The minority of a minority

Two black valedictorians at OPRF this year, but achievement gap still looms

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By DIANA OLESZCZUK

For the first time in more than 10 years, this year's OPRF valedictorians included two African-American students: Louisa Shannon and Sean Mitchell.

Louisa Shannon, a history buff and active member of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) at OPRF, will enter the University of Chicago this fall.

Post-Civil War history holds special appeal for her because "there's more about African-Americans during that periodâ€"the transitions from slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation."

"I've never seen anybody more universally respected," raved her history teacher, Jessica Young. "She's going to do great." Shannon is standoutâ€"smart, talented and kind, Young said.

Meanwhile, Harvard University is the destination for Sean Mitchell, a star water polo player and football quarterback. It's a flip between chemistry and history for his favorite subject, and he brings a bit of his competitive athletic nature into his studies.

"I'm pretty competitive so I've always taken school pretty seriously," he said. "The feeling of competition, there's nothing like it."

"He is one of the most phenomenal young men that I've met in a while. He has a work ethic and dedication to learning that is just phenomenal," said Michelle Harton of the District 97 school board, who knows Mitchell through his work with younger kids at the Math Academy.

Paging through old copies of Wednesday Journal dating back to 1991 and copies of Trapeze going back to 1986, it's evident that black valedictorians are scarce. In recent memory, only one black woman in 1994 made the elite list, although many black students received scholarships or other achievement awards. Yet, black students make up about one-quarter of the OPRF population.

The scarcity of black valedictorians combined with the single-digit numbers of OPRF black students that exceed state standards are further evidence of the racial achievement gap in Oak Park.

On national tests, there's an achievement gap of about 40 percentage points (see sidebar) between black students and white students. There's a similar gap between GPAs; according to OPRF statistician Carl Spight, white students at OPRF have an average GPA of about 3.3 while black students average a 2.3.

"I don't think there are any simple answers. We can talk about socioeconomics, family situations, teacher experiences, school experiencesâ€"all of those play a role in the gap," said Jason Edgecombe, an OPRF administrator and faculty advisor for MSAN, which focuses on fixing the minority achievement gap in 21 schools across the country.

Inspiring younger kids

High-achieving minority students like Shannon and Mitchell impact their peers, especially the younger ones.

"These students have a success story to share," Harton said. "It's much easier to have someone tell you the alphabet for the first time than to just look at these letters and figure them out. It helps to have a road map and role models for kids at all stages of academic affairs."

Lynn Allen, the director of multicultural education for Dist. 97, said that black students have a dual challenge: establish both a social and school identity.

Students like Louisa and Sean show younger kids that it's possible to strike a balance, she said.

"You can be a good student and still be Afro-centric, have friends from all different cultures," Allen said.

These two valedictorians directly tried to demonstrate this to younger kids. Shannon worked with eighth graders coming into high school through MSAN, and Mitchell volunteered with the Math Academy and Pipeline programs.

The fact that Mitchell was able to make connections with the middle-school kids at the Pipeline for Success shows that he is adept finding at this balance, Allen said. "It is just important for these kids to tell other kids, the water's fine, you can swim."

Either way, Mitchell and Shannon's achievements "show that the bar can be reached...there's not a systemic reason that one can't do that," Spight said.

Parent and school involvement

However, Spight noted that both Mitchell and Shannon matriculated from small private schools and had extremely involved parents, things some minority students lack.

Shannon attended St. Bernadine's in Forest Park, which she said had "small classes, excellent teachers and diverse students."

Mitchell's pre-high school education was a bit more unconventional. He went to Keystone Montessori in River Forest, where he worked independently, got a lot of one-on-one with teachers and had desks instead of tables and chairs.

"I definitely trace most of my successes back to my Keystone education," Mitchell said. "The education was just unparalleled. It really prepared me for high school."

Both felt prepared when they came to OPRF, although they were a bit shell-shocked at the 3,000 students. Playing football helped ease the transition, Mitchell said. "It forced me to be on the ball and manage my time really well."

Supportive parents were also key for both.

"My parents are behind me four square," Mitchell said. They help him with his homework and support him through thick and thin, he added.

And as for Shannon's parents, "they help me pick my classes, they go to see my teachers when necessary, they ask me about my schoolwork and what I'm studying, they read my papers," she said.

Minority parents should read the course selection and realize that they don't always have to accept class placements, said Shannon, drawing from her experience in MSAN.

"I think that some people get tracked early and people don't expect them to do more. It seems to be a nationwide experience from what I'm hearing from students from other schools in the suburbs."

Getting parents involved can be easier said than done.

"I think it's an effort on both sides of the fence," Allen said. But, "since we are the instution, we should do a little reaching, getting parents on board with us to work with us."

Closing the achievement gap will be a long journey and OPRF is closer to the beginning of the journey than the end, Edgecombe said. But "I surely hope things are getting better," he said.

Showing respect for different cultures and different ways of doing things is a work in progress, Allen said. "We're all working together to help unify the community."

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