On Monday evening in the cafeteria of Beye School, just a short walk from OPRF, the high school’s new superintendent, Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, held the first of five stops on her inaugural “listening tour.”

A few more than 20 people turned out, a handful of them candidates for the school board this spring, one sitting board member, a couple of high school staffers. The rest were folks inclined to support the high school though not without voicing a range of concerns.

Happily, though the failed November tax referendum was referenced, not a single mention of a swimming pool was made over 90 minutes. 

Pruitt-Adams, hired last summer as the school’s interim superintendent after the unexpected departure of Steven Isoye, was promoted to the permanent position before her first semester at the school ended. She is not wasting time in putting her mark on OPRF. That’s a fine thing. After several years of Isoye’s calm inaction, this school needs both a champion and a critic, and Pruitt-Adams shows indications she can balance that role.

It is a tough balance, especially at District 200, traditionally Oak Park and River Forest’s most defensive public institution. Too much “Those Things That Are Best” Kool-Aid at OPRF and not enough “Christ Almighty, Let’s Get to Work.” ™

The superintendent was nothing short of effusive in praising “great faculty,” “amazing students,” “great parental and community support.” She had, she said, never seen the equivalent of it in 41 years in education. 

In my puny 37 years of reporting on the high school, those comments were par for the course in terms of public statements by superintendents. And I don’t disagree with those assessments, as far as they go. But to her great credit, Pruitt-Adams went further, deeper and spoke with candor about the school’s shortcomings.

“We can improve,” she said. “We need to meet the needs of all students, not some students. We need to tighten up accountability.” 

She said that sometimes inside the school she asks a question about “equity,” the now ubiquitous term for fair treatment of all students, for closing the racial achievement and discipline gaps. And her question is, “Why are we still [just] talking about it?”

The last superintendent spent a half-decade incrementally tip-toeing around this complex, fascinating, charged issue. The superintendent before him seemed on the verge of diving into the issue when a timid and divided school board showed him the door.

While the past two boards bungled the pool caper, they are intent on facing up to the equity issue and Pruitt-Adams has their strong support. To that end, she told guests Monday that the school has now identified 200 students they believe to be ready for the largely segregated AP track but who, based solely on testing, have not been selected before for advanced placement classes. She said the school looked at their “soft skills” of tenacity, perseverance and grit, sought out necessary supports for those students and are now ready to move them ahead.

She also acknowledged that often AP teachers want students who will score high as, in my opinion, an affirmation of their teaching prowess. “Our goal is to get past these perceptions,” she said.

She touted progress in remaking the discipline system to result in far fewer suspensions, with discipline concerns addressed more directly between teachers and students.

In response to questions, Pruitt-Adams said that OPRF and the two elementary districts in Oak Park and in River Forest had not historically communicated well but that the three superintendents had committed to fixing that. The first time that issue was not papered over.

And she listened well to criticism that the school’s public face in the ongoing sexual assault investigation has been too couched in legalisms.

Altogether an open and transparent effort by this new superintendent. 

Listening works. 

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