It's a new year, filled with promise, not just because it is still dewy and without unsightly blemishes. Rather, 2014 offers real potential for Oak Park and River Forest because genuine groundwork was laid in 2013 that sets up progress in the new year.
Here are essential things we'll be watching with interest:
- Can these villages create a culture of growth? Both Oak Park and River Forest are remaking their economic development processes. Oak Park is radically rethinking the Oak Park Development Corporation while working to fix its internal systems of business support. River Forest has assembled development talent as a volunteer commission.
What underlies the improved processes, though, is a belief expressed by both Anan Abu-Taleb and Cathy Adduci, the new village presidents, that growth is fundamental, good and vital. It is not to be feared. Handled thoughtfully, it will make our villages more true to long-held values of balancing change and stability.
- With critical work done on addressing the unconscionable cash reserve it built over a decade, Oak Park and River Forest High School's board and administration face critical choices in 2014 on major building projects, including classroom configurations, new pools and work areas for faculty. These choices involve substantial costs but also reflect the administration's vision on how teachers collaborate, how divisions integrate, and how technology is melded with curriculum.
Also on the near horizon is the negotiation of a new contract with faculty. Yes, we are concerned with costs in this new contract. Recent contracts at OPRF have been far too rich. More though, we hope to see the teachers, Supt. Steven Isoye, and the board use this opportunity to build a modern alliance that rewards innovation, measures success beyond dubious reliance on test scores, honors service, and demands bold action and risk-taking on intractable issues such as the academic failing of far too many black students, especially black boys.
This truly is the moment.
- Collaboration among government entities is one of our regular entreaties. It's another area where we are confident our villages are ready to move beyond platitudes. Here's an obvious one that is already being discussed: Let's get the District 97 maintenance department moved into the village's public works palace on South Boulevard.
And here's the stretch effort: Adduci and Abu-Taleb (and possibly Forest Park's mayor, Anthony Calderone) should appoint a blue ribbon commission charged with effecting a merging of fire departments. We're talking merging administrations, expensive equipment, firehouses, paramedic services. The mutual aid pacts that already exist between departments suggest the logic in taking this further.
- Can't lose sight of the remarkable collaboration that the village of Oak Park, D97 and D200 have already created with the nonprofit Collaboration for Early Childhood. Next month should be the launch of the direct intervention effort with families of kids at risk of falling behind early. This can be a game-changer for public education in our villages. And 2014 should be the year that River Forest's D90 elementary schools join on as a full partner in this effort.
- Oak Park is in its fourth decade of turning a cold shoulder of fear and misunderstanding toward our neighbors in Austin. Once communities with inseparable bonds, Austin's rapid racial resegregation in the 1970s and Oak Park's determined effort to become integrated in that era created an unnatural divide.
While there are effective and inspiring examples of that chasm being bridged — the Cluster Tutoring program comes to mind — it is time to challenge the mindset that we can live fully apart while sitting back-to-back. Let's have the confidence, and we mean on both sides of the boulevard, to connect and improve our communities.