By Ken Trainor
Editor's note: The Oak Park Public Library's series, "Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle," ends Saturday, March 29 with a panel discussion titled, "What Did it Take to Integrate Oak Park Schools?" To provide some background for the discussion, we are revisiting our story on District 97's efforts to balance the minority student population, which ran on Oct. 25, 2000 in our Viewpoints section.
In the fall of 1973, Supt. Kenton Stephens submitted a report on student enrollment that caught the board's attention.
For the first time, they saw major disparities in minority student enrollment. At the time, guidelines issued by the state superintendent's office, stipulated that no school's population should vary from the district average by 15 percentage points one way or the other.
Which is what was happening in a number of local schools, recalled Galen Gockel, former township assessor, Oak Park village trustee, and then a member of the District 97 Board of Education. And the pace of that change was accelerating. By the 1975-76 school year, for instance, Hawthorne School (now Julian Middle School, then a K-8 elementary) had a minority population of 33 percent whereas Mann had only 6 percent.
"In true Oak Park fashion," said Gockel, "we asked for volunteers to serve on a citizens committee." Seventy residents applied.
Gockel and Marilyn Lehman, who later became board president at a critical juncture in the district's history, narrowed the respondents down to 49. They were then charged with the task of making recommendations to the board on how to achieve racial balance throughout the district.
The list included names like Robert Botthof (former OPRF superintendent, president of Fenwick, and pastor at St. Vincent Ferrer Parish), Marion Hogenboom and Arthur Goldman (co-chairs), Alice Lemme Jones (later a village trustee), Gerald Mungerson, Dolores Register, Sherlynn Reid, and Norb Teclaw. Many still live here.
Gockel came up with the non-descript name "Committee for Tomorrow's Schools" to avoid any suggestion of an agenda. They made a real effort, said Lehman, to make the committee as broad-based and representative as possible. John Belletini, a former D97 principal, served as the administrative staff person. Lehman credited Supt. Robert Baldauf, who succeeded Stephens, with providing guidance and having enough credibility with teachers to bring them on board during the process.
The members met from June through December of 1974 and developed no less than 18 widely varying proposals, which were then narrowed to five and presented to the board.
Among the proposals, recalled Gockel, was a plan to pair the schools east and west into sub-school districts. Irving and Lincoln would be coupled, Mann with Hatch, etc. in order to achieve better racial balance. Another proposal would have converted three of the elementary schools into grade 6-8 middle schools with the other seven becoming K-5.
Hanging over all the proceedings was the hot-button issue of busing, which enflamed passionate protests in other parts of the country. One of the proposals, Gockel said, called for voluntary transfer, encouraging white students to go to schools with larger black populations and vice versa. But the committee early on rejected any solution that wasn't mandatory and system-wide.
Relatively late in the process, he said, a plan to convert Emerson (now Brooks Middle School) and Hawthorne (now Julian) into grade 7-8 junior highs was introduced. As we know, that plan prevailed.
But not before plenty of public feedback and community education. The mid-'70s were a tense time and the reorganization proposal produced its share of controversy. The junior-high proposal was accompanied by a plan to redraw the boundaries of all the schools, since the elementary students who had been attending Emerson and Hawthorne would obviously have to go elsewhere.
Lehman noted that busing was added to the proposal as an "accommodation" to those who had to travel to new schools. It had nothing to do with racial balance, but it was such a hot-button issue, many interpreted it that way. Others framed their dissent in terms of preserving the "neighborhood character of the schools."
Change did not come easily back then, said Lehman, who had earlier run into controversy when they tried to provide hot lunches for students at the 10 schools. This was the very beginning of the trend toward working moms, and many residents believed so strongly that the mother's place was in the home that they adamantly opposed offering a lunch program for "latchkey" kids. They feared it would encourage moms to enter the workplace. They had formed a committee to study that issue, Lehman said, which then served as a prototype for the Committee for Tomorrow's Schools.
On Jan. 26, 1976, the board passed the new reorganization plan unanimously, and though there were plenty of protesters on hand, Lehman testified that the majority of the people in the hall that night gave the board a standing ovation.
It wasn't an easy decision, however. Lehman, a lifelong Republican, caught a lot of flak for her support. She not only lost a good number of "friends" but received her share of late-night hate calls and hate mail, including some from members of the KKK. She still has "scars" from that decision, she said, but it wasn't tough to take a stand. She knew then, and still believes, "It was the right thing to do."
Even the Oak Leaves agreed. In a full-page editorial in March of 1975 titled, "We believe in racial balance," they wrote: "We strongly support the elementary school board's efforts to create racial balance within Oak Park's schools. The board is doing the right thing, and it is doing it at the right time."
Despite those efforts, by 2000, D97 faced an even greater disparity in its minority student population, and a number of citizens suggested that the district needed to screw up its courage once again to address the controversial issue of achieving racial balance. That was the impetus behind a village-wide Diversity Task Force process.
The last time the D97 board had broached the subject of redrawing the district boundaries, approximately 10 years earlier, the response was so negative they quickly abandoned the idea.
Lehman and Gockel, at the turn of the millennium, both believed that something should be done but weren't entirely sure if another CTS was the answer. Lehman said the key to success in the '70s was that they had plenty of time. The entire process took two years, and there was plenty of opportunity for public input.
Gockel wasn't sure a new CTS could be as unified as the old one. Back in the early '70s, in spite of all the fears and subsequent controversy, the community was pretty unified, he recalled.
"People knew that the leadership wouldn't tolerate rapid racial change," he said. "They knew the officials were on top of things."
In 2000, he saw much more "Balkanization" in Oak Park. There wasn't the same kind of community consensus that Oak Parkers in the 1970s experienced. "Everyone [then] was against rapid racial change," he said. "That was the common enemy, what happened in Austin. Today there is no common antagonist."
He believed it would be far more difficult to put together a CTS that didn't have hidden agendas. "I shudder to think of the strife," he said, "from zealots with axes to grind."
He suggested an intergovernmental committee might be better able to confront the issue, similar to the Gang and Drug Task Force that came together in the mid-1990s to address at-risk youth, but the members would have to have "impeccable credentials" and include acknowledged community leaders like former village president Larry Christmas and Community Bank chairman Marty Noll as well as representation from the League of Women Voters and local clergy — "people above the fray," he said, "not axe-grinders."
Oak Park is also fighting another insidious force, Gockel said — complacency.
"Back then people didn't think things would stay this way forever," he noted. The newer generations of Oak Parkers, however, seems to believe it will. "That's a dangerous attitude. One day you wake up and it's too late."
Lehman said it wasn't easy facing the issue of racial balance in the mid-'70s, but "when people are called upon to do the right thing, they do it. My experience in the '70s involved substantial consideration and effort on the part of the board, the superintendent, his administration and many citizens who spent a great deal of time, effort and commitment dealing with racial balance and educational balance. In addition to the Committee for Tomorrow's Schools, open hearings were held. Local school, church, and real estate groups provided input to the process.
"We were met with resentment and protests by some elements of the village, as one would expect, but we were encouraged by endorsements from other village citizens. Elected local bodies, state officials, Chicago newspapers and even national institutions endorsed our efforts.
"I believe what was done as a result of this effort has served Oak Park well during the ensuing years, not only encouraging racial balance, but improving the caliber of education within the school system."