Uncomfortable truths at OPRF

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

'America to Me," the documentary on race and equity at Oak Park and River Forest High School is underway. The first of 10 episodes played Sunday night on the Starz cable channel.

And now the discussion begins.

It was a major topic at our dinner table Monday night as our OPRF graduate offered up her take on how the documentary resonated for her, along with a batch of distinct observations about people she knew in the doc, remembrances of how she felt as she made her bumpy way through the school.

On page one today, Michael Romain, our education reporter and an OPRF grad, offers the first of what will be his weekly take on the series.

In conversation and on social media among recent and not-recent graduates and regulars at the school, there is a lot of shared head nodding about the ways classrooms are numbered, surprise that after all these years the tile in the hallways is not recognizable, and assorted other surface peculiarities of life at 201 N. Scoville.

 And then there is divergence: Over race. Over equity, whatever that is, some seem to wonder. 

For many, among all races, there is instant recognition of how real and true are the stories told about these young black students, their families, their experience at OPRF. Uncomfortable recognition of what we have overlooked, of unearned patience we have granted ourselves and this school in not confronting what is unfair, unequal, unkind.

But there is, early on in this series, the counter-reaction, the full throated defense of OPRF, the bootstrap theories, the "why aren't you grateful for the opportunities we have given you" tone in some comments.

All this played out over the weekend and into Monday on a pleasant Facebook page called "Growing Up in Oak Park." This is a self-declared safe space where the conversations are of how great Petersen's Ice Cream used to be, do you remember Gilmore's Department Store at Lake and Oak Park, and how OPRF was near perfect in the 1950s and the 1960s and even into the 1970s. 

It is a gauzy world view, assuring and maybe harmless, until it is confronted, as it was these past days by people who wanted to test out their takes on America to Me in this protected place. Following from the outside, and as publisher of a newspaper with a web comment board that more often infuriates than inspires dialogue, it has been a bumpy 48 hours for the moderator of Growing Up in Oak Park. 

Discussions of the documentary series were blocked, and then shunted onto a side lane within the site. Someone tried to explain that comments had become "abrasive." Seems you can argue about whether peppermint or pistachio was Petersen's best flavor without being "abrasive," but, not surprisingly, talking about race and the true lives of some of our kids at our high school causes angina among a group of us.

Here's my challenge to you: Keep watching. With your heart and your mind open. Don't speak out unless you've watched. It's like the admonition to non-voters who crab about the state of our democracy. You're not entitled unless you watch, unless you vote.

If, like me, you're white, embrace the discomfort. It's good for us. 

Join the America to Me watch parties at the high school where 700 people turned out Sunday for this shared experience. Turn out at Live Café for the discussions. 

Listen more than you speak.

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

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Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 6th, 2018 1:28 PM

To give my comments even more context, the high school in which I worked is located in the Near West side (West Humboldt Park/Austin area.) Since it was a public (nonselective school), we were open to all. Unfortunately, the elementary schools that feed into our school continued to graduate students who frankly weren't ready for the rigors of high school, much less one that aspired to high standards re. graduation and college acceptance rates.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 6th, 2018 1:19 PM

@MartyBracco makes some very relevant points that absolutely need to be addressed if we are to truly understand, which is required to fix, the achievement gap. He observes specifically "What never gets addressed, in any way, is what percentage of those students in the gap spent their K-8 years in D97 or D90 schools? What % entered D97 or D90 in middle schools, etc.? " Why is this important, you may ask? I used to work in the CPS system at the high school level and saw why firsthand. We would regularly receive freshmen (9th grade) from certain feeder schools who would arrive with test scores putting them at a 3rd grade proficiency (sadly.) The herculean task for the teachers would then not only to get them up to grade level in the next four years, but improving at a rate equal to their peers who arrived reading at grade level (or better.) This meant to graduate at a senior (12 grade) proficiency, these students would need to jump 9 grade levels during their 4 years at our high school! Hopefully this illustrates why @Marty's and @Drew's points about being at the starting points upon entry to OPRF are SO very relevant and MUST be explored, if we are truly to understand and develop solutions to CLOSE the gap.

Nick Polido  

Posted: September 6th, 2018 12:03 PM

I believe part of the gap issue is we don't have a basis for evaluating them, we don't even know where some of these students come from as Principal Rouse pointed out: http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/4-24-2018/Questionable-residency-cases-rising-at-OPRF/ In his report, Rouse explained that "it's almost impossible" for the district to know the schools those students were registered in when they were trying to enroll at OPRF.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: September 6th, 2018 10:32 AM

@Alex Do you have an opinion as to why the achievement gap exists between black and white students (which is measurable), or not even on your radar?

