Demands for more minority teachers at fever pitch

Local activists increase pressure on D97 and D200 to do something soon

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Oak Park community members, many aligned with roughly a dozen local activist organizations, have come together in a concerted effort, amplifying their demand that public school districts in Oak Park hire more minority teachers.  

At a Feb. 22 meeting of the District 200 school board and a Feb. 27 meeting of the District 97 board, representatives from what activists are calling a Campaign for More Teachers of Color, presented a series of short-term and longer-term goals that they want board members in those districts to implement over the next two academic years. 

The campaign's short-term goals, which activists urged the districts to implement by the start of the 2018-19 school year, were presented to the two boards a few months after Oak Park Call to Action launched a petition demanding more minority hires in Oak Park. The petition has since garnered at least 600 signatures.  

Their goals include developing "ambitious" plans "during the current hiring cycle" to address racial disparities in teacher hiring, granting "immediate priority" to increasing the pool of black teachers in core subjects and implementing "viable action steps" to eliminate "any bias and barriers" that fail to align with the districts' "missions, strategic priorities and needs." 

Longer-term goals, which activists hope will be implemented by August 2019, include steps designed to retain minority teachers and train "all teachers and staff" in ridding themselves of racial bias, among other measures.  

The stakes — based on dozens of public comments made by parents, students, educators, activists and other community members during those two meetings — are high.

One speaker after another, from current grade school and high school students to fully grown former students, described Oak Park's public school districts as places where students can go from kindergarten through high school without having a single teacher of color. 

Makesha Flournoy-Benson, co-president of D97's Diversity Council, said at the Feb. 27 meeting that her 17-year-old daughter "never had a black teacher in her K-5 experience" at D97, while her son, now in college, had just one during that time period — when he was in fifth grade (the following year, the teacher retired, she said). 

By Flournoy-Benson's own admission, the chances that her second-grader, who attends Holmes, will have a black teacher are low. She estimated that her daughter "has a 1 in 15 chance of having a black primary teacher if everything remains the same" at her Oak Park elementary school. 

Cheree Moore, an OPRF graduate, recalled at the Feb. 22 meeting that there were so few black teachers at the high school during her four years there, she doesn't even have to mention popular history teacher Mark Vance by his name when reminiscing about school days with her fellow alumnae. 

"Whenever I meet other alum of OPRF, they'll say, 'Is that black teacher still there?'" Moore said. "I automatically know who they are talking about. There's no question in my mind. That's really sad." 

Flournoy-Benson and other speakers at both board meetings referenced academic studies showing that minority and low-income students are much more likely to stay and succeed in school, graduate, and attend college if they've had at least one minority teacher during elementary school.  

"Research shows that having just one black teacher in K-5 will increase the likelihood that a black boy will stay in school and graduate," Benson-Custard said. "The same black boy is 29 percent more likely to express a desire to pursue a college degree than his friend who has never been taught by a black teacher." 

Mary Bird, a member of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE), an Oak Park organization that addresses equity issues,primarily at OPRF, said during the Feb. 27 D97 board meeting that minority teachers are more likely to hold black and Latino students to higher expectations and refer them to gifted programs. 

Some speakers also described Oak Park schools as places where the small group of minority teachers who are employed are too often found in foreign language courses, such as Spanish or Japanese, and where the dearth of minority teachers has resulted in a void of cultural empathy and understanding in many classrooms. 

One OPRF student said that most of the minority teachers she sees at the high school are in foreign language classes or in the high school's motivational mentoring program, designed to offer additional academic and emotional support for students who are struggling. 

The dearth of minority teachers in core courses, such as history, math, English and science, too often translates into lower expectations, a heightened sense of alienation and, at times, an outright hostile classroom environment for minority students, many speakers said.

One Julian sixth-grader, a Latina, recalled two incidents she experienced in one week earlier this year. 

The first involved comforting an African American friend who came to her crying because he couldn't find comfort from his white teacher after being told by a white classmate that "he didn't want to sit next to him because he is black." 

The second involved watching a video shown in her Spanish class that featured "white boys wearing sombreros and shaking maracas."  

