Two newly-hired school superintendents from Oak Park sat down with their veteran counterpart from River Forest last Thursday for a first joint interview conducted by Wednesday Journal.
The three leaders-Thomas Hagerman of District 90 in River Forest, Albert Roberts of Oak Park’s elementary school District 97 and Steven Isoye of Oak Park and River Forest High School (Dist. 200) – talked for two hours on a range of issues.
The meeting was cordial and had its occasional funny moments though it was, generally, a quite serious conversation. The discussion was candid, particularly as the three talked about the substance abuse issue facing students of both high school and middle school age.
The one thing all three men did dispel was the thought that they won’t talk regularly. They plan to meet at least once a month. For Hagerman, who was appointed Dist. 90 superintendent in 2008, that practice of meeting with his colleagues began for him with Isoye’s and Roberts’ predecessors.
The first issue the three superintendents tackled was the ongoing and oftentimes contentious TIF lawsuit filed by the high school against the village. Last month, the high school amended its suit to add Dist. 97 as a defendant. The Oak Park elementary schools had long avoided direct involvement in the suit. But for Roberts, hired in June from a Michigan K-12 school district, he insisted that the lawsuit has not and will not affect his relationship with Isoye.
“I do think that there is room in this community for different views on issues. I do wish that we could do it without legal fees, but I respect the right of Steven and his school board to pursue what they think is the correct course of action. At 97, we do the same thing. We try to keep our constituents in mind, most of all our students, and try to move forward with a plan that bests serves them,” Roberts said.
“Certainly in terms of what Al is saying; we respect each other in terms of the positions that our boards are taking and where they believe they need to be with our fiscal responsibility for the districts as they see it,” he said. “That aside: it should never prevent us from doing the work that we need to do. They’re all our students; the students that are being served through District 97 and that are going to be coming to District 200. We have to work closely together to be able to serve our students.”
Hagerman’s elementary and middle school district has been out of the Oak Park-focused TIF fray. But he too insisted that it doesn’t impact his working relationship with the Oak Park school districts.
“What we talked about here is the responsibility that we have as community leaders and as superintendents,” Hagerman said. “There can be a fair amount of divisiveness in the communities here. Sometimes you have to do difficult things on behalf of your communities and on behalf of your boards. But there are ways you can do that that, I think, are very professional, very ethical and to try and take the upper road when those kinds of issues arise.”
The conversation ebbed and flowed around other topics. Concerning the achievement gap, all three spoke about having high expectations for students. But concerning the role race plays, the superintendents talked about being candid in addressing the issue, but also noted that factors such as economics, and a student’s family setting were also key factors. Roberts noted that when addressing achievement, you need to treat students with somewhat different strategies based on their individual needs.
The three superintendents talked about the active parent communities in Oak Park and River Forest. Isoye, hired from Maine East High School in Park Ridge where he was principal, expressed appreciation for the parent community here in the two villages.
Isoye also talked a bit about his previous practices from Maine East, in particular a concept he says is often misunderstood-a “school-within-a-school” model. That is, working with students most in need, be it low-performing students, special ed kids or others, within the existing school setting. Common misunderstandings include people thinking that students are going to be separate from the peers and even relocated to a different space within the building. The school-within-a-school, Isoye said, doesn’t entail that.
“In terms of curriculum, you’re talking about a school-within-a-school concept; you’re talking about a curriculum that’s serving a certain population of students that have a particular need,” he said. “But then sometimes people think of it as more of the environment; they’re thinking that they are going to be off in a certain part of the building or off to a different building. What tends to be forgotten is that it’s really about the curriculum and the instruction, and it’s contained in a concept of school-within-a-school.”