When this impossible school year finally ends, come June, it will also end the tenures of the superintendents of the two public school districts serving Oak Park.
Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, the leader at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, will retire and move back to her family in St. Louis. Carol Kelley, superintendent at Oak Park District 97, will take a new job, also closer to home, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Both superintendents have worked hard on equity, the hardest issue in American education. They’ve done it in a tough town that cloaks its reticence for genuine change on race and equity in 40-year-old press releases and hosannas. They’ve done it during COVID. And they’ve done it while being Black and female.
Yes, they both hit, maybe exceeded a bit, the average lifespan of most latter-day superintendents — clocking in at six years each. But the move to the exit was not forced and I didn’t detect some rising tide that would have forced them out in short order.
Kelley’s path out of town has been clear since last year when she sought the top school job in Madison, Wis. It would have been a plum for an educator still climbing higher in her profession. She came close but didn’t get the job. Certainly though, it set a clock ticking on where, not when, her next move would be.
Kelley, interestingly an engineer by training and early profession, was deep into issues of equity. And she moved D97 decidedly forward. Have to say, though, that I’ve never covered an administrator, and all her down-the-line administrators, who was more into the incomprehensible jargon of education than Carol Kelley.
Just spit it out, was often my take when editing copy, reading district reports, or in those few moments when I was in a room with her. Equity is complicated, but it is best understood in plain English with a side of emotion and passion. Sell the vision. Let the data back up the human toll and the human possibility.
Pruitt-Adams I first saw in action during a “listening tour” early in her time here as superintendent. Likely she was still “the interim” that evening when I watched her in the Beye School cafeteria. She doesn’t dazzle so much as she envelops. She took every question, read the doubts in the room, responded with honest answers about hard issues and acknowledged she didn’t have all the answers.
Pruitt-Adams has done what I thought impossible. She has, largely, imperfectly, “brought the building with her.” The challenge to change at OPRF always came from within. A faculty stuck in time. A school board too timid to grasp how the school was failing a large swath of its Black and Brown students, and even the non-college bound white kids.
But Pruitt-Adams won over a faculty that was finally getting younger not older, that had consciously begun to integrate some new department chair hires from other school settings. And she was hired by a school board finally and fully aligned on equity.
It hasn’t been an easy time for her. There was major back surgery early in her tenure that took out the good part of a semester. She lost a grandson to gun violence back home in Missouri. And her husband, who had joined her in Oak Park, came out of retirement to re-enter police work in the St. Louis area. She is ready to go home.
Hiring processes are underway. OPRF’s sitting school board is working at breakneck speed to hire Pruitt-Adams’ replacement before some of them leave the board with the April election. I get the impulse. It also worries me, based on the special talent this post will take. There are internal candidate(s) from the bench Pruitt-Adams built.
D97 got the news of Kelley’s departure later in the recruitment season, though we don’t imagine too many board members are surprised they have an opening. The board’s plan for hiring is To Be Announced. We might be looking at an interim which is always weak tea for a district with momentum.
The chances our two districts will again be led by two Black women, focused on equity and willing to put up with the stress Oak Park generates? That seems remote.