After viewing all 10 episodes of America to Me, one of the most striking things that this series exposed was the lack of true commitment both previous and current District 200 and District 97 administrations have had to diversity, equity, and addressing the achievement gap. These are catch-phrases that both school districts currently tout because it is a long-held, generally accepted community value in Oak Park, from which they have continued to move away.
I was part of the D97 administration until I retired in 2016. I was hired in 2003 by Supt. John Fagan. Ever since he and his key administrators retired, I have been very disappointed with the superficial commitment to diversity, equity and solutions for the achievement gap that I saw from every superintendent (including the current one).
Some of the specific issues:
There must be a better way to screen superintendents because they come into the interview process pretending that they understand, but really don't, the history of Oak Park and how serious we are about diversity. Once they are hired, they seem to revert to the standard, old strategies they used in previous districts, which do not recognize our history as leaders in diversity nor fit the unique nature of our community. All of the D97 superintendents after Dr. Fagan came from other school districts — two from other states, where after their tenure with us will pick up second, third or fourth lifetime pensions.
Lack of administrative support for teachers who want to work on cultural competence and diversity; and lack of administrative support for cultural competency training for all staff. It was painful watching how hard the teacher in the film worked to get her proposal even reviewed for approval by the superintendent. It was absolutely ridiculous to see that very sincere and committed D200 teacher take and successfully implement her ideas at another school district while she was not allowed to do it at OPRF where she teaches. It was also outrageous that the D200 Equity team was not even allowed to meet at the school but had to meet at a private home to discuss diversity and equity issues.
Lack of true commitment to hiring culturally competent staff and increasing the diversity of the teaching staff. One conversation highlighted in Episode 10 was about how hard it is to hire black teachers. Many strategies were proposed to the D97 school board to address this issue. During the Collins administration, the Diversity Leadership Network was created by the D97 Board of Education and consisted of community members, teachers and staff, as well as administrators who worked together to propose ways to increase the cultural competence and diversity in our hiring. Our belief was that, in addition to excellent educational credentials, experience with diverse populations should be an important qualifying characteristic for all staff being hired in our schools. To achieve this, some of the suggestions (ignored by Dr. Collins) were to include a question about diversity on the on-line application and one in the interview process. This was not even considered. How is it that someone with no experience with a diverse population would be hired for any position in a community where a significant percentage of the population consists of people with disabilities, black, Hispanic/Latino, LGBTQ and diverse religions? This should not be happening but is continuing.
In the recent series, a teacher at D200 says, "It is hard to find quality teachers of color." That's a widely held belief, but other school districts are doing it. I have personal knowledge that Oak Park had a chance to hire a black male teacher who lives in Oak Park, whose children successfully went through both D97 and D200, who had over a decade of experience teaching math and was a Golden Apple winner in Illinois. He applied at D97 and did not even get an interview! I also know of two black male teaching assistants who worked for D97 for many years, went back to school to earn their teaching credentials and applied in D97. Did not get hired. Now they are in Chicago. We are really trying?!
Lack of true commitment to implementing MSAN strategies that have worked in other similar school districts. D200 and D97 were founding members (along with Evanston and Skokie school districts) of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). This is a national network of school districts that have similar student demographics and achievement gap issues. Every year, D200 and D97 would send delegations of staff to the national conferences. These delegations would bring back strategies, with data to prove their successes, which they wanted to try. Just as was shown in America to Me at D200, there was little or no support from the D97 administration. It was incredibly painful to see the striking lack of administrative support for proposals from some of the teachers and other staff members at D200 brought forward that would really help address these issues.
Lack of understanding that you cannot address equity for children of color while at the same time ignoring some of the key effects of society's racism on the consciousness of black children. The achievement gap between black and white students is a crisis and has been for decades. Part of the solution has to be a commitment to helping all students succeed by building them up in terms of cultural awareness, knowledge of themselves and their history, respect for themselves, respect for others, and respect from others. That was one of the important aspects of the MCRC. Teachers and administrators built that incredibly unique resource for over 40 years. It consisted of thousands of artifacts, books, clothing, musical instruments, teaching materials and museum grade hands-on resources for children to learn about their own as well as other cultures from around the world. Students were taught about differences as well as shared traditions and practices.
These artifacts were made available to the teachers to use in their classrooms, but even more wonderful was that there was staff to help infuse these materials into the class lessons as needed. Staff were also reminded about high holy days of the various religions so that major/special events and auditions would not be scheduled at those times. The Multicultural Resource Center (MCRC) addressed cultural conflicts that arose between students, between staff members, and between families and staff. For over 30 years and through at least three extensive strategic planning processes, the Multicultural Education program in D97 was affirmed as a very important part of our educational program, but it was never allowed to fully function as the community envisioned in those strategic plans.
Finally, under the leadership of current Supt. Carol Kelley and the school board, the MCRC collection was to be eliminated altogether. The Oak Park Public Library stepped up and became the only way to save the collection from being completely destroyed. The D97 administration "sold" the collection (conservative estimate of its worth was over $300,000) to the library for $10. They eliminated an important resource that belonged to the students and teachers of Oak Park. Though I'm grateful the library accepted it, the MCRC collection should have remained a part of our school district.
There are unknown rules of "survival" that families who move to Oak Park from other communities may not know, but need to know. In D97 some suggested there should be an orientation for families who move into Oak Park for the first time to help them understand from the very beginning that for their children to be able to "compete" with their peers, they will have to be very engaged in the educational process. Some of those realities include:
The fact that parents need to be a presence in the schools and be advocates for their children
The fact that parents must take an active supervisory role in making sure their children do their homework
The fact that in Oak Park, it's not just the children who are having problems in school who hire tutors. Many families have tutors for honors students also.
Exposure to and/or lessons in sports and the arts at a young age are important.
That there are certain Special Education assistance plans to which their children may be entitled.
Socio-economic factors make addressing these issues difficult to solve and there is not necessarily any one entity to blame, but it is a reality that
1) participation in many summer school programs are problematic for working parents of young children because of when and how they are scheduled
2) participation in many extracurricular programs are too expensive for many families.
It frustrating that for at least 20 years, many staff have advocated using a variety of testing measures to identify gifted students. In addition to the standardized tests, use of such non-verbal measures as the Nagliere was strongly supported. While it was never used in the way the advocates worked for, D97 did see a more diverse gifted population. Then inexplicably, the trend was reversed and the diversity in our gifted programs dropped. Two major factors relate to exposure to higher-order thinking and potential rather than early teaching by parents who want to maximize their advantage over their children's peers. Getting a head start gets one's children identified as "gifted" early and that label sticks with them throughout school. Not being identified in terms of potential and motivation at an early age results in many missed opportunities and could impede them from meeting their full potential. Looking at the circumstances and numbers, where is the equity?
I think the people in Oak Park who are committed to diversity and equity need to be more diligent in following what is going on here. We especially need to make our voices heard and make sure that board members are held accountable for the decisions they make. Perhaps there is also a place for board members to be more involved in the decisions made by the administrators they hire until the board is sure that they share these important values of our community.
I greatly appreciate the attention that the America to Me series brought to the discussion about diversity and race in Oak Park. I hope the producers will do another documentary on the entire village.
Lynn Allen, an Oak Park resident, was the longtime director of the Multicultural Education Resource Center in District 97.
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