Too much denial and deception from OPRF administrators

Opinion

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Teresa Burke, One view

The recent hearings about OPRF High School, conducted by the Illinois General Assembly Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, led by Representative Calvin Giles have touched some raw nerves locally. But they are truly a welcome breath of fresh air for our community.

Oak Park and River Forest High School is an outstanding institution for many families and students. It provides a very fine education for at least the top 30 percent of the student body. The school has talented teachers, excellent extracurricular opportunities and can provide a sound background for top colleges. But the common perception is that OPRF provides a nurturing educational experience for all students. That is good public relations, but I have learned it is not true.

I was floored to learn at the school board meeting last night that 50 percent of the black males in last year's freshman class have been subject to disciplinary action. And the school's own statistics prove that the discipline action taken against a black male student is far, far more likely to mean suspension than for any other category of student.

A couple years ago I would have been shocked at that 50 percent figure and I would have wondered if black males were more inclined to have discipline issues. After my experience the last two years, I understand there are other factors at play.

I am a veteran of hundreds of meetings over the years and have never been treated so rudely at meetings as I have been at OPRF. I am a former teacher. I've served on my church's board of trustees, been director for three years of a Chicago neighborhood business association, and been active in several community organizations. All these have involved countless meetings.

Last year at a friend's IEP meeting at OPRF, I was cut off 20 or 30 times when I tried to say that there was supposed to be an alternative class?#34;I was never allowed to finish that statement. An administrator yelled at me and threw her arms across the table after I mentioned a program at another high school. When I and five other parents brought a letter signed by 32 families requesting that special education administrators consider ABA, the response was very disrespectful and arrogant?#34;we were told they would not meet about ABA again. Repeatedly we have been dealt with dishonestly by high-ranking administrators.

I have several white friends who have also been treated with disrespect and arrogance. They would never consider speaking out because of a very real fear of retaliation. The high school has an incredible amount of power over our children's lives long after high school. Most students make some mistakes in their teenage years and OPRF's discipline determinations can make or break futures. The classes students are placed in, their grades, the references, are all very important.

I cannot believe that black male students are treated any better than I, a white female parent, at OPRF. I have to believe that they too are sometimes treated with great arrogance, disrespect, and dishonesty, and that discipline is not handled fairly. There are wonderful teachers and administrators, but there are also teachers and administrators who take advantage of their power and do not act in students' best interests. I have spoken to many parents the last two years and heard many discipline determinations that seemed excessive.

It has been my experience that any time we have had a grievance against a staffperson, the administration has closed ranks and supported their staff. When that is done repeatedly, staff members are not held accountable and some feel they can act arrogantly with impunity.

In a January, 2005 article by the director of the Minority Student Achievement Network, an organization where Supt. Bridge is the treasurer, the first recommendation is that high schools acknowledge problems. Problems cannot be dealt with if they are denied and swept under the rug. Yet this is common practice at OPRF.

I have no doubt that Supt. Bridge can reel off the numbers of OPRF students who are going to Harvard this year and every year of her tenure. But does she know or care about those heading for Joliet State? A system that overemphasizes discipline, commonly suspends first offenders, and finds 50 percent of the black males guilty is part and parcel of the system that puts so many black American males in prison.

The administration cannot hide behind the accomplishments of the top 30 percent. Our high school must use creativity, innovation and imagination to win the loyalty of alienated students. The carrot is at least as important as the stick. Effective programs and respectful treatment of black males can in no way detract from the honors programs?#34;they would simply help make OPRF a truly outstanding institution.

I am extremely grateful to State Rep. Calvin Giles for listening and taking parents' issues seriously. It is time for OPRF to do the same.

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