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 6th, 2018 9:01 AM

Seems to me that elitism is the most widely accepted form of discrimination. At private schools big donors have a seat at the table that is less secure than in a public institution. I sincerely doubt a private parochial school would let cameras in unless they were to heavily edit the final content. Turning back to the James documentary series, the children from two parent families seem to be doing the best thus far. I cannot understand why the parent who was expelled from OPRF would want to send her own child there.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: September 5th, 2018 5:44 PM

Alex Garcia, your comment seems ignorant at best of who I am. A Navy vet like McCain, though that's about all I'm like him. Throughout the years, despite the many times I disagreed with him politically, I had nothing but respect for him as a person, and I've always valued his policy insights. Go find something you know something about.

Marty Bracco  

Posted: September 5th, 2018 1:48 PM

@BrianSlowiak, if your question to me is "does Fenwick have an achievement gap" in the same manner as OPRF, in my opinion the answer is no, due primarily to the selective nature of it's enrollment (as Mr. Rein mentioned). You have a student population that enters Fenwick well prepared for its rigors. Minority students, from what I've heard (my daughter is class of 2012), perform at roughly the same levels as the whole of the student body. The ethnic breakdown at Fenwick matches or exceeds slightly the US as a whole. (when my daughter was there, it was 15+% AA, 22% hispanic, 63% white). If your question is "does Fenwick have a discrimination problem", that's harder for me to answer as I'm not there every day. Based on my knowledge of it's value system I'd like to say "no", however I realize that reality and the daily life of teenagers can be very different. From my daughter's experience, she was on sports teams and service clubs with minority students. She never mentioned, nor did I ever observe, discriminatory behavior, though again, it's a small sample size. Mr. Rein's comment regarding offspring of wealthy parents or star athletes could be applied to every HS, public or private. (Mr. Rein never indicated whether or not he is a minority, so I can't tell if his comments speak to his personal experience of discrimination or his perception) As one who worked in the cafeteria for free lunch and $50 off tuition (a 10% discount, huge for me at the time), I can attest that it was in no way an "awful thing to do to kids". It reinforced the value of work, while showing vividly what I didn't want to spend my like doing. That's a valuable part of education in my view, almost as valuable as the coursework.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: September 5th, 2018 8:11 AM

@Bill Dwyer Your admiration of John McCain seems disingenuous at best. I'm guessing that you were casting considerable shade over him and his accomplishments when he ran against Obama. Back to the topic at hand... I've heard no constructive suggestions here, in this faux "documentary", or anywhere else in the OPRF community about how to bridge this much-hyped achievement gap between white and black students there. Hardly a "conversation". For those wringing their hands, what do you want to bridge that gap? More money? Additional black liberation theology classes masquerading as English classes? Rigorous prosecution against every conceivable microaggression at the high school? No, I'm sensing that you're probably content with simply watching the same staged melodrama every day: black OPRF students cast as the victims; white students and faculty cast as the fumbling neo-liberals (at best) or the frothing racists (at worst); and everyone else (Asian, Latino, mixed race) cast as incidental bit players. You don't want to solve any actual problems. It's amplifying the differences that matter to you.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 10:14 PM

You never cease to amaze me Brian. John McCain went on to Navy flight school because he graduated from ANNAPOLIS. First or last, he graduated from one of our elite military academies. Why have you seen fit to disparage hero to make a point? You didn't, I didn't, and nobody you or I know ever endured anything remotely like McCain did for 5 1/2 horrendous years as a prisoner of war. This is below you.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 9:47 PM

@ Drew Rein: Do African American students feel they are discriminated against or are they discriminated against, harsher punishment.etc. Isiah Thomas attended St. Joes, I think, and I wonder if he had cafeteria duty. You would think that the Catholic act of humility would move well off students to help their fellow students. Interesting you say the classes are more diverse at Fenwick. Economics and winning play an unjust role, just ask how John McCain graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis, but still managed to attend flight school, I wish I had the clout for my kids. Do you think this study should compare schools?

