By Terry Dean
An Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher has won a Fulbright scholarship award and is planning to use her time abroad studying how another culture is addressing their academic achievement gap.
Jessica Stovall, a 7-year OPRF instructor, applied for the federal program in December. She learned last month that she was one among 43 recipients. Established in 1946 and funded by Congress, the grant, named after Arkansas senator William J. Fulbright, allows individuals to study abroad in their respective fields.
Stovall, who turns 30 next week, plans to spend next fall in New Zealand.
OPRF has long struggled to significantly close its academic, as well as discipline, gaps between black and white students but with little success. Stovall said she's tried to come up with creative ways to connect with her students to address the problem. That includes learning more about her students' cultures.
She plans to work with students and teachers of New Zealand's Maori people and had already researched that group before applying for the Fulbright.
Descended from Polynesian settlers in the country, the Maori developed their own unique culture, customs and language over the centuries. They represent roughly 15 percent of New Zealand's total population of more than 4.2 million people.
Stovall said the achievement gap among the Maori is even wider than here in the U.S. Maori student GPAs, graduation rates and test scores are lower than other ethnic students. There's also a significant disparity in their schools' discipline systems between Maori kids and other students.
But the New Zealand government, Stovall said, has addressed the issue by trying to integrate more of the Maori culture into the schools. She wants to learn more about how they're doing that and bring those ideas back to OPRF.
Respecting and acknowledging students' identities, Stovall stressed, is an important part of educating them. And that, she said, starts with the teachers themselves.
"I have to really understand the background and culture they come from. If I only teach the way I was taught, I'm not going to be able to hold them up and empower them. We've got to relate to them," Stovall said
While in New Zealand, she'll take classes at a university, as required by the Fulbright award. Stovall hopes to develop a plan from that experience that can be implemented at OPRF.
She'll spend all of next fall in the country before returning to the states in spring 2015, then take a sabbatical. Stovall is also a track coach at OPRF but plans to coach the kids next spring during her sabbatical.
The Wisconsin native comes from a teaching background. Her father is a college professor in Wisconsin and her mother is a third-grade teacher. The oldest of three siblings — she has two younger brothers — Stovall said education is "in my blood."
As a multiethnic child herself, Stovall recalled facing racism growing up in New Richmond, a small town in northwest Wisconsin.
"School was my sanctuary, but it was also a place of fear because I was different than the other kids." Her father is black and mother white, she said.
She nonetheless loved school and learning and wants to spark the same feeling in her students.
"I knew I would teach because I loved learning. I never had a classroom community and I always wanted that. I want that for my students."
Answer Book 2018
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