out there."
Proviso East's new principal doesn't back away from acknowledging that he walked into a challenging situation. He likened it to a ship with 13 holes in it. You can't prevent the ship from sinking by patching up just one of the holes. What Hardy is attempting to do is plug all of the holes.
For example, he learned that students at Proviso East weren't connected well to the school outside of going to classes. School spirit and a feeling of belonging were at low ebb. To address that, he increased the number of clubs, encouraged teachers to focus more on building relationships with kids, and gave the building a makeover.
A quick tour
Going into a boys' bathroom he pointed out new urinals with motion-sensor flushing mechanisms, a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new doors on the stalls. Custodians come in when students are in class, flush the toilets and wipe everything down.
"We have a standard here," Hardy explained. "It can't smell like urine because the moment we let that happen, we give a message to the kids that they don't have to take care of it."
It's a matter of dignity, he said.
"We spent several million dollars doing improvements in the building that should have been done years ago," he said. "The surroundings that students are in affect their attitude. When we treat them with dignity, they behave that way."
He bent down to pick up a piece of paper that had been dropped on the floor in one of the hallways that had been buffed to a shine.
"I do that several times a day," he said. "The kids see that and start doing it themselves."
Perhaps the biggest hole in the process of being plugged has to do with attitude. As the new principal walked down the hall while students changed classes, many of them greeted him with a smile and a "Hi, Dr. Hardy," to which he responded with a "Hey, hey" and in a couple of cases a "homie hug."
In each classroom we visited, he said, "I'm sorry to interrupt the class, but I want to introduce you to my new friend, Mr. Holmes." At his urging, each class said, "What's up, Mr. Holmes?" and immediately returned to their studies.
He added that the school is trying to intervene in the lives of students "where we should." He brought up the issue of school uniforms. Instead of treating not coming to school in the proper uniform as a disciplinary issue, the staff is trying to dig deeper as to the cause of the infraction.
"Why do you think students are out of uniform?" he asked rhetorically. "If you are jaded, you think it's because the students are disobedient and defiant. That's what the world thinks. The world wants to take poor black and brown kids and toss them out. What we're going to do is find out the reasons for their actions. For example, if you are a student who is homeless, you might not have access to a washing machine, and if all you can afford are two uniforms, there will be days when you won't have a clean one to wear."
Transformation Plan proceeds
Hardy said the Transformation Plan he began implementing last year, after eight months of listening to all the stakeholders in D209, is bearing fruit. The plan consists of nine components: 1) Faculty and Staff Core Values, 2) the Targeted Instructional Area, 3) the Proviso East High School Graduate Profile, 4) Career Academies, 5) Post-Secondary Planning, 6) Family and Community Engagement, 7) Student-to-School Connection, 8) Mastery Learning and 9) Professional Development.
Regarding the possibility of a white student thriving at a school where whites make up 1.5% of the student body (48.4% black and 48.4% Hispanic), Burchill said, "These are children in need of an education, and that's the way we have to look at all of them."
Sue Sawyer is a Forest Park resident whose daughter is a sophomore at Proviso East and the only white girl in her graduating class.
"I think Proviso East is a great school and there is a lot of potential there," she said adding, "the building is old and needs repair and they need to get the teachers ramped up to get the kids interested in education."
When asked how her daughter is getting along as a distinct minority, Sawyer is unequivocal: "She is doing fantastic. She is an honor student, is in ROTC, and she doesn't have any trouble making friends there."
When asked what he'd like to say to Forest Park residents, a student in Burchill's class who lives in Broadview and is named Cedeja said, "Proviso is a good school. We learn like the rest of the students. We have rules. It's normal."