Are you ready for some optimism at District 97?

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By DAN HALEY

On the website of the public schools in Zion, Ill. is a manifesto from Constance Collins, the district's superintendent. It is both an in-your-face challenge to anyone with a bad attitude and an unfailingly optimistic take on the potential of kids, families and schools to change lives.

This would be the same Dr. Collins who is Oak Park District 97's incoming superintendent, appointed with fanfare Friday night. How will her "If You Believe, Then I Believe!" philosophy go over in Oak Park? There will be cynics who find it merely boosterish. But God save us from the cynics. After 17 years of the imperious Jack Fagan as superintendent, let's push open the windows, try something new, something as simple as hope and passion.

There can be a danger, I suppose, that Dist. 97's board has overcompensated for Fagan's widely acknowledged weaknesses in hiring Collins. While Jack Fagan accomplished much, he is arrogant. After 17 years in his gloomy office on Madison Street he is, likely inevitably, defensive. The man cannot communicate or inspire. He seems more and more like the taciturn New Englander he once was.

Constance Collins, in contrast, and in the shimmery mist of first impressions, is ebullient, open, pointed, yet diplomatic.

Asked Monday about the pros and cons of following a 17-year veteran, Collins launched immediately into a proper honorific "celebrating the successes" of a "person who has been CEO for 17 years" of a successful endeavor. That sincerely out of the way, she turned to the intelligence represented in the district's job description and said, "there's a consensus on what needs to be done. We need to start by looking at the areas we need to improve."

That's all diplomatic code for "Dist. 97 doesn't communicate." The sitting superintendent doesn't communicate.

Says Collins, "People have to know they've been heard. We won't always agree. But we will have conversations. We will keep our focus on kids; that will be the backbone of our focus. And, then, ultimately, a decision has to be made."

Clearly decisions have been made over Collins' three-year tenure in Zion. She arrived to take over a district in trouble and leaves one which has, seemingly, made substantial progress in testing, in attitudes.

The mother of two, Collins found herself Monday talking about the death, seven years ago, of her only daughter in a car accident. She was 18. "We made a 10-year commitment in Grand Rapids to offer two scholarships a year in her name. We go back every year." The couple's son is now 27 and working for Citigroup in Missouri, putting his DePaul graduate and undergraduate degrees to good use. Collins says her husband is looking forward to an end to the Zion (almost Wisconsin) to Gary, Indiana commute to his high school music teaching job.

Why Oak Park? In the first place, she says, she was invited into the process by District 97's recruiting firm. "If or when I left Zion," she said, "I wanted to go someplace with the reputation of Oak Park, with the diversity, with the focus on high standards. Diversity is wonderful. This is a global society. If we haven't come from a culture of diversity we are limited. I'm always excited about diversity."

Collins is about to be pulled in diverse directions. She spent Monday giving multiple interviews on both the departing and arrival ends of her equation. She let loose the bad news in Zion and says she had people asking her to stay. "There are things I need to do here. There are things I need to start doing in Oak Park. I need to get busy in both places."

It is going to be good to see Dist. 97 get busy again. A key new arrival at a critical moment for change.

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