Why I couldn't trust Oak Park with my daughter's education

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By ShaRhonda Knott Dawson

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People loosely use the term "good schools and diversity" without looking into it or researching what that means. When you get below the surface, it means achievement for the white kids, but not for everybody else. That's not good enough for me.

Currently, my husband and I live in Broadview with our two daughters. Our older daughter has attended a diverse Catholic school (St. Edmund) since preschool, but it is closing due to low enrollment. So we have been on a school hunt. We wanted a good school — public or private — with a diverse population. Broadview is not as diverse as nearby Oak Park, and we were looking at schools there because of their diversity.

I wanted to find a school that had at least 10 percent black students (to mirror national demographics) and achievement gaps of no more than 10 percentage points by race or 15 percentage points by income. The elementary school we looked at in Oak Park met the demographic requirement, but had wide achievement gaps by both race and income. When I talked with middle-class, well-educated white people — people just like me in all but race — they were unaware this gap existed.

Even worse, historical data showed the gap had been closed at one time, but later re-opened.

Though the numbers were disappointing, the feeling we got from talking to people about the numbers was even worse. I walked away with the sense that there is a presumption that black kids who go to Oak Park schools should feel lucky because they're safe. The thinking seemed to be: They're probably poor, so the issue with their achievement is about economics and not about race.

Meanwhile, my middle-class black friends shared my reservations about too-easy explanations for racial achievement gaps being really about economics. We heard horror stories from folks of color in Oak Park, of all income levels, about tracking, excessive discipline issues for students of color, inadequate services for students with special needs, and lack of almost any black or Latino kids in honors programming in the district.

I didn't get a feeling there was an inward mirror about what's going on to examine teachers' unconscious biases or placement of black students in gifted programs — issues we know are real and contribute to achievement gaps.

When I asked to speak with administrators about their plans to reduce achievement gaps, they were very dismissive of me. When I asked about their training for teachers on issues of race and ethnicity, honestly, they appeared to be offended by the question.

In the end, I just couldn't trust them with my children's education.

For now, we have chosen another Catholic school in a different suburb that has less racial and economic diversity than the Oak Park public schools. Fewer than 10 percent of my daughter's new classmates are children of color. But academically, all the kids are testing on the same level.

My husband and I decided it is better for our kids' racial identity and social relationships to be in a school where everyone is high achieving. Our impression is this school holds the same expectations for academic excellence for all its students.

We will take on the task of teaching black history and culture at home. We will also stay in our majority-black neighborhood and stay engaged so our daughters develop a sense of community there. We would rather do that than let our kids attend a school that supports diversity in theory but not in practice.

I know I am incredibly blessed to know how to access the schools' report cards and set up meetings with administrators to talk about my concerns. We are also able to choose another school if we aren't satisfied with the one we have chosen. It is a blessing to be able to make these decisions for my children.

But I worry for all the other parents who may not have the same time or know-how to make these things happen for their children.

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson currently resides in Broadview with her two school-aged girls and her husband, Brian. This originally ran in 2016 as a blog post.

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Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 12th, 2017 7:18 PM

Jim Frenkel, the cultural narrative that you want to latch onto as the primary reasons for the achievement gap has been heard by any untold number of African Americans at some point in their lifetime, and guess what, a vast majority of African Americans still work towards doing their best in school. So no, I'm not dodging the point, but, it will take more than one or two comments from African Americans as an easy out for you to feel that you've identified the problem. If you truly want to know if in fact African Americans are intentionally sabotaging their promising chance to propel themselves into a brighter future through education because they don't want to feel like a sell out to their heritage I suggest you ask more than two families. That number is too low to hang your hat on and feel that you have unequivocally arrived at the answer. Expand your source pool and report back when you have talked with at least 25-35% of the parents whose children are identified as having gaps in their achievement levels and let us know what you find out, because, clearly as an African American my insight is way out in left field. I'm done with this strand of commentary concerning the achievement gap

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: December 12th, 2017 3:33 PM

