Collins mixes energy with accountability

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DAN HALEY

Clearly Dr. Constance Collins is a person of great charisma. She emits positive energy, continuously. She is confident in herself. Her passion and emotion about being the new superintendent of Oak Park's public elementary schools are not shielded with an eye to protecting herself from future slings and arrows.

She knows they will come. She knows honeymoons are short.

"I'm here to do a job. I believe in what I do. I love children. That's how I start each day. What are we doing to make a difference in the life of a child? If I always keep focus on kids, no one can say your heart is not in the right place.

"I know we have critics. We will always have critics."

She understands Oak Park already.

Concerns, though, that Collins?#34;newly arrived in Oak Park from Zion?#34;might just be a gaggle of PC sound bites are arrested by her determined talk of planning and measuring and accountability. This woman is about far more than making the boat rise by making everybody feel good about themselves.

"I want to get my arms around District 97. To determine the direction. To determine the reality on the ground," she said in an interview last week. "We have a good organization. We need to move it to great," she said.

A key to moving the organization, she makes clear, is for everyone to be evaluated annually. Clearly, though she doesn't say so, she has been taken off guard that members of the central office staff have not been part of an ongoing evaluation process. "The evaluation piece has surprised me. We have a lot of programs. Being evaluated gives worth."

Under a new principals' contract, building leaders are subject to evaluation. Starting now, the same applies to Madison Street headquarters staff. "We need accountability. We need to focus on our principal goals. We need indicators and measures. This will be the first time everyone has been evaluated."

She will also set to work on a strategic planning process, noting that the last such plan was undertaken in 1989, the last time there was a new superintendent sitting in her office.

Since arriving in Oak Park in early summer, Collins has met one-on-one with each board member, principal, top administrator. She says she asked her staff members to assess their strengths and weaknesses, to set one personal professional goal for the year. A common request among principals was for training in "quick walk-throughs." These are the casual classroom visits that Collins expects her principals to make. "They want to know what to look for. We can help them with that."

Asked her own weakness and Collins is quick to acknowledge school finance. "Finance definitely is not my strongest area. I surround myself with good people. And I keep working on it."

Asked her strength, she replied, "I'm a people person. I know the ingredients of raising student achievement. I can put a plan together. I know how things fit together. I know how to measure. I focus on accountability."

 

Wisely sidestepping a question on what has surprised her on the downside since taking the top job, Collins instead singled out for praise the district's fine arts program, including CAST and BRAVO. "We do that particularly well. I'm thrilled. It warms my heart."

Asked why she had moved immediately to Oak Park and bought a house on South Humphrey, Collins said, "I want to be part of the community. I look at the people paying the taxes for our schools. And I want to be one of them."

 

More items from an interview Dr. Constance Collins, the new District 97 superintendent, gave to Journal Publisher Dan Haley last week:

? FOCUS:"There is lots to do. We have to make sure we do the right work. Everything has to be focused on student achievement."

? GOALS: Intends to follow the five goals set recently by the school board: Finance, communication, strategic planning, board governance, student achievement.

? PLANNING: In launching a 3-5 year strategic planning process, Collins plans "to involve community stakeholders," is currently looking for a facilitator and expects the process to be visible to the community "before the (school) year is out."

? TEAM BUILDING: During a recent retreat for principals and administrators, "Even principals had 'ah-ha' moments when they learned about what is going on in other buildings and how it is funded. We need to come together and work as a team. We need to learn from each other."

? ON BROOKS: "What the Brooks (SLT) team did is what I believe in. Goals. A timeline. Monitoring." ..."We want to move forward. We have a new administrator. A wonderful individual. ... I care about this school. I met with the SLT. We have moved from critical issues to improvement issues. We are out of crisis mode."

? COMMUNICATION: "I want the principals to look at the parent and the teacher surveys, because there are some concerns whether they are being looked at. There are themes in the surveys whether you want to look at them or not. It could be communication." ... "I want to be accessible to parents. I have attended everything I'm invited to. Small groups. Big groups. I want to listen, to investigate.

? EXPECTATIONS: "I have high expectations. But I need to develop relationships. I have to develop a level of comfort with people."

? DATA: "I am data driven. Some (principals) have said they need that. We need to break down the data. What, (for instance) should tutoring look like. We haven't always gone about things in a very organized fashion."

? ON CHANGE: "Change is not easy. But it is part of life. We determine the vision. Not everyone wants to go."

? FIRST BLACK SUPERINTENDENT: "It's very noticeable. African-American parents are glad you are here. Minority parents are dealing with whether they have been heard in the past. Do they have someone who will listen? We need to look at minority student achievement, at special ed, at gifted programs. ... African-American parents can come in angry (to see me). But very few leave angry. I may say the same thing others have said in the past. But people feel they can relate to me."

? PROBLEM SOLVING: "I want to resolve problems at the building level. I don't want people skipping the teacher, the principal."

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