How important is the achievement gap to the future of Oak Park and River Forest? Is the gap temporary or will it be permanent in our communities? Do other communities in the U.S. have programs that are significantly decreasing the gap? How do we compare with these communities?

As we intervened with real estate practices in the early 1970s when we faced the challenge of block-by-block racial change and disinvestment, now we must intervene in a process that wastes too many children’s opportunities for a fine education and future success in this competitive world.

A front page article in the Wednesday Journal not too long ago, “Beye takes unhappy lead in test gap,” gives us the hard facts-from 2002 to 2005, 93 percent of white children at Beye met or exceeded standards compared to only 38 percent of black students. Our schools are expensive; our taxes are high; we expect more; we blame the school; we blame the teachers; we blame the parents; we blame history; we blame the racism of our society. Let’s put an end to the blame and work on a solution.

It’s time for the entire community to meet the problem with the understanding that the gap hurts all of us. Narrowing the gap and ultimately eliminating it helps everyone-all students benefit when the lowest achieving students improve. Teachers have more time to work with all students instead of spending a disproportionate amount of time on the lowest achieving students who often are the students with the most emotional issues and discipline challenges.

Intervention before kindergarten for reading readiness is not a new idea and is being used in Shaker Heights, Ohio. However, we must recognize that not all Oak Park students are in our schools from K-12, and if we miss intervention in the early years, we must intervene whenever we can. The problem of inadequate preparation for learning can and should be met at any stage from K-12. It’s never too late to help a student.

We have done much in Oak Park to address the achievement gap by race, and we have many successful students of all races. But throughout the elementary school district and in our high school, the gap is dramatic and sad. An average of one-grade-point difference exists at the high school. All elementary schools show a startling difference between white and black students on Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math. In a 2004 Wednesday Journal Viewpoints, Dr. Oliver R.W. Pergams of UIC, stated that he was “appalled with the results of ISAT scores in Oak Park for 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade students. Our gap for all schools in District 97 was 35.1 percent.”

What’s working? How do we measure that?

When Beye School met on Jan. 17 this year to discuss the gap, our new superintendent, Connie Collins, observed that we need to know what is working and have ways to prove it’s working. Yes, throughout our community from kindergarten to senior year of high school, we need a way to measure the success of our programs that address the gap. Is it getting better or worse? What can we hope for in the future?

What if?

1) we established a community entity-a think tank/task force for all of our schools which is ongoing until the gap no longer exists. This group would include representatives from the schools, community experts, university faculty, parents, and others willing to commit themselves to the major challenge facing us: how to chip away at the achievement gap for improvement throughout districts 97, 200 and 90. They will meet with existing organizations such as the Minority Student Achievement Network; attend meetings throughout the nation; beg, borrow, and steal ideas that work. They will do for education what the Housing Center did for diversity in housing-define the problem, research solutions, adapt them to our community, develop a plan, and get support from existing institutions to implement it.

What if?

2) studies such as the May 2003 “The Learning Community Performance Gap: An Analysis of African-American Achievement at Oak Park and River Forest High School” were really read, reviewed, and discussed by all groups relating to the high school, and every group came up with at least one good idea of what they could do to decrease the gap. This excellent study took two years to produce by the African-American Achievement Study Team. It has a solid list of recommendations. Now three years later, where are we? Looking at the content of the regular board meetings of the District 200 school board, I wonder why there is not a place on the agenda at every meeting for a progress report on those recommendations.

When the OPRF Alumni Association (of which I am now chairperson) read the study, we wondered what we could do about the achievement gap and decided to initiate our Summer Enrichment Program grants to encourage students (especially financially needy ones) to use the summer as a time to travel, learn, expand interests, develop goals, and to return to the school with new hopes and dreams. It is for students from freshmen to juniors, with strong outreach for black students to participate. We have already affected the lives of over 100 students since we initiated the grants, and the results are excellent.

Studies such as the above should not sit on shelves-they should move us to action.

What if?

3) Oak Park were able to disprove predictions by national experts that it will take from three decades to two centuries to close the gap? Or, worse yet, that it will never be eliminated. A College Board report, “Reaching the Top,” states: “As early as second or third grade black students generally have much lower grades and test scores than Asians and whites-patterns that persist over the course of their school careers.” Just as we took a leadership role in the early ’70s by founding the Oak Park Housing Center and developing intervention practices to prevent resegregation, today Oak Park can take a leadership role to close the gap. The same success we achieved in the housing market is possible to achieve in education. The racial diversity “think tank” of Oak Park at that time included hundreds of people in the process. They cared about Oak Park’s future. Everyone in Oak Park must care about the future of our schools because that is also the future of our community. Imagine reading five years from now that Oak Park is leading the nation in its creative programs to close the gap-with solid statistics that prove our success.