@Cassandra is either knowingly or unknowingly using a rhetorical technique called "false equivalency" to try to make a point. Rather than address directly our earlier points that an obstacle to succeeding academically is the cultural narrative that "doing well is selling out/betraying one's race and roots," she says sidesteps that well documented point by saying all kids are teased. Being teased for wearing glasses is a long, long way from being accused of putting down one's culture/history because one tries hard in school. This apples to oranges comparison she makes is the very definition of false equivalency.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 9:02 PM

White privilege? The "gap" between whites and blacks? I think it would be fairer to say "Asian Privilege." Read this: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/1-demographic-trends-and-economic-well-being/. Actually, don't read it - only makes the reader think that this is solely a white/black issue. Do, though, look at the graphs. Notice which racial group is tops? Yeah, it's Asians. Is this due to "Asian Privilege"? Per OP residents, Pew, and most of society.....they only see these matters thru black/white lenses. They shouldn't. How about figuring out what a racial group - with slightly more in poverty than whites (and declining) is doing right. This group barely existed until recently and now they are outdoing whites in earnings and college education graduates (and probably a smaller percentage with "Gender Studies" degrees, too). Why? Is it "can't" or "won't?" No shortage of blacks in the NBA or NFL. They must be doing something right at school and with family support. Am I missing something/a lot? Wouldn't be the first time.

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 4:50 PM

Tommy McCoy, I am African American. It's common for kids in general to tease about glasses. I was just making a point that kids will always experience teasing or peer pressure regardless of what it might be. In terms of comprehension, the way words are grouped together can have a different meaning than intended. Years and years ago, teachers had enough time to try and work with students. I think today's educational curriculum taxes the time of well-meaning teachers. The gap is not the result of one single thing and perhaps the methods that are being used need to be re-visited for effectiveness. If it is not the right method, then the intended result will never be achieved. Akin to this year's flu vaccine only being 10% effective for the flu virus. What is the point of getting a flu shot with such a minute success rate?

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 4:35 PM

I think it's worth considering how middle class, involved parents of color opting to send their children to predominantly white schools, contribute to the gap in integrated schools such as ours. Whether it is parent advocacy, family values related to education or low expectations of educators, absenting high achieving minority students hurts public education writ large. Of course, it is not this family's duty to participate in public education. But when we bemoan charter and private schools for 'taking' our good students, remember who is exercising this school choice.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 3:33 PM

Cassandra Hutchinson, it was very common for White students to tease other White students if they wore glasses. Groups always have a leader that others follow and the followers to find where their level of importance in the group is. It seems that White people feel they need to help the Black's in every situation. White's don't help any other race at the same level so their is inequality on which race gets treated the best

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 3:27 PM

Cassandra Hutchinson, to make sure students are comprehending their studies they are given tests to determine who is getting and and who isn't. As for closing the gap of learning, that has been going on for decades. The gap is caused by less involvement by parent's, and don't act White. If I was going to try and comprehend something and come out with the wrong result, that means I am not learning the lesson. As for trying thinking that showing acceptance is the answer, go by the South West corner of the school and check the mosaic work. Also, check who Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was and I think if you could ask her, she would say study and don't be influenced by other's who don't want to study. Teachers need to recognize when learning becomes a problem for a student and learn how to work with that students inability to learn like others

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 1:29 PM

Kids teased me when I started wearing glasses in 3rd grade. You know what I found out? I found out that the ones that teased me the most, had glasses themselves, but would not wear them. So the lesson is the insecurities of others should never become an obstacle for oneself, because as humans it's easier to ridicule than support. I choose to support.

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 1:16 PM

Jacek Lazarczyk and Jim Frenkel, every group faces peer pressure of some form that may be unique to their community, but that would only be one piece of a larger puzzle with regards to the achievement gap. There is much work and collaboration to be done to reduce the gap.

