D97 hires Zion's Collins as chief

? Dr. Constance Collins promises better communication, high academic expectations.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

The superintendent of north suburban Zion schools was appointed Friday night to take the helm of Oak Park's elementary schools following Supt. John Fagan's retirement in July.

The District 97 Board of Education voted 6-0 in favor of signing Constance Collins to a 3-year contract.

Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman abstained from the vote after voicing dissatisfaction with the superintendent search process.

"The decision to keep the search confidential left a gap in my knowledge," she said. "I still believe it would have been a better process if it was more open.

"As most were solidifying their decision, I kept having more questions," she added.

School Board President Ade Onayemi, however, defended the search, which led to Collins' selection from 51 applicants.

"We had consultants who told us that, in the last five years, searches have been very intensive and very competitive. Most districts don't want to see their superintendents shopping around," he said. "What we did was a compromise. We included as many people as possible."

Collins will be the first woman?#34;and first African American?#34;to hold the post of superintendent at Dist. 97. Her contract calls for a salary of $175,000. 

While working in Zion, a community of 23,000 near the Wisconsin border, Collins oversaw five elementary schools and a junior high school. She comes to Oak Park after a three-year term with that district.

However, Collins said Friday a previous
district she worked at in Kentwood, Mich., a community of 45,000 just outside Grand Rapids, compares more closely to Oak Park.

Kentwood is a large school district, with roughly 8,000 students, that faced many of the same challenges as Oak Park?#34;except 20 years later.

In the early 1990s, a surge in the amount of low-income housing, led to a sharp increase in the number of at-risk and minority students in Kentwood's schools. The school district then mounted a successful effort to integrate its public schools.

While at Kentwood, Collins served as a teacher, principal and director of special education.

"It's a very diverse district, in terms of ethnicity, and economic background, and needs academically," she said. "There are great similarities. It is high performing, diverse, with all types, and that was what we chose for our own children."

She also worked as an assistant superintendent in Grand Rapids and has a background as a speech-language pathologist.

At Friday's meeting, school board members said input they received from Zion school officials, parents and teachers, heavily influenced their decision to select Collins.

"We often look at the stories we've heard?#34;she's passionate, dynamic and loves children," said board member Dan Burke. "She's really focused on two principles: No one will rise to low expectations, and if you continue to do the same things, you get the same results."

Following the meeting, Collins said she is prepared to address a number of top issues at Dist. 97, including the minority student achievement gap, finances and community input.

During her tenure at Zion, Collins she was able to implement strategies that helped all students to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"We held workshops and focused on data to help move students to the next level," she said, adding that her experience in special education has allowed her to address achievement issues among those students.

The biggest complaints from many school districts regarding finances, she said, are tied to federal funding. To address shortfalls, Collins said it's important for schools to develop alternative strategies.

Collins said she's also aware that communication at Dist. 97 will be a key issue, and added that she's always had an "open door policy."

"It's important to let people know that you're willing to listen and be active, and an involved part of the community," she said.

To join the community, Collins said she's looking to move to Oak Park from Zion in the coming months. She won't take over at the district full time until July, but will be working closely with Fagan on a number of critical issues?#34;including the budget process, hiring of key positions and the upcoming local school board elections.

After her official appointment, Collins said she is enthusiastic to take her post at Dist. 97.

"This is a fabulous district with a wonderful history in this community," she said. "I'm thrilled you have chosen me to take this district to the next level. I love to see children move from where they are to where they can go."

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