New OPRF superintendent already feels at home

Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said she felt 'a connection' to the high school not long after taking interim position

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams has a heavy burden. Her unanimous appointment by school board members in December came with the expectation that, under her watch, Oak Park and River Forest High School will, at long last, make serious headway on the decades-long problem of racial inequity — and restore trust with a critical mass of community members and devise a long-term facilities plan and build a pool. And those are just some of the most obvious tasks.

Whether or not those tasks are accomplished may depend, in large part, on the success of Pruitt-Adams' first major act as the district's top administrator. Based on her recommendation, last month the board authorized the formation of a new community engagement committee that will "review previous processes, make recommendations, and strengthen community partnership pursuant to district goals related to equity, academic programming needs" and finances, according to the resolution creating the committee.

At the time, Pruitt-Adams said that the committee would be loosely modeled on a similar committee that she helped implement while serving as top administrator at a school district in University City, Missouri, where she served before becoming interim, and then permanent, superintendent at District 200.

During a phone interview last week, Pruitt-Adams indicated how her previous position in Missouri might inform her work at OPRF, identified some of her early priorities for the district and explained why she already feels at home in Oak Park — where she's already found permanent housing with her husband Charles Adams, a retired University City police chief.

"When I first interviewed for the position to be interim, I walked away thinking they wouldn't want me and thinking it wasn't my best interview," said Pruitt-Adams.

"However," she added, "there was a young lady in the welcome center at OPRF when I arrived and she and I talked for a few minutes. She said, 'They need to hire you, you're what we need here.' I thanked her and when I got the call saying the board wanted me for interim, it really got emotional for me." 

Pruitt-Adams, who was hired as interim in July, said that she "felt the connection" to OPRF while one day walking the school's empty halls.

"I knew back in September that I wanted to be here and to do the work," she said. "OPRF is a great place to be and there's still room for us to grow." 

Illustrating what that growth may look like, Pruitt-Adams rattled off a litany of successes that resulted from the community engagement committee that she helped implement in University City. 

"That committee resulted in two new schools being built and others being renovated, a redrawing of attendance lines and grade-level configuration," she said, before mentioning a Harvard-developed educational framework that the district introduced as a result of that committee work. 

Pruitt-Adams said that the program, called instructional rounds, allowed faculty and staff members the ability to identify many of the barriers to learning that existed for special education, low-achieving and minority students.

"We had to examine what barriers as a school system we had put in place and how to remove them, and put supports in place," she said. "We saw graduate rates and achievement data increase and discipline incidents go down. We also saw an increase in the number of students of color in AP and honors classes. There was a time when you'd see an AP and calculus class and no one would be in it who looks like me. So, we looked at some of the self-imposed barriers we put in place and we had to educate the community to know that the curriculum wasn't being watered down." 

When asked if replicating that success at Missouri means removing the controversial practice of academic tracking — or separating students into course subject levels based on academic ability — that's currently in place at OPRF, Pruitt-Adams was careful not to draw any conclusions and took pains to clear up what she said has been a misconception that's been spreading lately throughout the high school community.  

"There's a rumor that we're de-tracking and changing things," she said, adding that the district still needs to fully evaluate its current practices before moving forward with any substantial policy proposals.  

"We have to look at things first. It's not just about de-tracking, it's about removing barriers. I think that comes from my background in Missouri, where we didn't even talk tracking; it was just unacceptable," she said, adding that she still tries to steer away from even using the word 'tracking' because her focus is beyond that. "If we do this well and if we have appropriate supports in place for students when they're in those classes, we can remove barriers for kids without watering down the curriculum."

Pruitt-Adams said that those supports could include robust cultural competency training and other forms of professional development for faculty and staff members, in addition to outreach efforts designed to reassure community members that lowering the barriers to quality learning for certain students doesn't mean watering down curriculum standards. 

The superintendent said that what also needs clarifying is the extent to which she engages with her elementary school counterparts District 90 Superintendent Edward Condon and District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley.

"There's a lot of collaboration that takes place between the high school and elementary school districts and we need to communicate that," Pruitt-Adams said. "I meet with [Condon] and [Kelley] at least once a month and we each bring to the table something to share with each other. Our [respective] staff and board members meet often as well." 

Pruitt-Adams also addressed some of the recommendations jointly presented late last year by Equity and Excellence in Education, African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education and the Suburban Unity Alliance. 

Those recommendations include the establishment of an assistant superintendent of equity, a deep evaluation of the district's academic tracking and ability grouping practices, and the implementation of a racial impact statement that would monitor how district policies affect whatever racial and economic disparities exist, among other proposals. 

"As we work on a strategic plan, I'm sure many of those strategies will be incorporated as action steps," Pruitt-Adams said. "The [board's climate, culture and behavior committee] is also developing a mission statement toward equity, which is one thing [the groups] asked for. There are some really good tenets in their proposal." 

That kind of community advocacy, said Pruitt-Adams, is what compelled her to apply for the OPRF position in the first place. 

"In my previous district, if I had had just a few of the resources that are afforded our young people here, they would've gone such a long way," she said. "That's one of the things that drew me here. It's not just the school district providing services for young people in the community, it's the community providing services. There are so many people working to make sure that our students are successful. And I want to be where that type of work is happening."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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