"Do you know how completely unacceptable this is? My [white] teacher was not able to see how this is problematic," she said. "Do you know how disappointing it is to have your culture made fun of in this way?" 

A number of white speakers, students and adults, emphasized that the presence of minority teachers would also benefit white students, in part by opening them up to different cultural perspectives. 

Many of the speakers — who represented roughly a dozen local activist groups, including CEEE, Suburban Unity Alliance, D97's Diversity Council, African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE) and Oak Park Call to Action, among others — lauded the progress made by both school boards within the last few years to hire more minorities.

They praised an upcoming trip to Howard University — among the country's most prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — that D97 and D200 are planning in order to recruit more minority teachers. 

They also recognized that some of their recommendations are currently under consideration by both districts and could be incorporated into a series of comprehensive measures each district is working on, such as D97's equity policy and D200's strategic plan. 

But last month, the activists encouraged the districts to ramp up the work in progress. 

"Expedited action is necessary to address the historic and continuing underrepresentation of teachers of color — which reflect exclusionary patterns and practices and possible bias and barriers," according to a joint statement released by the local groups, "whether by commission or omission." 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included an incorrect name. It is Makesha Flournoy-Benson, Makesha Benson-Custard. Wednesday Journal regrets the error. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

Reader Comments

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Bryan Rekar  

Posted: March 11th, 2018 9:13 PM

This is absolutely absurd. It's not worth 2000 characters here to delegitimize the insanity of vague "community activist groups" being given platforms with the District Board to make demands and dictate hiring practices, throwing qualification-based hiring out the window to meet some pseudo make-believe racist quota. District test scores and achievement levels have suffered enough over the past three decades, for a myriad of reasons, but certainly at the expense of homeowners who with lifelong investments being undermined by liberal agendas. It's really sad, and we see our friends moving to Elmhurst and LaGrange and understand why. Just pathetic.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: March 11th, 2018 8:15 AM

The headline here should read "Oak Park's Obsession with Race Reaches a Fever Pitch". There really isn't a facet of life or business right now in Oak Park that isn't preoccupied with racial identity politics. Self-appointed "community activists" rule and dominate every discussion. Meanwhile, the average village residents simply want to pay commensurate taxes, to have their kids go to quality schools, to realize the value of their homes and to not get jacked while starting up their cars in their own driveways.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 10th, 2018 6:25 PM

Brian: Striving for perfection usually leads to excellence. But perfection - unless you're Nadia Comaneci - is rarely achieved ... which is OK really. Just be the best you can be ... a cliche, I know, but also containing a kernel of truth. And I, and some others here, have a profound disagreement on how that goal is achieved. I was not aware of Shero's quote, but I like it.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 10th, 2018 4:53 PM

@ Bruce Kline: Are excellence and perfection the same. The dreaded Philadelphia Flyers, Broadstreet Bulloies, had an unusual head coach for such a rowdy team, quiet guy,thoughtful, Freddy "the Fog" Shero, who used to leave quotes on the locker room bulletin board. He once stated, " he that steals the gold from my purse steals dust, character, performance and merit can never be stolen from you"

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 10th, 2018 3:23 PM

Because Paul when your world view is based solely upon identity and victimhood ?" as it is here in Oak Park ?" rather than excellence and merit, that is what you get. That is why in my previous post I cited Dean Marion Mann MD as the bravest person I ever met. For in much more divisive and dangerous times, he stood up and demanded excellence. He stood up and said merit will be the sole criterion for advancement in the medical school. He stood up when he said there is no black and white in medicine ?" only merit and excellence. Whether black or white, we all bleed when cut. And that blood is always red. Dr. Mann took a lot of heat back then for his stand ?" but in the end, when he stepped down, years later, the medical school was a much stronger and respected institution.

Paul Cagnina  

Posted: March 10th, 2018 12:46 PM

I'm not sure why we don't hear: " DEMAND FOR MORE "QUALIFIED" TEACHERS AT FEVERS PITCH". As long as the teachers are the "BEST", why would anyone care about race or religion? I think we need more short Italian teachers, how about that for ridiculous?