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 4:27 PM

@BrianSlowiak As an alum, I can tell you that African Americans definitely feel discriminated against at Fenwick. However economics and winning are the driving forces at Fenwick. If your parent is a big donor to the school or if you are a noted athlete your four years there is pretty much golden. If you are a scholarship recipient everybody knows it because you get cafeteria duty which means cleaning up after the non-scholarship students. It is supposed to be character building. I think is is an awful thing to do to kids. The biggest difference academically is that you have to test in to the school so no one is entering the school drastically behind their peers because they have been failed by their previous schools and/or parents. There is likely a greater range of diversity in the classes as compared to OPRF because of this. Fenwick certainly does more with a lot less in dollars per student. I never understood the supposed rivalry because most students hail from the further western suburbs and OPRF is not on their radar. Students at OPRF seem to feel quite differently.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 3:25 PM

@ Marty Bracco: In your opinion, does or does not Fenwick High School have this same issue?

Marty Bracco  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 10:49 AM

I'm a lifelong OP resident (Fenwick '76), and recent OPRF alumni parent. I watched the first episode with interest, and look forward to watching the rest of the series. While watching episode 1, and after, one point nags at me, as it has for years. We've been discussing the achievement gap at OPRF for as long as I've been a homeowner here (25+ years). Since we can measure the gap, I'm assuming the D200 admin and board know the identities and history of those students who've fallen into the gap. What never gets addressed, in any way, is what percentage of those students in the gap spent their K-8 years in D97 or D90 schools? What % entered D97 or D90 in middle schools, etc.? Common sense tells me that by the time students get to OPRF, habits and skills developed previously make bridging the gap by the time they graduate very, very difficult. (I won't say impossible, because I believe we should continue trying to bridge the gap). My point is we should be focused like a laser on the controllables here, which are the students from D97 & 90 who potentially will be "gap" kids when they get to OPRF. What about the "gap" kids who come to OPRF from other areas, either after K-8 elsewhere or sometime during grade school? Keep trying to help, but logic tells me it will be extraordinarily hard to bridge the gap at that point.

PJ Atlas  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 7:59 AM

@Bill Dwyer - Maybe get your blood sugar checked.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 9:49 PM

I may not agree with Mr. James, but I 100% support his right to make any film he desires. With that, what is the solution to the disparity? When I look at illinoisreportcard.com, black students score less than half of their white counterparts on the PSAE. It seems the movie and most discussions on here put the responsibility squarely on the faculty and leadership of OPRF. There has to be more to it than that.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 6:09 PM

Point. Missed.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 4:14 PM

Spare me "Kline Maureen." I never said Black film makers didn't care. And I'm genuinely sick and tired of the sort of dreck I read from people like PJ Atlas. Steve James wasn't a known quantity when he decided to film and produce Hoop Dreams years ago. He had a vision and he acted on it. If it's such an "injustice" to have white folk involved in producing such truly important works as "America to Me" (and as Bridgett Baron points out, African Americans and people of other races were involved) then people- Black or white- should stop bitching about it and do something as compelling as James has done. There are so many serious challenges facing this society in general and people of color specifically, many some life and death- that complaining about a white dude making a film about racial issues at a high school like OPRF seems to me utterly petty in light of all that. Oh... and no, I'm not in the documentary film community. Good catch.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 3:48 PM

Seriously Bill Dwyer, how do you know who is trying or has tried to get any type of film off the ground. Are you well-known in the indie and documentary film community so that these folks are always coming to you pitching their concepts hoping you'll invest in their vision? I'm really curious how you know so much about this that you can categorically state that Steve James is the first and only person to care about these issues to try to do something like this.

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 12:19 PM

Steve James is not the only person involved in the making of this documentary. He's the main guy, using his clout as an accomplished and renowned documentarian, and as a member of this community who was able to get the School Board to agree. But this is not one man's vision. There is a slew of people who are behind this project, which was thoughtfully assembled to include of diverse backgrounds including along race and gender lines. As an example, of the four segment directors, one is African American, one is Asian American, one is a woman, and one is a white guy (James). Here a link for more info... https://kartemquin.com/films/america-to-me/filmmakers

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 12:01 PM

Your argument is as tired as you accuse other's attitudes of being, PJ. I haven't seen Black film makers tripping over each other to tell the stories Steve James cared enough about to spent the time and money and effort to make. If Blacks care as much as you say they do, why are none making the same effort as this white guy you are inherently criticizing? And really, spare me the crap about his daughter being "tucked away" in honors class as if that was just handed to her. Pretty sure she earned it. Just like Barack Obama earned his appointment as president of the Harvard Law Review. Or was he too just "tucked away"?