What if?

4) we studied black families where children do achieve at a high level, are in honors or AP classes, participate in extra-curricular activities, and in other ways become part of our school fabric to learn what makes the difference between those families and the low achievers? In my personal experience, those families have placed a high priority on education; they provide their children with the advantages of music or dance lessons, take them on trips, go as a family to cultural events, and in other ways encourage curiousity. Almost all museums and zoos have a free day; often free tickets are available for cultural events but do not get used. Perhaps our schools need an active “clearinghouse” for free tickets for parents and children to attend cultural events in the Chicago metropolitan area. Each week, parents could be e-mailed to notify them about tickets available for their families.

In national studies of high-achieving black students, often there has been a West Indian or African parent or parents. Clearly, it is not the color of one’s skin that determines educational motivation. It is exposure to a culture of education and achievement vs. a culture of failure.

One idea has been to match black parents of successful students with black parents of underachievers for a sharing of ways to improve the home learning atmosphere.

What if?

5) we returned to a time of really sharing information with other communities-as in the days of the Oak Park Exchange Congress-where school officials regularly met for a few days of learning from each other. Shaker Heights, Ohio; University City, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Evanston, Ill.; Cambridge, Mass.; Bloomfield, Conn.; Southfield, Mich.; and many other diverse communities, put their heads together to explore issues such as the achievement gap. We have borrowed ideas in the past from communities with different approaches. In a recent New York Times, Shaker Heights was in the news with an education article titled, “How One Suburb’s Black Students Gain.” Harvard Professor Ronald Ferguson, who has been to Oak Park, is widely quoted and states the gap “is not going away soon.”

This we already know. But the article lists many programs Shaker Heights has used including: top black male seniors (Minority Achievement Committee) mentoring underclassman, 30 minutes extra daily instruction to kindergarteners who scored poorly for reading readiness, expanding black participation in honors and AP classes, study circles based on research from the University of California, Berkeley, and other programs. Ferguson notes that, nationally, blacks read less to preschoolers than do whites, and black students watch twice as much TV. Should we just accept this in Oak Park or do something about it? School districts could work with libraries to develop more reading programs for students. In regularly communicating with other diverse school districts, we might discover exciting new programs.

What if?

6) our participation in the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) led to action at both districts 97 and 200. We have two representatives from each school district who are listed as “conveners.” This national organization, founded in 1999, includes diverse communities such as Shaker Heights, Ohio; Evanston, Ill.; Princeton, N.J.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Montclair, N.J.; and others who are developing new approaches to facilitate high academic achievement of students of color. MSAN was created and is run by schools. Wouldn’t it be helpful if the Oak Park attendees brought the information and new approaches back to our schools and community? Suppose that at least once each semester teachers, principals, and other administrators learned about what’s working elsewhere. Suppose that school board members also were informed about new approaches. MSAN newsletters are available at the high school. But we need more than just newsletters to communicate with staff. If we put the “gap” at the top of our “to be done” list, then we need to constantly inform and educate everyone. We need to move the info along, not have it stagnate in the minds of a few people.

What if?

7) every significant new study or book on the achievement gap were read by our proposed Oak Park Achievement Gap Task Force, discussed, and evaluated in terms of applicability to our system?

Belinda Williams, Ph.D., editor of the book Closing the Achievement Gap, uses an integrated model for reform in schools. Network News reports: “The achievement gaps will remain static, she thinks, until educators learn to integrate the research-whether it is about brain development, cognition, cultural psychology, or other related fields.” What does this book and others mean to us? How can we translate the research studies into language that all can understand? What is our schedule? How soon can we be operative?

What if?

8) we all made a pledge to stop blaming the “other guy” for the gap. When we recognize that we all lose if black children dramatically underachieve, then we can start improving the situation for everyone. Each time we help a black child to do better in our schools, everyone gains. The OPRFHS “Learning Community Performance Gap” study notes that “two communities exist at the high school: one for White students that places them at academic promise and another for Black students that places them at academic risk.”

Oak Park cannot afford to lose the potential of black students’ achievement. Intervention is key; obviously the earlier we intervene the better. But we cannot give up at any stage. We know from reading success stories of blacks in our society that often it was the intervention of just one teacher that sparked an interest in academics. If every teacher affected the life of just one black student every year, we would be in better shape than we’re in right now. Instead of ignoring students who seem disinterested or unable to compete because of inadequate preparation for learning, we need to notice them and to encourage them.

Let’s not blame the parents for not reading, the teachers for neglecting, the administration for being too busy, the society for years of inequality. Let’s accept the responsibility to change what isn’t working in our schools.

What if?

