D97 does not fear open, honest discussion of race in our schools

Opinion

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Since the beginning of this school year, we have both been involved in the Critical Issues Process at Oliver Wendell Holmes School. As this process, a collaboration between consultants with Intelivate, Inc. and the Holmes School Leadership Team (SLT), has moved forward, we have seen some remarkable examples of open and honest discussion about race, societal issues, and about how the teachers, administrators and parents sitting together at those meetings could better work toward achieving the very finest education for every Holmes School student.

So it was with some concern and surprise that we recently began to hear that there could possibly exist some fear of discussion of race in some of our schools, and even that racial issues might somehow be undermining some students' education. We would like to share that our experience during the last six months has shown that honest, open discussion is not only possible but is actively encouraged within District 97.

As part of the Holmes SLT efforts, no fewer than seven lengthy discussions on race have taken place during that period. Four were during School Leadership Team trainings and involved facilitated sharing of perspectives between all of the SLT participants. These talks were unique, enlightening, and most often exhilarating.

The three other meetings were publicized and were open to the public. The most recent, and most successful one, occurred on March 3. Holmes Principal Laurel Muhammad hosted the first in a series of her "Community Conversations" on the topic of diversity and race. Childcare and food were available, and more than 40 parents, teachers, administrators, and school board candidates attended.

For more than two hours, Principal Muhammad moderated a discussion using questions that had been previously submitted by Holmes parents. Participants took the risk to communicate openly and honestly. There were many emotional moments as different perspectives were shared. The level of mutual respect and the genuine willingness of all of those present to listen to what each speaker had to say were remarkable. Many of the participants spoke at length of matters that were of grave significance to them, and the evening's spirit of conciliation and healing served to make everyone's contributions measurably more meaningful.

There is therefore ample precedent for open discussions on topics of race and racism, without fear, without being silently hurt or even stilled by unspoken obstacles. We are encouraged that parents, teachers, administrators and staff continue to be committed to embracing discussion of issues that require us all to put our minds and hearts together for the betterment of our schools and the academic success of our students. We feel strongly that what is happening at Holmes, if it is not happening elsewhere in the district, can easily occur utilizing the model we have created.

We believe in our schools and in our community and that both are fully capable of tackling these difficult but important issues. We hope that those who claim that such discussions are not possible would take another look and join us?#34;and others?#34;that are meeting these challenges head-on. We have found that with a willingness to move beyond our differences and to seek common ground, we can overcome what some might feel are insurmountable obstacles. But that is what makes Oak Park what it is: We are people that have deliberately chosen to come together to make real a dream.

After almost half a decade, we still pursue in Oak Park a vision of persons of disparate race, ethnicity and income living together peacefully, so that our children may benefit from our village's unique humanity. We must not forget these truths. We must not get sidetracked. We must continue to persevere, for when we look at our joyful children of diverse backgrounds playing together on the nearest school playground, we know that our dream of diversity can still be made real.

Michelle Harton and Bob Walsh
Oak Park Elementary School District 97
Board of Education members

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