Time to hurry up at OPRF

This is the moment to make big strides on race, let's seize it

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Right at the very end of Tuesday evening's blunt and searing forum on race and education at OPRF, a young woman, a freshman at the school, came to the microphone. She has attended public school in Oak Park through elementary and middle school, now high school. And in those years, she has never once had a teacher who wasn't white.

Aggressively growing the number of African American teachers had been a recurring thought through the powerful session. But it was this freshman's summary point that to me captured the intensity of this night.

"We need to hurry up," she said.

We need to hurry up.

David Stovall, a professor of educational policy and African-American studies at UIC, was the keynote speaker. And from go he was all about urgency. About the inevitability of pain that must be felt if actual cultural change is ever to move beyond talking points at the school and in Oak Park and River Forest. He was not buying Oak Park's self-satisfaction on diversity and integration. "In Oak Park you have a particular condition. … You all have a race problem. Racism is a system. Who is in and who is out. And it is reflected in the daily lives of students. … We have taught racism to be normal,' he said.

Oak Park, a town he said that prides itself on diversity, instead suffers from "historical amnesia."

Is OPRF's faculty "ready to engage?" he asked. "Not in a two-level system" of honors and everybody else, but "in an eight-level system" that takes hold of every child, that doesn't call white students' bad behavior normal teenage stuff and "non-compliance" by black students a serious disciplinary issue. That doesn't put up with black male students being shunted into special ed and "the entire fourth floor in this school that represents" that outcome.

Are white parents – they're not helicopter parents, he said, but F1 bomber parents -- anywhere near ready to acknowledge that "your kids will be alright. A world has been planned for them," while students of color absorb the body blows of a system that over generations "has taken opportunities away from them."

 Are whites in Oak Park and River Forest ready to get past their "white fragility because the conversation is going to get tough," Stovall asked.

Is this school district, led by elected board members and administrators, ready to use "a word that becomes fearful" to school districts, that ruptures the norm. "Redistribution."  

Redistribution of resources, of energy, of unwavering commitment.

"You all got hell of resources," said Stovall. "That's not the issue. But do they go to referrals, to athletics or to transitioning kids out of special ed? ... Is school about order and compliance or about education?"

This was not an evening for the timid. "Fighting racism is unsettling the norm. You need to make a decision to engage in a long journey," said Stovall.

For the 300 people in the South Cafeteria – students, parents, faculty, community members, school board members and administrators – the decision is made. Each person who spoke, board president, keynoter, four articulate students on a panel, the line of commenters, the superintendent, were fundamentally aligned. There is a profound institutional racism at work at OPRF. It is baked into the system. And it allows a culture the student panelists identified as a whole series of "micro-aggressions" from casual racist comments in hallways to dismally insensitive responses from teachers to balled up messages and expectations sent to black students.

The issue said several students is that it is a big school and 300 more or less like-minded people in a room for one night doesn't make plain to the rest of the student body and faculty and security guards the anger and the pain these students feel each day.

This school has a strategic plan that focuses on equity. It has a committee charged with taking on issues of culture and behavior. It has groups working on curriculum rewrites that might integrate black history into the mainline American history every student learns. It has an administration and school board in tune enough to bring in a speaker who breaks the arm that pats the back that says Oak Park is a racial pioneer and somehow gets a pass on making equity real at our high school.

This is the moment. But we need to take big chances. We need to offend. We need to fail and to win. We need to be humble and to be bold. We need to hurry up. 

Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

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Michael Nevins  

Posted: November 18th, 2017 12:54 PM

In a community where MAGA hats are the rage, it's important to know that the D97 Supt is black and so are many of her administrators. D200? The Supt and Principal are also black. Security? The majority are black there, too. And this creates a "racist" environment?!? Not enough black teachers? There's a reason - not many enroll in Ed programs AND pass the IL Basic Skills test: https://www.isbe.net/Documents/TAP_PassRates400_20170101_20170331.pdf. There's also this: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/nyregion/with-tougher-teacher-licensing-exams-a-question-of-racial-discrimination.html. IMO, I'd appreciate a bit more light and a lot less heat on this matter. Of course "more heat!" is the OP way and so.....

Marty Strode from River Forest  

Posted: November 18th, 2017 6:45 AM

Race, race race. Why does it always have to be a race issue? The most qualified teachers are hired at any school. OPRF prides itself on diversification , it has diversified students and it has diversified teachers. Perhaps not enough, Asian, Hispanic or African Americans teachers apply for a position at the high when they are available. But why make it a race issue all the time? You have some stranger who feels he is an expert on race relations come in to our school and tell us we don't have enough minority teachers. We are doing just fine, thank you very much!!!!The motto of the school is THOSE THINGS THAT ARE BEST! And our teachers and community try very hard to adhere to that motto. OPRF was nationally ranked for many years and it did not get that way by not being diversified, and not having intelligent students.

Benjamin Hill  

Posted: November 17th, 2017 10:12 PM

Why so defensive? These are good questions. Who cares about CPS? We are on OPRFHS - and we claim, at least in OP, that we value these things. Many studies have already been done showing there is significant value in having teachers of color. I don't know the answers, but these are good questions to get into. If we so desire.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: November 17th, 2017 9:08 PM

The Chicago public schools must be absolutely awesome for there to be so much unhappiness about OPRF. How do scores compare?

Lester Northe  

Posted: November 17th, 2017 6:32 PM

I don't see what a teacher's race has to do with learning and education. A student can learn from a teacher of any color if teacher is good. There were no Asian teacher's in my high school but many excellent Asian students.

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