By Terry Dean
The room was cramped and people unable to grab a seat were standing along the wall. At least one man dared to sit on the ground before a seat became available. He opted, instead, to give it up for a lady who was standing.
It was, at first, an odd scene Thursday night at Oak Park Village Hall, with more than two dozen people cramped in a meeting room for a community town hall concerning Oak Park and River Forest High School. Other people were standing outside in the hall, some squeezing themselves inside where they could.
The forum was organized by parent group APPLE. Their fliers highlighted the topic of No Child Left Behind and OPRF students’ troubles in passing state standardized tests. The original venue was the main, and much larger, Council Chambers at Village Hall, 123 Madison Street. But for reasons not made entirely clear that evening, the town hall had to be relocated at the last minute. The small meeting room was the only alternative available.
NCLB, however—and its required “Adequately Yearly Progress” designation for school’s whose students do well on standardized test—would not be the focus of this particular town hall. Issues involving race, racial equity, and the achievement gap took center stage. Parents’ and students’ experiences, often painful, would dominate.
OPRF administrators were there, and they mostly listened. These were stories they’ve heard before, all acknowledged. Racial equity issues at OPRF are nothing new, many of the attendees noted. But for those parents who spoke—and not all were African American or a minority—they stressed that the problems weren’t entirely racial or even “black vs. white.”
For more than two hours, audience members shared their experiences in Oak Park schools, at OPRF but also elementary school District 97. One parent, a father, said he sent OPRF “a scholar” from the middle schools, but his son ended up “with nothing” after struggling at the high school. The problem, he said—and also echoed by other parents—was that there was little to no help for his child and those students and parents “in the middle.”
It’s a reputation high school administrators have acknowledged, and it was mentioned directly, again, at Thursday’s town hall—that OPRF, for many families, is two schools, one for “highly-motivated students,” and the other for everyone else. Students in the middle, academically, and those struggling at the bottom, aren’t getting the help they desperately need, the parents argued. But for highly-motivated kids, and their parents who know how to navigate the system, there is support, they said.
One student who spoke, a sophomore, talked about how her classes are divided into “the good side and the bad side.” The student, who confessed to needing help in her classes and asking repeatedly for it from teachers and counselors said she was ignored. She wanted to meet with her teacher before school starts, she recalled, but the teacher, she says, never made time for her. She sent emails but was told by the teacher that they weren’t received.
The town hall audience listened, murmured, nodded, shook their heads.
Thursday’s town hall covered a painful territory that the high school has continued to traverse. Supt. Steven Isoye spoke last, talking about some of the things the school is doing to improve, such as pursuing a long-term strategic plan, but did not address specific issues the parents raised. He did say that the stories, while difficult to hear and share, were not representative of all families and all staff in the building.
Parents at the town hall agreed.