By Dan Haley
Looking at the crowd the past two Saturdays at the main library one would have to conclude that Oak Park's jaw-dropping, unparalleled efforts 45 years ago to stop the rapid racial change that had gripped and unhinged Austin — and instead somehow fostered actual racial integration — was nothing more than a lesson in nostalgia.
Old, white and mainly people who had actively crafted and contributed to Oak Park's bold efforts, first at the village government and then the elementary school levels, this was the aging choir of believers and doers who made history. And it is no exaggeration that Oak Park's success in the 1970s was anything short of historic.
So while it was affirming to gather with this group of heroes, the question was finally asked, near the close of the session on how District 97 tackled racial balance issues in the early 1970s, were there any current school board members in the room? Current administrators or principals? Teachers? Parents of today's students?
There was talk on Saturday about Dr. Elsie Harley, D97's first African-American principal, and the role she played over decades. Might be instructive when two of the last three principals to wash out in D97 have been people of color.
It was pointed out Saturday that, 40 years after the junior highs were created and the geographic boundaries of the eight remaining K-6 schools were redrawn to achieve racial diversity, seven of those eight schools — with some very minor boundary tweaks — have perpetually boasted enrollments that racially match up with the entirety of the village. The outlier, as always, is Mann which is less diverse than the village overall owing to higher-priced homes and the small number of apartments in that district.
My point is not to draw correlations between the lack of diversity at Mann and the resignations of the past two principals. I have no notion if there is any correlation.
But I am absolutely clear that while Oak Park's brave initiatives on race were launched in the 1970s, this is not a subject for the history books. This matter of racial integration is a live thing, evolving and morphing in interesting and complex ways. Sure we have a lot to learn from sessions such as Saturday's where three people who were on the absolute front line of decision-making in a very hot moment in this town, came back and shared their perspectives.
But who is taking what we learned — both the successes and the failures — and applying the lessons to this moment? Then as now we have a pronounced gap in achievement between black and white students. The discipline numbers reported last week at OPRF High School show the stubborn disproportion of bad behavior among black students and questions raised about whether the discipline is entirely fair. White, middle-class parents are still more likely to be active advocates for their white, middle-class kids than lower-income, black parents.
We've got work to do. We've made progress. The Collaboration for Early Childhood initiative is every bit as audacious as any taxpayer funded program invented in the 1970s. The two school districts and village government get major credit for this.
But there is a lot to learn from our remarkable history, too. One lesson is to rediscover just how contentious those years were. Large, angry meetings. A good measure of white flight. Inspired leadership from people who, it seems to a degree, surprised themselves at their strength of purpose.
It was a missed opportunity, Saturday, for our current education community leadership.
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