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 1:08 PM

Alice Wellington - Sorry, here is the remainder of my response. When our children were coming through grade school, we made sure that they showed their work especially when doing math problems for homework. Looking at their work enabled us to understand their thought process for interpreting the lessons of the classroom. It also allowed us to explain the intent of the instructions or to reach out to the teacher if further clarification was needed. Kids think they are grasping the lessons, and don't have enough experience to know that they may have misunderstood the intent of a lesson. The collaboration between the teacher, parent, and student is invaluable at all phases of schooling. We were not unique in our effort, we were just drawing upon our experiences from our learning when we were in school. We always had to show our work or explain our conclusions and no doubt it helped the teachers explain lessons more thoroughly because they saw what their students did and did not understand in the classroom. Again, just one perspective.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 1:06 PM

@Jacek makes a good point. All (or most) of us here in OP want very badly to close the achievement gap and will passionately fight for the removal of obstacles that perpetuate that gap. That said, to solve the problem we must have an honest conversation about what those obstacles are. Particularly in the case of preteens and teens, peer pressure (unfortunately) holds far greater weight than anything we adults do or say. How can we counter the negative pressure that some kids put on others from the same race who are doing something different or excelling in school, particularly if they frame it as "selling out"?

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 1:05 PM

Alice Wellington, the reasons for the achievement are as varied as the individuals represented. I'm not presenting myself as an authority, just providing one perspective from a few experiences. For example, there are many ways to arrive at a result of "4" for a math problem. The slippery slope comes when assumptions are made that everyone is interpreting information in the same manner. I am oversimplifying for the sake of time and space. In this age of teaching, quantity of learning has started to overshadow quality of learning. By that, I mean that the curriculum is burdened with keeping up with the technology advances and bringing them into the classroom at such a pace that there may not be sufficient teaching time in the classroom for foundational learning to be absorbed well enough to support and sustain the progressive learning from one grade to the next. By the time the gap in learning manifests itself no one knows how it occurred. I hope this is making sense. So there is not an inability to learn and thrive, rather there may be a difference in the way of processing the material that is presented. Understanding how individuals process information is one way towards eliminating the achievement gap. As an example, suppose my husband and I hear some information and we both walk away confident that we understand the intent of the information. Upon further discussion we realize we each have a different viewpoint on what we heard, and interestingly enough, each viewpoint is valid based upon our individual thought process. There is no one right way to take in information nor one right way to interpret that information. When our children were coming through grade school, we made sure that they showed their work especially when doing math problems for homework. Looking at their work enabled us to understand their thought process for interpreting the lessons of the classroom. It also allowed us to explain the intent of the instructions or to reach out to the teac

Jacek Lazarczyk  

Posted: December 11th, 2017 12:11 PM

To support Alice's point, I have heard directly from an African American mom (our boys were on the same sport team) about the effort it took to stay the course they set out for themselves. This boy's African American peers ridiculed his participation in the chess club and questioned his choice of playing "white" sport. Somehow getting good grades equaled to betraying his race. Those restrains imposed by the racial group are real and it takes a lot perseverance, strong will, and parental support to shake free of them.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: December 10th, 2017 9:16 PM

Cassandra Hutchinson - these are all valid points, but these struggles are not specific to the black children. Everyone could use more time with a teacher and better explanations in the classroom. As for math, I'm not sure if all Oak Park schools use Eureka, but for those that do, there are video lessons available on YouTube, with teachers explaining modules step-by-step. They are very helpful.

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 10th, 2017 5:10 PM

Alice Wellington ?" There are many variables that can contribute to the achievement gap and the combination of some variables are worse than others. I do not begin to be an expert on the ins and outs of the achievement gap, but I do feel that present day teaching mandates and class sizes as one example, may not properly allow teachers to fully understand the learning styles of each of their students. Some may say that this notion of a teacher knowing his/her students' strengths and weaknesses is impossible to achieve. My reply to that would be that teachers may not be given enough time in a daily schedule to address concerns like this. Another quick example would be that some households have had tutors for their children since entering the school system because they recognize that due to the volume of the lessons children are exposed to in the classroom, they may not have absorbed all of the necessary understanding of the subject to apply it properly. That is not a knock by the way. Another example, some households may not fully understand the style of math that is coming home with their child. We all know math concepts are constantly changing. So in my viewpoint, these are some of the variables that I feel could be factors in the achievement gap. I think along the way the good intentions of having our students be up to speed on technology and other things may have possibly reduced how much time is actually provided on the foundation subjects in the daily schedule. School today seems to be a place for the student to be exposed to a subject and then the home environment is meant to supplement the lessons of the day, and there is no timely feedback to make certain a student is on the right track with understanding the lessons or concepts. The list can go on and on. I give these few examples to illustrate how complex this situation can be to unravel. Each student outcome will be varied as well.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: December 10th, 2017 4:24 PM

Cassandra Hutchinson - so what is your explanation of the achievement gap?

