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By Mike Sandrolini
HILLSIDE | After Oscar Hawthorne announced his resignation as Proviso West principal in January, District 209 Superintendent Jesse Rodriguez made it clear that he was looking for a “turnaround” principal who can produce results.
The district believes it has found such a principal in Nia Abdullah, whom the District 209 Board of Education unanimously hired last month to replace Hawthorne. Abdullah is Proviso West’s fourth principal in the past seven years.
Prior to taking over at Proviso West, Abdullah served as principal at Bowen High School in Chicago since 2013 (she was its assistant principal from 2011 to 2013). She began her educational career as a math teacher, math department chair and curricular coordinator at Hyde Park High School in 2006. She then was a resident principal at John Hay Community Academy in Chicago from 2010-2011.
Abdullah, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, earned a Doctor of Education in Urban Education Leadership from UIC in 2014.
According to a profile published on the Center for Urban Education Leadership’s website, Abdullah was featured in a symposium at the University of Chicago on “Black Young Men in America: Rising Above Social and Racial Prejudice, Trauma and Educational Disparities.”
The profile stated that Abdullah shared with the symposium the challenges she faced at Bowen “as well as the strategies she is implementing to nurture South Chicago Black high schoolers.
“Adbullah focused on how educators can engage with high schoolers from the ground level in school to build a path towards lifelong success, starting out with preparedness for higher education.” At Bowen, Abdullah led her teachers “to focus on best the practices to diagnose what their students need academically and behaviorally and designing support services to meet those needs.”
In a recent interview with the West Suburban Journal, Abdullah said there are two specific challenges at Proviso West she wants to tackle right from the get-go. The first is improving what she said are “flat tests scores” on the ACT (American College Testing).
“Proviso West averaged a 17 for three consecutive years on the ACT,” she said, “so I need to take a deep dive into instructional practices to better understand the gap between what students enter Proviso already know how to do, what the curriculum looks like by working closely with Assistant Superintendent (Nicole) Howard, and protecting adequate time for administrators, department chairs and I to observe teachers’ execution of the planned curricula to ensure that the instructional tasks students work on daily align to college readiness indicators from AP and SAT assessments. And if there are gaps in either curricula or instructional practices, co-construct plans within teacher teams to improve those practices.”
The second challenge she sees is “that the perception of what’s happening in the school is not necessarily accurate.”
“I’m new,” she said, “so these are all initial ideas: I believe that we may need to re-brand in order to ensure that everyone understands what is actually happening in the building and make sure that the community has access to come into the building to understand and see the good things that are happening.
“I’ve seen amazing staff members; they’re very welcoming and smart people. The students are very kind and polite and smart, and so I’m really conscious to dispel any of the myths about the school that are currently in place in some of the community area.”
U.S. News and World Report recently released its rankings of the top high schools nationwide and in Illinois. Proviso Math and Science Academy was ranked 32nd in the state with a 99 percent graduation rate.
Proviso West was not ranked, and had a graduation rate in 2016 of 78 percent, with just over half (56 percent) of those graduates enrolling at either a college or university. According to a U.S. News and World Report scorecard on Proviso West for 2017, the College Readiness Index is 11 percent; Advanced Placement tested, 23 percent; Advanced Placement passed, 31 percent; mathematics proficiency, 2 percent; and English proficiency, 16 percent.
Abdullah deemed these statistics as “learning indicators,” and said, “I’m putting all my energy into leading indicators. Is the (school) curriculum aligned to college readiness indicators?
“I’m working closely with Dr. Howard to ensure that we have curriculum that is aligned to what students will see on an AP exam as they go into their first year of a college course,” she said.
A big part of that, she said, is having administrators, department chairs and herself “go into classrooms to understand what’s happening in the classrooms and what is being taught every day to make sure they align what they see on an AP exam and in their first year of a college exam.”
She wants to give teachers feedback “that can help them improve their execution of the lesson plan that is aligned to curriculum that is at a college readiness level.”
Abdullah said she wants every taxpayer who has high-school age children that resides within Proviso West boundaries to send their children to Proviso West.
“The goal is to create a perception and a brand and a school where every parent in the community wants their child to be a part of it, where it’s a school that the community is proud to work with and to have their children educated in,” she said. “I want to be the best school in the district and the best school in the state.”
When asked if there are any policies or procedures from Bowen that can be utilized at Proviso West, Abdullah replied, “Context matters, so what worked at Bowen may or may not necessarily work at Proviso West.
“However, there are specific approaches that research says work, when implemented with fidelity, at most schools. Teacher-led teams whereby teachers lead and facilitate teams of other teachers to improve specific components of the schools—that is transferable from school to school.
“Also, a targeted instructional area, a specific college-level skill that every teacher across all disciplines develops strategies that support students development in argumentative literacy, critical thinking or some other 21st century skill that will help students thrive at the college level. That is also transferable from school to school.”