In Constance "Connie" Collins, District 97 has found an administrator who has dealt with many of the issues Oak Park schools have faced in recent years: school improvement, discipline and budget cut-backs.
As the closing of a Commonwealth Edison power plant in Zion, where Collins has served as superintendent the past three school years, eroded approximately 60 percent of the tax base over a short time period, Collins and District 6 made budget cuts, got a voter-approved referendum and looked for alternative funding sources to steady district finances.
"That has had a profound effect on the district," Collins said. "Every grant we knew we could qualify for we went after."
The budget for Zion schools this year is approximately $23 million.
The district received No Child Left Behind Grants for literacy coaches, material and training, all of which tied into student achievement, Collins said.
The district received a rating of "Financial Recognition" in 2002 and 2003, the highest of the state's four-point school finance rating system. Oak Park schools were rated "Financial Review," the second-highest rating, in 2003.
Discipline issues addressed
Whether Zion schools have a problem with discipline "depends on who you talk to," Collins said.
Two Zion parents who submitted comments to the website www.greatschools.net in the summer of 2004 seem to think so. One parent writes that her student's school "is dirty, not well supervised, and there is a lot of racial fighting that goes on."
Another parent writes about a different school: "This is not a school I would recommend sending your child.... This is not a very safe school for children."
According to Dist. 6 records for December, three schools had zero discipline referrals. However, Shiloh Park Elementary and Central Jr. High each recorded six incidents of "agg/fight" for the month, while Beulah Park Elementary reported three such incidents.
Collins said that schools will always have discipline issues, but that Zion schools "overall do very well." She has provided training for teachers on classroom management, and instituted the Positive Behavior Intervention System. The system uses green, yellow and red levels to give students more support based on their discipline referrals. All referrals are tracked in a district-wide database, and the school board is updated monthly on referrals.
Diversity, arts attracted her
Collins grew up in Gary, Ind., and attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where she received her bachelor and master's degrees. She worked as a speech pathologist for more than two decades, four years with Chicago Public Schools and then around the country as she and her husband relocated for his job.
She worked on her doctorate degree while the couple lived in Bloomsburg, Pa., and continued to work on her dissertation while teaching at an elementary school in Kentwood, Mich., near Grand Rapids.
Just a year later she became the district's director of special education, which sparked her interest in becoming a school administrator. Her superintendent said she needed to be a building principal if she wanted a central office position, so she took the helm of the unit district's high school summer program, and two years later became a principal of a 430-student school.
Four years later she became the assistant superintendent at Grand Rapids Public Schools, the second-largest district in Michigan with some 26,000 students. She oversaw one-fourth, or 21, of the district's schools in her first year, then twice that in her second year.
She left to become superintendent at Zion, a 3,000-student district four miles south of the Wisconsin border in Lake County.
"I have been very happy here in Zion," she said in a telephone interview. "As I took a look at the opportunities I would consider...there had to be a good match."
Collins admits that part of Oak Park's attraction was location. Her husband works in Gary, Ind., and spent 20 years in Chicago, where he directs a church choir. "We're there every Sunday," Collins said.
? Grew up in Gary, Ind.
? Earned bachelor, master's degrees at Indiana Univ. at Bloomington.
? Speech pathologist for 26 years,
including four at Chicago Public Schools, starting in 1975. Worked for schools
in or near Houston, Nashville and Bloomsburg, Pa., while relocating with husband's jobs.
? Finished Ph.D. at The Pennsylvania State University in 1993.
? Served as teacher, Supervisor of Special Education, Director of Special Education and principal for Kentwood (Mich.) Public Schools, 1991-98.
? Became assistant superintendent for Grand Rapids Public Schools, overseeing one-fourth (21) then one-half (39) of the schools in Michigan's second-largest school district, 1998-2002.
? Served as superintendent at Zion Elementary School District 6, with 3,000 students, seven buildings, and 300 employees, 2002-present.