When Joylynn Pruitt-Adams was hired as District 200’s permanent superintendent in December 2016 after having served for roughly six months as interim, she inherited what any frank-talking administrator of an Oak Park taxing body will tell you is one of the town’s defining features — its cacophony of opinions, which range from articulate, expert and wise to unintelligible, ignorant and foolish. They are often loud (literally and metaphorically).
For at least five years prior to Pruitt-Adams’ hiring, three different pool committees and hundreds of hours of public discussion had sharpened tension that would test friendships and divide families. At times, public comment over the pools during school board meetings mirrored the national mood of fragmentation and fear.
A month after a referendum that would have helped fund the construction of new swimming facilities at Oak Park and River Forest High School failed very narrowly in the Nov. 8, 2016 election, the soft-spoken superintendent calmly inserted herself into the loud public debate and recommended the creation of yet another committee. This one, however, was based on her experiences at her former school district in Missouri.
The proposed committee, which became known as OPRF Imagine, would make the community central to its organization, incorporating voices both for and against the referendum. And it would be tasked with looking beyond the swimming pools and evaluating the physical state of OPRF’s roughly century-old campus in a way that incorporates the community’s commitment to its stated values — equity chief among them.
The gamble worked, allowing the district to regain the trust of many taxpayers’ after years of bickering over the pools had soured the relationship between residents and its high school. In 2018, the district began releasing architectural renderings and hard timelines related to first phase construction set to start this summer — the direct result of the superintendent’s soft-spoken recommendation four years ago. That first phase does not include swimming pools.
“I thought about an initiative I did in my previous district in University City, where we were in the same place,” Pruitt-Adams said in a recent interview. “While the facilities were clean and we were keeping the lights on and the roof fixed, they really didn’t support 21st century learning in terms of curriculum and all those things a facility really needs to provide.
“From that process, I learned it really has to come from the outside-in. If you really want people to buy into it, they have to see it for themselves; they have to come in and do the research and the deep dive, studying what students need in terms of facilities to support quality learning. When you do it that way, then they are learning with you and the outcomes that you see need to happen just automatically evolve.”
That philosophy was also at work in other major news coming out of OPRF in 2019: particularly the school board’s approval on April 25 of a landmark racial equity policy that Pruitt-Adams is responsible for implementing.
A few weeks before the board unanimously passed the measure, tensions between local equity activists and district officials were so high it didn’t seem the vote would even happen when it was scheduled.
On April 13, representatives from organizations like APPLE, the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE), Oak Park Call to Action, and Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA) released a joint statement expressing their disappointment with a draft version of the equity policy. The goals in the draft “have been made so general and vague that they delete substantially the spirit, details and intentions of community input in previous drafts,” they said.
But during the April 25 meeting, it appeared that many, if not most, of their concerns had been dealt with, however messily.
“Race and whiteness and power dynamics played out in the committee room and here tonight,” said then-board member Jennifer Cassell during the meeting. “[This work] would not have gotten done if not for the black women [in the community, on the board and in the administration] carrying the load.
“I hope that, moving forward, some of our allies will start to become more aware of what they’re bringing into this space and show respect and deference, in particular to Dr. Pruitt-Adams, as she embarks on this work.”
Based on her calm demeanor, you wouldn’t know that the superintendent had been at the center of the storm.
Grace under pressure
“When I was 12, I witnessed a man get shot and die in the street because they were robbing his store,” Pruitt-Adams said. Born in St. Louis, on July 5, 1955, the woman who would become a school administrator was a shy, withdrawn child with low self-esteem who lived in a broken home.
Eula Pruitt knew her baby was poor and black and female, but she cultivated in her what Oak Park novelist Ernest Hemingway famously called “grace under pressure.”
“When my mom couldn’t afford to keep the lights on, we had candles,” she recalled, “but when we walked out of the house, no one was to know.”
Besides, there was not much time to think about poverty. There was the Great Books reading club and charm school and ballet to concentrate on, among other extracurricular activities.
“I was growing up in a white-dominated world,” Pruitt-Adams said. “My mom always stressed getting a good education and giving 150 percent because 100 percent wasn’t good enough, but I also had to be humble. When they told her I should go to a gifted program, she said, ‘No, she’ll go to school with her peers.'”
In high school, she was placed in what was called Track 1, firmly on the path to college (“if you were special ed, they called it ‘terminal education’— how bad is that?”), but a counselor looked at her aptitude test and suggested that, instead of pursuing her life’s goal of becoming a teacher, she settle for being a file clerk. So she was sent to an area hospital to be a file clerk.
Despite her counselor’s advice, Pruitt-Adams went to Harris Stowe Teacher’s College before pursuing a master’s degree.
“I decided to get my doctorate, but my advisor, who didn’t look like me, said I should be satisfied with what I had,” Pruitt-Adams recalled.
But if she had detractors, the superintendent said she also had people who pushed her to become who she is today.
“I was just going to be a teacher in my classroom,” Pruitt-Adams said. “Shut my door and leave me alone.”
But her mother and a variety of mentors pushed her beyond the realm of the comfortable. One of her mentors, she said, ripped up a grant she won as a teacher and hired her in his district (“He told me, ‘When you become a superintendent …'”).
“People pushed me to be who I am,” she said. “My mom always says that once I realized who I was, they unleashed a beast.”
The people whisperer
The Zen of Joylynn Pruitt-Adams may have reached the level of local lore. In March, OPRF made national headlines when roughly 100 students staged a sit-in at the high school after popular employee Anthony Clark, a special education teacher (and 2017’s Villager of the Year for Oak Park), and Shoneice Reynolds, an administrative secretary, were placed on leave after a group of African-American students walked out of the school in February on the seventh anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death.
A Facebook video shows students shouting down the superintendent. During the exchange, Pruitt-Adams never loses her inside voice (“I very seldom raise my voice”), but neither does she budge.
“We want students to have a voice,” Pruitt-Adams said recently. “When they’re screaming and shouting, they’re not screaming and shouting at me. They’re really screaming at the situation. During the sit-in, the young man who was shouting in my face, that young man comes to see me at least once a week now.”
“She understands kids,” said Karin Sullivan, the district’s communications director. She also understands adults. There’s a reason why Roxanna Sanders, the district’s HR head, calls her boss “the people whisperer,” because of her uncanny ability to nudge people to her side with the kinetic force of a whisper.
“She’s seen me push with the board, push with teachers, push with community members and never raise my voice while doing it,” Pruitt-Adams said, explaining Sanders’ nickname for her. “That seems to calm people. I’ve had to teach myself that when people get angry, they’re not angry at me, they’re angry at the position.”
That ability will be tested in the months and years ahead, as OPRF embarks on one of its most ambitious equity projects to date.
Last year, in an attempt to address the racial opportunity gap at the high school, the administration announced plans to end the practice of separating incoming freshmen into college preparatory and honors course levels (a practice commonly referred to as “de-tracking”) by the 2021-22 school year.
The measure still has to be voted on by the D200 school board, which could be a different mix come time for a board vote. The proposal, which has already become the new hot button issue in Oak Park and River Forest, could be as divisive as the years-long pool debate during the next board election — one that, because of the passions aroused over de-tracking — could also be a referendum on Pruitt-Adams herself.
The superintendent said she knows she’s risking a lot by taking on this struggle over tracking, but the two issues — struggle and tracking — are among her life’s themes.
Whatever the outcome of the battle, though, rest assured that the superintendent will fight it quietly.