I would like to thank Ralph Lee for his article concerning the achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School [Taking another look at the achievement gap at OPRF, Viewpoints, Dec. 1]. With the recent decision by the Evanston school board to eliminate its freshmen honors course, the time is now right for OPRF to begin to seriously think about how to address this issue. I agree that framing the problem into one that affects students from a variety of backgrounds at the school might be a way to alter the discussion. Unfortunately, even at a school in a community like Oak Park, race plays a pivotal factor in how things are viewed, and in this case whose children will get priority. I do think that those parents who complain and are most vocal will get the attention, and for whatever reason black parents have not been as vocal as they probably need to be in order to see this gap closed.
My major issue is that everyone is fully aware that there is a problem regarding how OPRF serves students who are not on the fast track to college. I would even go further to say that, as a parent, I think the school does not serve students well in a variety of ways. My experience is that, if your child receives decent grades, tests well and keeps out of trouble, OPRF is a good place. But if you have a child who struggles in any way, you will find a school with no advocates for your child and no real answers for parents in how to address academic and social issues. However, I think the fundamental question for the board, administration and parents is what is the next step? We all know that there is a problem, and that many students fall through the cracks at OPRF. The school should begin to look at ways to address this issue by studying what is being done at schools around the country and in our area to address the gap. APPLE had an informative speaker on the issue a year or two ago, but nothing seems to have happened since that time.
Oak Park might also seriously consider the concept of a school within a school, where students who benefit from a smaller environment could be better served. I would also like to see an advisory system. I have talked to administrators and other parents about this over the years. Both middle schools in Oak Park have successful advisory programs, and so do other excellent high schools in our area. I think it would make a real difference in establishing a sense of community at the school, and could be used as a vehicle to help students who have academic challenges. In a school of more than 3,000 students, I think it would be helpful if there were at least one adult at OPRF whose responsibility was to make sure that individual students stayed on track, and more importantly as a parent, someone I could call who knows my child and would be his or her advocate. Evanston's bold step to eliminate honors courses might also be considered.
I think the time has come for short-term and long-term goals on this issue, and I would challenge the board and administration to move forward on this as soon as possible. I feel quite strongly that, if the school keeps doing what it is doing, nothing of substance will change. Now is the time for action and a sense of urgency on this issue. I strongly feel that a measure of a school is not how it serves its highest achieving students, who by any measure would do well wherever they attended, but how well it serves its average and struggling students.
It's time is to see all of OPRF students as capable of achieving at a high academic level.
David Harris is a former Oak Park resident who lives in Olympia Fields, Ill. His youngest son is a junior at OPRF, and he has worked in education for 18 years, currently as an eighth-grade teacher at a Chicago private school.