9) we affirmatively market activities in our schools so that all activities incorporate children of all colors and backgrounds. This does not happen by itself. We know from many of the research studies already cited that students who are active in school activities-music, drama, sports, journalism, and others offered in abundance in our schools-are more likely to feel personally committed to the school. It becomes “my school”-not a school that exists for whites, but for all students. Too many school activities are identified by race. We see few black students writing for the school newspaper or yearbook; few black students in school music and drama productions; few black students playing tennis or lacrosse; the list could go on.

When queried about this, teachers and coaches explain that blacks don’t show up for the auditions or tryouts. Right! What that means is that you have to go out and find black students with the talent but lacking the confidence to confront the white establishment. In a discussion about black girls wanting to do jump rope but not sports such as field hockey at the high school, it was noted that many of the same skills used in jump rope-agility, speed, good memory, aerobic fortitude-could be used in field hockey, tennis, and other sports.

In a recent girls’ field hockey game, the almost all-white Oak Park team played an almost all-black competing team from a south suburban area-obviously it is a sport that can attract black team members when they are exposed to it.

If we take the easy route and do not affirmatively market activities we will not make progress.

The NY Times recently noted that lacrosse is often a ticket to college scholarships. Imagine a black student with good grades, experience in the high school musicals, who is on the lacrosse team applying to a good university. It just might be lacrosse that would get them into that school with a full scholarship. Yet we miss the boat and let race determine interests. If we look at students from the West Indies and Africa, we see that a wide and broad interest in sports considered non-traditional for blacks in the U.S. opens many doors to high achievement.

What if?

10) all parents receive guidebooks for student success each year with a checklist for activities involving parents and children. This could start with kindergarten. Such a checklist would be good for all parents-they could see how much time they need to spend helping their child with homework, reading to them, taking them to the library, going to a museum, attending a concert, or other activities. In “The Black-White Test Score Gap” (Brookings, 1998), Jencks and Phillips say that changing how parents deal with children may be the single most important way to improve achievement. When our schools teach good parents to be even better parents with the understanding that their child’s achievement is directly related to home behavior that can be controlled, we are ahead of the game.

What if?

11) we notice when experts are in town and ask their assistance. Last year at the high school’s Tradition of Excellence Awards, an alum who has founded a school system that concentrates on minority low-achieving students and has been successful in improving their performance was awarded and celebrated. Perhaps he would have stayed an extra day if districts 97, 90, and 200 school officials had asked him to do so. Statistics on our achievement gaps could have been presented to him, and perhaps something good would have come out of his consultation. Did we miss an opportunity? Here’s a local guy who went to River Forest grade schools and OPRFHS. He might want to give back some of his expertise. He’s been on 60 Minutes and many TV and radio documentaries and interviews. Let’s get smarter. Let’s use local and national talent to address this challenge.

What if?

12) we looked at the numbers and the methods in cities that decreased their achievement gaps. New York City recently narrowed the gap in fourth grade reading by 10 points, but the overall gap is still dramatic-with 54 percent of whites below proficiency in fourth grade math, 86 percent of blacks, and 82 percent of Hispanics. Other major cities in the U.S. were far worse than NYC. For example, Atlanta showed 27 percent of whites compared to 91 percent of blacks below proficiency. Washington, D.C. showed 22 percent of whites compared to 94 percent of blacks. In Shaker Heights, the number of black sixth graders scoring proficient on the state math test has nearly doubled in three years and is more than 20 percentage points above the Ohio average for blacks. However, even in Shaker Heights, the average grade for a black high school senior is C+, while for whites it is B+.

If all of these “what ifs” became reality, would we be meeting the challenge of the achievement gap? Not entirely, given the magnitude of the problem. But at least we would be a unified group, with a vehicle to move us along. Blacks and whites would be working together to improve those things over which they have control. We would all pledge not to blame each other or the institutions that exist in our community. We would tell the truth to each other, try to be patient, try to help our communities and recognize that it’s not a quick fix.

Could we do this? Could we try to be objective and take responsibility for our part of solving the problem? Only if we could set aside our anger, our litigious attitudes, and our unwillingness to acknowledge the weak preparation of some children, could we really be a group.

In a Phi Delta Kappa article in 1998, Mano Singham stated: “The educational achievement gap is not an artifact. It is real and has serious social, economic, and political consequences. Its roots lie in complex and historically rooted ethnic relationships and characteristics. But the situation is by no means hopeless. We can be encouraged by very promising experiments that have narrowed this gap. But we have to start looking at the problem in new and deep ways, and we must avoid the temptation to seek simplistic one-shot solutions if we are going to make any real headway.”

Here in Oak Park and River Forest we could try to develop a new model, one of trust because we have chosen to live in this community knowing its strengths and weaknesses. Are we ready?

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