The 'people whisperer': 2019 Oak Park and River Forest Villager of the Year

Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, D200 supt., a calming force in tense equity debates

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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.  

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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Reader Comments

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William Smith from Bolingbrook  

Posted: January 16th, 2020 12:03 PM

Congratulations Dr. Pruitt-Adams on this honor. I am a proud African-American male and 1978 graduate of OPRFHS. I fully support "THOSE THINGS AND PEOPLE THAT ARE BEST". After graduating from OPRF, I continued my education at George Williams College earning my BA, subsequently earning an MSW and Doctorate Degree. In my case, there were several check marks next to the at-risk student indicator sheet. However, those indicators did not take into account GRIT and positive encouraging people like yourself!!! My path led to me taking on leadership roles in various social service and educational entities. I applaud you for showing GRIT and Imagination in your accomplishments and without doubt the same GRIT is being elevated to make the dream of OPRFHS a reality. I was left shaking my head (SMH) after reading the comments following the honorable article recognizing your history and applauding your journey. It is clear these stains (comments) are much smaller than they appear, but I couldn't resist the urge to respond. Perhaps the comments I read were written for the opposite reason as mine. The purpose of my response is to encourage you to continue working towards greatness. Nevertheless, citizens of the United States of America have a freedom to speak and complaining is how some people choose to use their First Amendment Right. Consequently, complaining is not a sustainable or sensible catalyst for change. On the other hand, persuasively presenting a vision in an effort to gain support stands a better chance against resistance, provided you are seeking to produce positive outcomes?at least in the Oak Park and River Forest communities. However, if your goal is to pure destructiveness without regard to the well-being of others?(pun intended) "YOU'RE BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE". GO HUSKIES!!!

Corey Gimbel from Oak Pork 2.0  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 1:20 PM

@Mary Jo Erickson: I think you may have been referring to Oak Park DISRUPTOR of the year. Just saying.............. What I should have asked was what people from Oak Park nominate the contenders for Oak Park Villager of the Year and if it's not a group of citizens, who chose the Wednesday Journal to speak on ALL of our behalves? Not me jsut as I deplore the IMAGINE group I deplore this as not representative of the community at large and, thus, not worthy. While I believe that Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams has a very important role in our community I don't beleive that she has been responsible for enriching, advancing, or protecting the vast majority of people in either Oak Park or river Forest. Change my mind..........

Mary Jo Erickson from Oak Park  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 7:24 PM

@Corey: One potential candidate may have been the woman who had a Chernobyl-style meltdown at the meeting concerning the 'diversity statement' last fall.

Corey Gimbel from Oak Pork 2.0  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 10:56 AM

I have a question. Which other individuals were considered for this "honor"?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 4:07 AM

Anything, the Administration will do anything not to bring the minority kids up to the higher levels. Pools, equity, activism.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: January 11th, 2020 10:27 PM

She could also be called "The Sly Shepherdess", because she has pulled the wool over the eyes of the sheepish Board. The Administration of OPRF, which is supposed to implement policies of the Board, is instead setting those policies She claimed that she had the authority to implement what is intended to eventually be a school-wide de-tracking program. John Phelan, previous Board President pointed out in these pages that she did not have the authority to do that. Yet the Board has docily submitted to her, and is now, like dutiful school children, reading a book on "equity", and giving book reports at Board Meetings. What is "equity"? It's the current buzzword in governmental circles to mask fuzzy ideas and make them appear to be deep thoughts, that only the ethical pure can grasp. This paper's columnist, John Hubbuch, likened it to the salesmanship of the "Emperor's New Clothes". Yet the Board continues to allow itself to be spoon-fed this "re-education" of themselves. She and her hand-picked new Administrators can't point to any past success they've had with this in their careers, or for that matter, where anyone elsewhere has. I can point to numerous failures Shaker Heights, Ohio, much more elite than here, has had an abject failure.. Phelan is her most articulate challenger on this. Ironically, he has also been named Villager of the Year before, so this paper seems schizophrenic on its choices. But, as Oak Parkers, we have to be in the vanguard. Of what?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 11th, 2020 8:06 PM

Is it possible that she meant to use the word "shamble" instead of "gamble"?