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 10:23 PM

Kevin you make a great point in regard to the hiring of African American teachers. These hiring practices walk a fine line between illegal race based quotas and the perfectly legal strategy of "affirmative action." These issues have been playing out for years, in private employ as well as in our universities (https://www.oyez.org/cases/1979/76-811). It is clear, that while race based quotas are absolutely illegal (according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964), race can be used as one factor ?" of many - for hiring or for that matter admission to a university. The case you site (https://www.oyez.org/cases/1985/84-1340) in no way nullifies "affirmative action." Obviously though what is and is not appropriate affirmative action ?" and whether "affirmative action" even survives as a legal strategy to right the wrongs of the past - continues to play out in the courts. So I agree, this could be tricky. And as you suggest might well lead to legal challenges if not tailored meticulously. As far as your statement in regard to quality of scholarship at the traditional black universities, I can only speak to my experience at Howard University Medical School some odd 45 years ago. The greatest doctor I ever met ?" even now 45 years later ?" remains the great surgeon LaSalle D. Leffall. The bravest man I ever met remains the former Dean of Howard University Medical School: Marion Mann. And the smartest man I ever met, even to this day, remains the former Professor of Anatomy and Physical Anthropology at Howard, W. Montague Cobb.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 6:17 PM

Several generations ago, Howard University might have attracted the best Black students, because of discrimination, or the need to feel at home. Today, the best Black students can get into the best Ivy League schools,, and top-of-the-line State universities. "Historically Black" Universities", with the possible exception of Howard, are the worst places to go to recruit Black students who are confident, and want to lead. Furthermore, OPRFHS tends to recruit experienced teachers, at about the Master's level with five or six years of experience --which is why we have the highest retention rate of teachers from year-to-year of any district I've seen, as measured by the State Report Cards. We should be recruiting experienced Black teachers. The Federal statistics on the burnout rate of teachers in their first five years are astounding, Teaching either does no't like them, or they don't like teaching. Get realistic on this and hire people who will stick. Furthermore, check with your lawyers, so that you are NOT involved in discriminatory hiring. OPRF had a policy over 20 years ago that gave racial preferences in layoffs. A similar policy was ruled unconstitutional in the Wygant case (involving Jackson, MI) by the U.S. Supreme Court, and OPRF dropped its policy. Has anybody thought this through, or is it another feel good proposal?

Jay Ranz  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 4:38 PM

Oh yeah. I totally forgot about "the Asians". You guys are on the right track. Forget I said anything.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 3:40 PM

@ Jay - I thought our community was supposed to be better than that. What difference does skin color make? If OPRF High School hires the best damn physics teacher on the face of the earth and she happens to be an Asian/ Scandinavian transsexual - who cares? If she can pump more physical science knowledge and inquiry into my kids head, that is the only thing that matters. Perhaps the communities of color should help get their best and brightest children off the corner and into education. The Asians seem to be making that plan work. Here we are talking about skin color, rather than what is best for our children.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 3:37 PM

@ Neal Buer: Bravo to you and your comment.

Jay Ranz  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 1:05 PM

I guess I'm confused about why there's even a debate here about this. Who does it possibly hurt or offend to ask that we see more teachers of color in our schools? What's going to happen? Does the local economy suddenly collapse? Does blood rain from the sky? Frog? Locust? It's a not a big ask and not a single person suffers.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 9:02 AM

"Research shows that having just one black teacher in K-5 will increase the likelihood that a black boy will stay in school and graduate," Benson-Custard said. "The same black boy is 29 percent more likely to express a desire to pursue a college degree than his friend who has never been taught by a black teacher." According to this research, the students in the Chicago Schools shoud be doing quite well, but they are not.

