OPRF teacher studies 'the gap,' halfway around the world

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

When Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) English teacher Jessica Stovall decided she needed a deeper understanding of the academic achievement gap between the black and white students she deals with every day, she traveled more than 8,000 miles to Wellington, New Zealand — a place that's dealing with its own problems of educational and economic inequity.

"The achievement gap is always something I'm thinking about. This was a chance for me to step away from the classroom for a year and see how people in other countries are dealing with their achievement gaps," said Stovall, who earned the chance to study the issue abroad after receiving a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching last fall. 

She spent last August through December working in New Zealand schools and observing the country's customs and traditions — some of which have been integrated into formal educational curricula — in addition to learning about some of its ethnic divides. New Zealand's achievement gap is between the indigenous Maori and Pasifika students, and students with European and Asian roots. 

"They have a very similar achievement gap [to ours], but in a lot of ways they've put a lot more energy and resources toward closing their gap," said Stovall, noting that exploring the gap outside of America's black-and-white racial context gave her the intellectual space to think about solutions that might be applied at OPRF. 

One of those solutions is the implementation of a teacher feedback program, which Stovall described as a non-evaluative, research-based, data-driven program "that has seen tremendous gains with New Zealand teachers." 

"It allows teachers to really look at the data and see how their daily lived experiences with race impact their classrooms," she said, adding that the program forces teachers to think deeply about their approaches to teaching students of color.

Stovall said she's working with a public school in Chicago on adapting a pilot program for use in classrooms here in the United States. 

On a larger scale, New Zealand has established indigenous schools to address its achievement gap. Stovall said her time spent working at Te Kpehu Whet — an indigenous Maori school in Whangarei, New Zealand — was one of the high points of her travels abroad. 

Stovall said the Maori school, which would be the equivalent of a charter school here in the United States, allows indigenous culture "to be front and center in education." She said the school explores what "it looks like when we prize cultures in our schools that aren't part of the domaainant culture." 

For instance, at the Maori school, there are no walls between classrooms, a feature consistent with the communal nature of indigenous New Zealand culture.  

Stovall established such a strong bond with students at the school that when she learned of the school's interest in traveling outside of New Zealand as part of a cultural exchange, she jumped at the opportunity to bring the students to Chicago.

"It's the spirit of the Fulbright to be able to build collaborative communities and have two different cultures come together," Stovall said during an interview last Thursday, just hours before the Te Kapehu Whetu students were expected to touch down here. Later that day, they would be welcomed in Schaumburg with a Native American powwow. 

The next day, Stovall brought two of her senior level classes, the OPRF Gospel choir and various host families to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to greet the 18 students and five adults from New Zealand.

The two different cultural groups met at the museum during a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony called a powhiri — which was attended by a representative from the U.S. State Department. 

Stovall said OPRF contributed $2,000 toward the exchange, while she started a Go Fund Me account for the group that has raised nearly $1,400 so far. Stovall said any extra funds will go toward future exchanges between OPRF and the Te Kapehu Whetu school, whose students will be here until Oct. 3.

"I'm really excited for our students to meet people who are very different from them, but with whom they may still develop really strong bonds and connections," Stovall said of the exchange, in general, and the powhiri, in particular. 

"This is something they would never get to experience unless they were in specific pockets of New Zealand," she said. "If I can't bring them out to the world, I can bring the world to them."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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Suzanne Allen from Oak Park  

Posted: September 30th, 2015 5:42 PM

Exchanges like these and teachers like Ms. Stovall provide immeasurable depth to the education of our children. We are fortunate to have educators dedicated not only to the education of our children, but to finding ways to improve and enhance the school and its atmosphere. Asking questions and seeking answers offers us an opportunity to step outside of our comfort zone and broaden our experience. Bravo to Ms. Stovall and OPRF for their dedication to cultural exchanges like these.

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