Bruce Kline  

Posted: January 11th, 2020 3:12 PM

But Amanda it WAS a gamble. First you nullify a referendum. Next you pack a so called community committee with your cronies and big pool supporters. And rather than the school board firing your ass for these shenanigans, you actually win a contract extension, a 9% pension pick-up and now Villager of the Year. So yeah, I would say the gamble worked really good in fact ? for Dr. Pruitt-Adams. Of course, Mr. Romain, writing that these dubious endeavors regained the trust of the many taxpayers is quite hilarious. I nearly fell off my chair laughing uncontrollably at that little delusional tidbit.

Dave Slade from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2020 3:01 PM

"The gamble worked ("The Gamble" was reworded and called "Imagine"), allowing the district to regain the trust of many taxpayers' (Sorry, but the district will never "regain the trust of many taxpayers") after years of (overtaxing and under-refunding) bickering over the pools (which LOST in a referendum) 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 (regardless of the voting opinion of the taxpayers) ?" the direct result of the superintendent's soft-spoken recommendation four years ago. That first phase does not include swimming pools (but bet your ass those pools will be done, therefore rendering the referendum moot). And you can bet she and the football-field length list of people that passed this thing can't wait to see their names on the bronze plaque that will be put up on the front door when this is complete.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 10th, 2020 6:57 PM

It would be a bigger, more thrilling gamble if she pledged to give up her pension if academic scores don't rise.

Mikhail Ivanov  

Posted: January 10th, 2020 2:42 PM

I've seen her speak many times and have never been impressed. As others have noted, Imagine was a complete sham. Her equity programs haven't really even started. How about we honor people who have actually accomplished things, not just promised that someday they will if we just do everything they say and keep paying taxes?

Barbara Purington  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 6:05 PM

I attended one of three Imagine recruiting of volunteers meetings. There was so much talent in the room, architects, project managers, budget people, a pool builder, various engineers, parents, lawyers, teachers. It was a good representation of the trades and professions. Imagine (sic) my surprise when the committee was loaded with OPRFHS personnel, and not well-rounded with the experienced people from the community; it was weighted with people sharing the Supt.'s agenda. Imagine was suppose to be an idea-generating exercise. Did anyone notice how it became an actual plan without the voters weighing in? Kudos for the shenanigans and pulling off the mega expenditure on the residents.

Amanda Turnbull  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 4:41 PM

While I don't belittle Dr. Pruitt-Adams' background and experiences, saying of the Imagine Group "The gamble worked, allowing the district to regain the trust of many taxpayers'" is terrible reporting. There was no gamble, the group was a joke, and all that really happened was an over-funded school found a way to bypass taxpayers who had already told them no. If closing the opportunity gap is truly a top priority, then so much money would not be being spent on facilities that primarily benefit the overwhelmingly white swim teams. And if this is the reason she's been chosen to be honored, it's pretty ridiculous.

Mary O'Malley Petranek  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 3:00 PM

"I was just going to be a teacher in my classroom." A big kick in the teeth to all those teachers whose careers span decades and have touched the lives of countless children. I'm very proud to have been "just" a teacher and find the good doctor's comment highly insulting to the profession.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 8:39 AM

@ Kevin Peppard: Didn't one of the Village Presidents listed improperly used a village employee to design his new garage?

Tom MacMillan from OAK PARK  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 7:11 AM

The Imagine Committee is a farce. Pretending it in any way represents the community, while using it as a way to work around and undo a referendum VOTE is a stain on D200. Terrible leadership that should be replaced.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: January 9th, 2020 5:15 AM

After further review of the list of the list of past Villagers of the Year, I note that one of them fired another. And they were recipients in the same year! Is there some sort of curse involved in getting that "honor"?

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: January 7th, 2020 11:48 PM

An interesting cast of characters, these Villagers of the Year. Two didn't live in Oak Park, two were founders of political parties before those were crushed by the VMA before it died itself, one was a Village Manager who was fired for deceiving the Board by hiding a quarter of a million dollars in expenses on a cranky software system that required daily bandaids, and one committed suicide, One of those outsiders is a friend, as are two others not in my list above. It's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", Oak Park-style.

Neal Buer  

Posted: January 7th, 2020 8:42 PM

Amazing what you can do with unlimited taxpayer funds...

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