Labor Day is over, students are back at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and the search for the next superintendent of our community high school is in full swing.

Full swing as in all the usual motions.

Usual as in focus groups, Survey Monkey questions, SWAT analysis, and a sort of beauty pageant assemblage of “in a perfect world” buzzwords that would make the very best superintendent for our “those things that are best” high school. Going directly from the Survey Monkey survey currently at loose in this process, should the next superintendent be a “visionary” or “an active listener”? A “team builder” or a “motivator”? A “risk-taker” or an “advocate”?

We think those are all great qualities. And we’d also put a check next to “peacemaker,” “critical thinker,” “sense of humor,” and “child-centered.”

Yes, we are skeptical of school superintendent search processes that are all run by retired school superintendents putting current school superintendents in rotation for their next position. They then close the circle out by demanding confidentiality pacts so only the small orbit of superintendents, and, maybe a few assistant supers looking for a way in, can know who among them wants to be in play.

It’s a neat, insider deal. And maybe it works if you are looking for the next school leader in Oswego or Mundelein. But OPRF is big, complex and conflicted. There is not a cookie-cutter solution waiting to be culled from the usual pool.

Here’s the job of OPRF’s next superintendent as we see it:

This school is two schools. There’s the college prep in some gradations from Northern Illinois to Stanford. And there’s the ill-defined and misunderstood vocational, remedial, alternative, Triton-bound school. These two schools are significantly defined by race and almost perfectly defined by economic class and opportunity.

The next superintendent needs to invest energy and resources in both. Oak Park and River Forest deserve and demand a high school that can launch motivated students and invested families into academic orbit. If OPRF loses that ability, then likely all is lost.

But it is long past time that this school and its villages no longer allow OPRF to be defined only by its Ivy League placements. It is time the same pride is infused into innovation and expectations in vocational education, in breaking black young men out of the binds of special education tracking, that bold and barrier-breaking initiatives are invented and borrowed that can heft failing African American students onto a new trajectory rather than to keep settling for nudging up reading levels. School-within-a-school, longer days, opt-ins tied to parental contracts. Hell, the KIPP school model was co-founded by an OPRF graduate. Bring it home.

What are the qualities most needed in a superintendent? We’re all over “enthusiasm” and “articulate,” as the survey says, but our measure is that the next superintendent can sit in a room of black parents and both listen and speak, challenge and commiserate. That this superintendent can inspire and demand that every AP teacher reaches back for one black striver to mentor and advance. 

We can be two schools, but we can’t be two schools so stereotypically defined by race.

The next superintendent has to be present. Fully present. The sophomore on the cusp of full detachment from OPRF needs to know who the superintendent is. The security guard near the tipping point after a day of too much guff needs to know who the superintendent is. The River Forest mom deciding between Fenwick and OPRF needs to know who the superintendent is.

There aren’t a half dozen people in the Midwest who can do this job. If the current corps of highly compensated recruiters can’t produce such a list next week, then OPRF should start over. 

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