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By Terry Dean
Is Oak Park and River Forest High School more focused on grades and getting students into college rather than helping them become well-rounded citizens?
And if true, does that contribute to racial inequities within the school system?
Those questions were among many the school board and administration tackled during a nearly four-hour workshop on student achievement and racial gaps at 201 N. Scoville. The June 11 session was the latest in a series of discussions the school has held in the last few months on the issue.
Along with a facilitator, Allan Alson of the nonprofit Consortium for Educational Change, the board and administration Monday looked at the impact board goals can have on closing achievement gaps. School officials discussed whether achievement gaps were best addressed a year at a time or through long-term goals or board policy. Some at the meeting felt it could be addressed through all three.
Alson said board policy and goals makes the commitment "very powerful."
The discussion also got into the issue of racial equity, as well as racial inhibitors that can impact achievement. The group talked about how well the school engages students with respect to articulating expectations, communicating with parents and helping families "navigate" the school's sometimes complicated system.
Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman broached the issue of what student success means — is it strictly defined through academics or also through personal growth and civic involvement? Patchak-Layman said certain cultures have very different understandings of success. Philip Prale, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, put it in even blunter terms.
"We are viewed in our community as a college prep public school; get the grades, get your test scores and go to college. Now that's something we don't want to devalue, I want to make that clear, but our mission as a comprehensive community school is college, career and citizenship — the latter two are not always seen as getting the same level of emphasis. It's something we can do a better job in balancing. And if we look at only one versus the other, that can be a barrier."
Helping families navigate OPRF's system has long been an expressed desire by parents and students over the years. The board and administration readily acknowledged that at Monday's session. Several said the school could greatly improve in that area. One way is for every staff member to take ownership of that effort, noted Cheryl Witham, chief financial officer, along with board members John Phelan and Amy McCormack.
The school, McCormack said, needs to do a better job of explaining procedures to parents. Too often parents will get a call from the school about their kids being tardy and are not fully aware of the procedures for reporting when kids might be late. McCormack said she has received such a call.
"We can't say, 'Well, it's in the student handbook,' and therefore we as a school are covered,'" Phelan said. "If we want to improve, we have to take ownership of it."