Dr. Steven Isoye is, by nature, an incrementalist. That’s fine. As long as you stay in your post long enough to win enough incremental victories. He is, by nature, a builder of consensus. That’s fine if the consensus you are seeking includes the full range of voices, especially those who see your institution as coming up short. He is, by nature, a quiet leader. And that is fine if you have the ability to promulgate your vision in some effective manner — or you have a counterpart on the elected side who can put that vision out there. This now-departing superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School is, by nature, data driven. And that is an approach this high school has historically lacked, preferring to tout its tradition as a way to resist change.
But change it must. Dr. Isoye seemingly surprised most of his colleagues and all of the public with the announcement that he had taken the post of superintendent in the slightly larger Niles Township school district.
Presumably he thoroughly checked out the vintage and current condition of those schools’ swimming pools before he signed on in Niles. Watching his slow progress — some would say steady, some would say inadequately ambitious — at OPRF sidetracked by the endless debacle of fixing or replacing the OPRF pools must have been torturous for Isoye. Six years in the job, the pool debate has been front and center for at least half that time. And who knew that the district’s longtime Achilles’ heel, having over-taxed its constituents for a decade to the tune of some $70 million, would play out in citizen response and rebellion over how to pay for new pools?
I’ve watched superintendents and village managers come and then go for 35 years in my job. A few make it to retirement and leave, more or less, on their own terms. But since Oak Park institutions — parks, village halls, school districts — are more typically well-earned destinations than stepping stones, the motivation in departures is typically being pushed out by unhappy elected officials or making the leap as an elected body unravels.
Isoye was not pushed.
So we are left with the numbing prospect of some sort of temporary superintendent serving a school board that seems well-intentioned but, judging by the pool situation and its powerful ripples, ineffectual in making choices and steering public discussion.
The point is not the pool. It is the many, many more important matters obscured by the pool debate. Isoye led a strategic plan that has all the right words when it comes to “equity,” the seemingly more palatable term for the achievement gap. But that gap is not closing. Test scores are not moving in an equitable direction. There has been positive movement in remaking the school’s approach to discipline, a system that has historically focused on punishing black students at disproportionate and disaffecting rates.
But the gap is persistent, the many ways the gap is manifested are visible, and, soon, there will be a video documentary by a respected filmmaker of local origin to show the nation that while black students fail, the swimming pool issue burns.
John Phelan, the confident school board leader who invited in Steve James, the documentary filmmaker, was not able to run for re-election a year ago. And Steven Isoye, more loudly than was typical, opposed the entire notion of opening the school to these outside eyes. He will be the film’s epilogue as he decamps.
OPRF remains a good high school. For many students, for many families it is an outstanding high school. But in a community always seemingly poised to attack the summit, we keep falling back. Years get lost as they are about to again. Diversions like the pool sidetrack the villages. Strong boards weaken. Contracts with faculty reinforce the norm.
And, again, the vision fails to be realized.