In just her second year as the principal of Oak Park and River Forest High School Lynda Parker has brought an effervescent glow of warmth, positivity, energy and caring to OPRF. The Illinois Principals Association has recognized her accomplishments and recently named Parker the West Cook Region High School Principal of the Year.
Two to three days a week in the 15 minutes or so before the official school day begins at 8 a.m. Parker positions herself at the top of the school’s main staircase so she can cheerfully greet students and staff as they come into the building and make their way to class. While not everyone is cheerful early in the morning Parker smiles and gives everyone she can a warm greeting and perhaps a friendly reminder to make sure that their student ID card is visible.
“She’s an endless source of positive energy,” said one OPRF teacher who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to the talk to the press. Generally teachers and other staff at OPRF are told not to talk to the media unless they clear it with the Executive Director of Communications Karin Sullivan.
Parker believes an encouraging, friendly greeting from the principal helps students and staff start the day in a better mood.
“I recognize that every single day is not a day when you feel like doing the things you have to do and so sometimes it just helps to have some positivity to start the day,” Parker told Wednesday Journal in a telephone interview.
Parker, whose official title is Assistant Superintendent/Principal, is so energetic and cheerful in the morning that some think that she must be hyped up on coffee. But she doesn’t even drink coffee. Her warm and friendly personality may come naturally but she also makes an effort to be positive and encouraging.
“I make a choice to try and do that; it’s important to me,” Parker said.
Parker also strives to be accessible to students. On Thursdays during the lunch periods Parker sets up shop in the Student Activities Center just across from the cafeteria and meets with any student who wants to see her. Students might come to her with a suggestion or a concern or even just to chat. Whatever it is, Parker wants to be there to talk with them. She says she often can direct a student to the right staff member to turn their idea into reality.
“I like the fact that they can recognize that it’s a service provided for them and so I want to make sure that I’m there for them all the time that I can be,” Parker said.
During lunch on Fridays Parker has open hours for teachers to drop in and chat.
“I am very much one who likes to be in contact with the students because it helps me to see things from all points of view,” Parker said. “Not only do I want to do that for students but I want to do that for staff as well. And not just for the teachers but as well my custodial staff, food services, security, all of the different entities that make the building work which is a special challenge because the building is so big.”
Parker has brought warmth and encouragement to OPRF, a building that sometimes can seem somewhat dour and cold. She strives to connect with and uplift students, who sometimes can feel stressed and can sometimes get lost in the crowd at such a large school. She leaves her office door open as much as possible.
“Lynda goes very far to show kids her love for them and her genuine interest in their lives and well-being,” Director of Employee Recruitment and Retention Janel Bishop wrote in nominating Parker for the award. “This is a school of 3,400 students, and this is the first time a person in her role has been so well known and well-received in my 23 years of working here. Lynda holds great importance in the voice of the students.”
In her short time as principal Parker has spearheaded a host of initiatives to improve student wellness. OPRF now has wellness workshops during an extended class period once a month. Last year OPRF adopted a new behavior education plan that includes restorative practices alongside accountability. Parker created a culture of the building committee aimed at creating a culture of warmth throughout the school and established new student engagement activities that celebrate positive behaviors. These activities include inviting student groups to lead cultural heritage celebrations, hallway parades for state qualifiers, and Parker Perks currency for exhibiting positive Huskie Habits.
“I absolutely love being able to motivate young people,” Parker said.
Parker has worked to improve attendance and reduce tardiness. Last year chronic absenteeism at OPRF fell to 13.6 percent down significantly from 17.7 percent in the 2017-18 school year. The improvement in attendance was a major reason why OPRF earned the coveted Exemplary school rating from the Illinois State Board of Education in the most recent school report card.
Superintendent Greg Johnson is a big fan of Parker’s work.
“I am thrilled that Lynda’s positive efforts for the students in this school are being recognized in such a public way,” Johnson was quoted as saying in press release issued by the school. “In education, we don’t work for the public accolades, but it is so gratifying to see excellent work being recognized. I can’t think of anyone else who’s more deserving of this award.”
Parker will now be in contention for Illinois Principal of the Year.
Parker, 50, came to OPRF in 2018 when she was hired as the Director of Student Services. Up until then Parker, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, had worked in Chicago public schools. When she was a senior in high school at Kenwood Academy her counselor suggested that she had the makings of a good teacher and that remark set her on a career path that she seems to have been born for.
At DePaul University Parker was part of the first cohort of Golden Apple Scholars, students intending to become teachers who received special training and experiences through the Golden Apple Foundation.
Upon getting her bachelor’s degree from DePaul Parker went back to Kenwood to teach math. She loved helping students overcome their fear of math and especially enjoyed tutoring and seeing students make progress. With the encouragement of an administrator who saw the way she related to students Parker decided to become a school counselor. She worked for four years at the Golden Apple Foundation while studying for a master’s degree in school counseling from Roosevelt University. After she got her counseling degree she went back to Kenwood as a counselor and rose to become the head of the school’s counseling department. In 2012 Parker was hired as an assistant principal at Orr Academy High School and after two years at Orr she moved on to an assistant principal position at King College Prep High School.
In 2018 a friend who was an OPRF parent suggested that Parker apply for the Student Services director job at OPRF. Parker’s mother had just died and it seemed like a good time to make a change and OPRF hired her. Coming to OPRF from the Chicago Public Schools Parker was impressed by all the resources available at OPRF.
“This is a great place; you have access to things that other schools just wish for,” Parker said.
Parker is not only warm and friendly; she is also driven.
“I’m always trying to think of how can I do this better,” Parker said.
She attends almost every event at OPRF, trying to be visible and encouraging. She loves to shine the light on student accomplishments. She loves her job and it shows.
“I have never questioned whether or not I should be an educator,” Parker said. “Like I know that whatever position I take I know that this is the career I’m supposed to be in.”