PJ Atlas  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 7:40 AM

@ BillDwyer There is a structural problem in the entertainment industry when black directors/producers are not given the opportunity to portray their own experiences. James' own daughter was tucked away in the high level classes during her tenure at OPRF which I find hypocritical. Is James "woke" now that his kids are graduated? Very convenient. Calling it as I see it.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: September 2nd, 2018 8:48 PM

Why is it "deeply unjust" when a concerned white person takes a year and 3,300 hours of film to tell a story that involves Black folks? Maybe it won't be told like a Black director would, certainly. But unjust?

PJ Atlas  

Posted: September 2nd, 2018 12:40 PM

I am watching but am unsure if this is really Steve James' story to tell. It seems to me that a white man who had a child graduate OPRF as a valedictorian won't really get it. As long as we live in a society where blacks see a fraction of the opportunities afforded to white people, it will continue to be deeply unjust when whites tell stories better suited to be told from the perspective of black producers/directors.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 3:44 PM

One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is that it actually does send a wake up call to all the liberals in OP myself included. Here we live in a very liberal community that professes to be so diverse and support everyone and yet we aren't. There's a whole lot of NIMBY here. The attitude is "I am happy to help as long as it really doesn't impact me very much". This isn't everyone to be clear but it's a lot of people. As much as the right leaning folks here don't like this documentary I can tell you plenty of people on the left don't like it either. It cuts to the core of our community and what it really means to support each other. This has nothing to do with money. There's enough money. It's about a willingness to do things differently and being open to these issues so they can at least be discussed.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 1:46 PM

Nick, very well educated comment. Thank you

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 11:20 AM

@Nick, I see your point but just look at the posts from Barbara and Rob. They really make compelling educated arguments don't they? It really only takes an hour of watching watch Fox to see that they are focused on a single demographic. Fox News viewership is 94% white and the median age is 65 years old.

Nick Polido  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 8:22 AM

I can't watch CNN, MSNBC or Fox, I find these three stations to be polarizing . That said, I would not be so bold to characterize all Fox viewers to be angry white people horrified by whats going on in their world and to infer they don't have the ability to educate themselves.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 7:42 AM

There are the people on here that comment all the time about how terrible everything in OP is and yet these people stil live here for some reason. I really couldn't imagine living in a community where I thought everything sucks as was said below about the HS. The good news is that the 7 people on this site that are always complaining about everything are a very small minority. Go back to watching Fox News and continue to be angry about all the horrible things happening to white people these days. The rest of us will at least try to educate ourselves on what's going on in our community.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 6:12 AM

Barbara Joan, you hit it right on the head ! Thank you !! Jason, I would not waste my time watching this,

Barbara Joan  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 9:10 PM

OPRF just plain sucks and always has. The constant talk about racism is crap and one of the reasons why OPRF sucks so much. You are all dismissed so you can continue with your phony social justice virtue gesturing.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 5:32 PM

Mayonnaise white supremacy is alive and sneering in Oak Park, at least in these comments.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 4:35 PM

Oh, lawdie-lawdie, Alex boy. . Ya' done gone tumbling' down the rabbit hole again. The person who "decided that exacerbation of racial divisions and accentuating racial characteristics and strife is the ticket to public office" is sitting in the White House at the moment. You're projecting again.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 4:09 PM

"If, like me, you're white, embrace the discomfort." Stop beating yourself up, Dan. I'm not European/Caucasian and I don't dislike you hold some type of grudge against you because you are. At some point, leftists decided that exacerbation of racial divisions and accentuating racial characteristics and strife is the ticket to public office and a "social justice" salary in OP and beyond. Maybe that will work for them, but the rest of us suffer from their greed in that regard.

Haney Ned  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 3:47 PM

I don't believe that this documentary is about making people comfortable or uncomfortable. I saw it as children providing their honest perspectives in real life situations. High School is their world. If there are changes that can be made or additional support that can be provided that will have positive impact on the children at OPRF, then this is a great trigger for those events. Don't let your own assumptions and judgements get in the way of listening to these children.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 2:17 PM

@Rob, why don't you actually watch the documentary. You might actual learn something.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 2:04 PM

The quote was "If, like me, you're white, embrace the discomfort. It's good for us. " How is that good for us? I have nothing to feel uncomfortable about. Who is stopping people from achieving more??

Brian Bobek  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 4:13 PM

The documentary is about the long-standing achievement gap between white and non-white students. The documentary is not about feeling uncomfortable.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 2:03 PM

So there are absolutely no white students, their families, that have an experience at OPRF? No White students / families have been treated unfair, unequal, unkind ? Should all White people be uncomfortable??

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