Oak Park’s District 97 public elementary schools filled three new senior administrative positions for the 2023-2024 school year as it began to lay the groundwork for its community-driven vision of an ideal graduate.
The district announced new hires: Dr. Luis Fernando De Leon as the assistant superintendent of middle schools, Luis Rodriguez as the new chief legal and equity officer, and Patrick Robinson as the new assistant superintendent of elementary schools beginning with the new school year.
The three new hires are part of how D97 is rearranging its organization at the adult level to enhance student experiences in a more positive and equitable way, said Supt. Dr. Ushma Shah.
“One of the things we need to start doing is not be stuck in how districts have always been laid out and start to put things together in ways that make sense and in ways that are going to change our students’ experiences,” Shah said.
The new hires will be key figures as the district hopes to begin painting the “Portrait of a Graduate,” a well-rounded, high-achieving student that represents the district’s vision for the skills, character traits, as well as social-emotional abilities students would need to success in their future. According to Shah, the portrait is still in the early development stages.
De Leon, who comes to the district from School District U-46 in Elgin, has years of experience at the middle school level, serving as principal of Tefft Middle school for the last six years. De Leon’s diverse career background has allowed him to spend time serving often underrepresented and marginalized communities of color, having taught as an ESL adult education instructor at Elgin Community College and a bilingual teacher.
“Through meaningful collaboration, we can learn and grow together, addressing the inequities of systems and ensuring that all our students have access to rigorous, culturally responsive learning and instruction,” said De Leon in a press release.
De Leon will begin his new role come July 1st, overseeing Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave., and Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.
Patrick Robinson, current principal at Whittier Elementary School, 715 N. Harvey Ave., has been appointed as assistant superintendent of elementary schools beginning in July, leaving Whittier after his fifth year as principal.
Coming to the district in 2018 from Urban Prep Academies for Young Men in Chicago, where he served as principal for three years, Robinson brought with him a long history of elementary education stemming back to teaching at schools in Galesburg and Chicago, along with being a new teacher induction coach at New Teacher Center.
“It has been a privilege to lead a school community of resilient students, a dedicated staff, and a supportive family community,” said Robinson in a press release. “We have collaboratively achieved many outstanding things as a community that positively impact the lives of all our Whittier Wildcats. I am honored and incredibly excited to continue to work in my new role, serving all students, staff, and families of District 97.”
The district is currently searching for Whittier’s next principal.
Also hailing from the Elgin educational community, Luis Rodriguez, who recently served as the deputy general counsel for Elgin Community College, has accepted the position of chief legal and equity officer, a new role in the district.
Shah said the district, which has long been vocal regarding their intentions to put equity in the forefront of their decisions, created this role in reference to board policy 7:12 Ensuring Racial and Educational Equity, which references a position of a senior leader who would report directly to the superintendent to support equity work.
“That is important because this role fulfills that expectation that we do have senior leadership that is reflecting that equity work as opposed to the equity work being tucked inside the organization,” Shah said.
Having someone on staff regarding legal work will also help build the district’s capacity, said Shah.
“Having a person on staff to make sure that we are doing that work in a manner that reflects policy and law and also our commitments to equity and treating people fairly, that is the intersection that we are trying to get to,” Shah said.
Rodriguez will be fully stepping into his role later in May.
“This is one position in the midst of many different changes happening in the district,” Shah said. “One of the big ideas is that we need to come together differently. We need to build our collaborative focus to make the changes needed.”
While the whole portrait of a graduate is in the early stages of development, Shah said they are excited to engage with the community as well as potential community partners when ready. However, Shah did say internal conversations have already begun happening as they had faculty input through voluntary staff meetings, with a purpose of understanding staff perspectives.
“I will tell you that even as we onboard these roles, the voices of our teachers, our principals, and our staff closest to our students is continuously shaping my understanding of how we need to position these roles and how I need to support them to come on board and be successful,” Shah said.
Student engagement has been an increasingly important part of how the district is looking to do their work, said Shah, adding they want to know what it would look like for the “students fingerprints to be on the district.”
This can be seen as the district seeks a new principal for Whittier, already having arranged meetings with families, staff, and students for their insight in the principal selection process.
“It was such an engaging session,” said Shah. “Together we engaged with the students around what their hopes and visions are for the next principal but also in terms of the district and what hopes they had.”
Seeking input from all members of the district is a value Shah said they hope they can see more of as a practice in place across the district.