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 10th, 2017 3:57 PM

Alice Wellington, first off your reply to the Oak Park blog post from 2016 was weak and did not fully speak on the concerns of Mrs. Dawson. You used it as an opportunity to make an ill-formed opinion about the African American community and how we shame others in our community for wanting to achieve. Like any other community, haters exist, but they are by no means the largest representation in the African American community. You seem willing to only believe the negatives that you hear even though I am presenting that more positives exist than negatives. Believe what you wish, but please stop making statements as if you have it on good authority of that which you speak concerning the African American community. If you are only interested in the negatives, then sadly you will miss out on the positives. As for me, happily, I get to experience and embrace the positives of many communities, including the African American community.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: December 9th, 2017 8:48 PM

Cassandra Hutchinson - are you really going to deny that the things I described exist in some parts of the black community? Please. This very site recently published an article by a black woman that was shamed and called an "Oreo" in Oak Park school by her black peers.

Cassandra Hutchinson  

Posted: December 9th, 2017 5:12 PM

Alice Wellington, your comments about a fix for the achievement gap is at best abhorrent. I can assure you that those who voted for President Barack Obama, twice, definitely had proud moments that were cast in every corner of their household and circle of influence. His election was basically an 'I told you so" dialogue in African American households. You seem to be using phrases from over 50 years ago. Those phrases are not being voiced today, trust me. By the "your people" wording, I would like to think you mean Americans, but, I highly doubt it base upon your entire comment. Education is of great value; however, some people have been able to do extremely well with less education due to circumstances beyond their control. They persevered and succeeded. Role models for African Americans come from all ethnicities and I would hope that would be the same for any young person today. Alice, it sounds like you want to be an authority on what is holding African Americans back in the Oak Park school system, without having the smallest clue of what it could really be. Being in a diverse community doesn't mean you embrace diversity. Do you even have any African Americans in your social circle? So whatever you are reading, put it down, and start to really connect with other ethnicities to get real firsthand knowledge about others and you will see just how much you are going down the wrong path with your assumptions and comments.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: December 9th, 2017 12:18 PM

Mrs. Dawson, First and foremost, thank you for taking the time and effort to invest in your children's education. Your efforts will pay off exponentially down the road. Unfortunately, you are the exception in the black community. Regarding Oak Park, if black students are being left behind and if black students are being disciplined more often and more harshly than others, why isn't leadership being held accountable? It seems that Oak Parkers at large, are being held responsible for what happens in the day-to-day activities of our school system. Why not the superintendent and principal?

Charity Anne Caldwell  

Posted: December 8th, 2017 9:33 PM

I do not read anything controversial in this opinion piece. The author states widely known facts and sound reasoning to support her decision. I am disappointed that my fellow Oak Parkers who comment here do not seem interested in even hearing about, much less working to address, this issue. We should all be advocating at our schools to teachers and administrators for explicit change (in discipline numbers and in gifted classes alike) It's pervasive: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/04/black-students-teachers-implicit-racial-bias-preschool-study

Alice Wellington  

Posted: December 8th, 2017 9:08 PM

On November 4, 2008, 96% of black people voted for a black man who had to have studied long and hard to graduate from Harvard Law School before he became the President of the United States. How many of those people, or their children, marched straight home and shamed someone for doing well in school, "acting white", being an "Oreo", etc.? If you want to close the achievement gap, start there. Convince people that it is in their best interest, that they can, and should do well in school. After all, which black person would be able to do more for advancement of your people - a high-level official like the President or Attorney General, or some high-school dropout?

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: December 8th, 2017 8:30 PM

The achievement gap is a point of constant debate and discussion. The author makes it sound as if white people don't know it exists, and administrators dismiss the issue out of hand. Living in Oak Park I know that's not the case. See for example: http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/6-6-2017/Young,-gifted-and-mostly-white/.

James Butler  

Posted: December 8th, 2017 7:41 PM

Sounds like you might be have problems with white people. Not the other way around. Oak Park is s great community for diverse schools public or private. I don't agree with anything in this article.

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