Mak Flournoy from Oak Park  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 8:24 AM

Jeff, I shouldn't assume that your children are white but let's pretend for a moment that they are... Your children had a wonderful opportunity to be enriched by having someone who is culturally and experientially different than they are. Enrichment by a teacher of color, who automatically comes with a profoundly different lens than you, your children, or other white teachers do, support all children's learning. Teachers of color, and research supports that black teachers in particular, see so much more in black children than some white teachers innately can. Black teachers more often cheerlead around a black child's full potential, they more often challenge them and their peers because they believe in them and hardly start the relationship with a set of biases that discards a child' ability to learn. So, in this use case (again, assuming that your children are white), not only did your kids receive benefit, but black kids do better when they are taught by someone that they can see in themselves. When we all do better, we all do better... We have wonderful white teachers in Oak Park who cheerlead and work tirelessly, and believe in student achievement...but ?" we also need MORE teachers of color so that all children benefit

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 5:44 PM

Our children attended Beye, Julian and OPRF. Every single one of them had an African American teacher at each of the three schools. I do know that a couple of the teachers have retired, so maybe there is less teacher diversity today than there was a decade ago. It is too bad that this has not been the case for students at certain Oak Park schools.

Jay Ranz  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 5:24 PM

Trying to remember the last time I saw the word "blacks" used this many times in a row...

Ray Simpson  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 3:31 PM

@Kevin - My supposition was a percent of total population not of degrees granted. It was a guess and only that.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 2:37 PM

The Table I quoted is actually 322.30. The other table refers to females only. The Digest of Educational Statistics is at the Library, and online.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 2:27 PM

With regard to the suggestion by another person that Blacks are more likely to choose education as a major than whites (I contend otherwise), here is my source based on degrees granted: Table 322.50 of the Digest of Educational Statistics (2017, US Dept of Ed) for FY 2016. Blacks choose Education as a major a little over 3% of the time, and whites a bit over 5%. People, actually do some research before you sound off. The info is out there, if you spend the time to look for it, after asking the right questions. The sources I've mentioned can be easily Googled.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 1:55 PM

Folks, let's get realistic, and look at some actual data. Blacks are only 6.8% of the teacher force (K-12) in the US (Table 209.10 of the Digest of Educational Statistics (2016), for the most recently available year, FY2012). There simply aren't enough Black teachers to go around to match the percentage of Black students. That can't be changed quickly. More Blacks have to go to college, and enroll in Education. But Blacks do not go to college at the same rate as whites, and they are less likely to choose Education as a major. In Illinois, the Chicago Public Schools tends to suck the pool of Black teaching talent dry, just due to its size. This is like trying to get prize seats at a Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals game. There is too much demand, and not enough supply. Face the reality. Look at data from the "Illinois State Report Cards", the "Digest of Educational Statistics". "Projections of Educational Statistics" (from the US Dept. of Ed, which includes history and the like). Base this discussion on facts grounded in reality, not wishes.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 12:19 PM

@ Brian - interesting thought! What percent of the black population goes into teaching? I bet it is a higher percentage than white teachers out of the white population. Also, real bright enthused black college graduates are in demand in industry at higher pay and a whole lot less stress.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 12:03 PM

Helicopter demanding parents, every child is exceptional, an administration that would rather air condition the administration building and an under funded pension plan. Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the question the board should be asking is why don't minority teachers want to work in the Oak Park educational system?

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 7:34 AM

Why dont we just have the exact same amount of White, Black, Asain, HIspanic teachers at every school so everyone is happy? Regardless of their qualifications? Demand, Demand, Demand.....

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 6th, 2018 6:42 PM

I would like to think skin color has nothing to do with hiring, but if the parents of minorities want more minority teachers fine. Give them that. It is their school too and why not. The idea mentioned here in the WJ that quality black teachers are somehow so rare and impossible to find that the school has to go all the way to DC (Howard) to find them is pretty crazy, there are lots of quality black teachers right here in Chicago. Not that rare. How about reaching out to former black OPRF students who are now teachers and recruit them to come back here and teach.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: March 6th, 2018 3:57 PM

Several years ago, while shopping at our local Jewel, I bumped into my son's retired 4th grade teacher. She was inquiring about my 2 kids and during the chat I mentioned my daughters favorite teacher. Miss Childress (Mrs Adams) was the one teacher who saw her artistic talent and always asked where in the world Lisa was and how she was doing. The retired teacher said "You know, she was our first negro teacher" and I replied "I will bet that not one child noticed" SHOOT FOR THE BEST all of this hand wringing just hamstring the students. Reading writing and math computations are unrelated to "Life Experiences"

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: March 6th, 2018 2:34 PM

Schools should hire the best teachers, regardless of race, creed, or gender.

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