Editor’s note: Last week, Wednesday Journal promised a platform on these pages for an open discussion of the academic achievement gap between black and white students in Oak Park and River Forest.

Here we go.

Two views today. One is from Jack Flynn. He’s a retired River Forest manufacturing company owner who has spent hundreds of hours volunteering in Oak Park schools and as an educational advocate on the city’s West Side. In his One View, Flynn references the success of the KIPP Ascend charter school in Austin. Coincidentally, our second essay, with recommendations for dramatic change at Oak Park and River Forest High School, comes from Jim O’Connor, KIPP’s school leader and an Oak Parker.

Keep the discussion going.

There is already a group of educators and interested citizens working on such a project at District 97, with Carl Spight as chair and I believe Kevin Anderson as co-chair [Calling for a gap task force, Our Views, Viewpoints, Sept. 5]. At a recent meeting, a doctoral student from MIT working with Dist. 97, stated that 80 percent of the achievement gap is already in place by second grade. It seems to me that this information calls for two courses of action:

First, we have to make an effort to contact the parents of every baby and new child in the community and offer guidance on the services available to help make their child a star no matter what resources the parents have. The Early Childhood Collaboration has been working diligently on this piece for five years, but have very limited funds to create the social network needed to complete the job. A little money in this area would offer great long-term benefits to the entire community.

The second part is very difficult because older children who have been behind since the moment they started school do not want to be viewed as needing special help. They don’t want to be viewed as stupid. There are private schools all over the United States, such as the KIPP schools (started by a graduate of OPRF), that can take students who are not even close to reading and handling math at grade level and in several years they are at grade level or above. They go to school the equivalent of 60 days more per year than the children in Oak Park.

It is my understanding that 20 percent of the freshmen students at OPRF are not proficient in multiplication or division. What does this tell us about their reading and writing skills? When they are this far behind, how can they catch up with a short school year, a short school day?

This brings us to the next problem. Many of the children who are way behind by high school have given up on school altogether. This was echoed by a number of black students that Wednesday Journal interviewed a few years ago. They goof off in school and create problems that lead to the type of discipline that creates controversy.

You can create a “school within a school” that works primarily on getting its students proficient in basic math and English with a large reading component. The student then has the skills to look toward higher education, filling in the gaps at a junior college.

To be successful, this approach would need small class size, top quality teachers and the resolve to suspend those students who have no intention of trying to do the work. This was tried before with none of the above provisos in place, and it failed miserably.

We all realize that students who hate school will only cause trouble, unless there is some unique offering that changes their attitude. There used to be shop, woodworking, auto, etc. in some of the public schools. Actually, many students would be better off as plumbers than journalists.

All young people do not need a college education. There is often the cry that we aren’t challenging our children enough; they can’t get into the honors classes, etc. Often that child does not have the basic skills to succeed in those classes. If they failed in the honors classes, there would be another complaint about the work being too difficult and taking the “heart” out of the child.

We have a number of retired, very talented educators in the OP-RF area that I’m confident would be willing to give of their time to a project that might make sense to understanding the various causes of the achievement gap and how they might be addressed. Just interviewing those freshmen students who were already in difficulty in grammar school and trying to find a road map for them could be a marvelous exercise.

In late fall, I believe there will be additional information available that may offer a better understanding of the achievement gap.

Jack Flynn is a retired River Forester who has been a longtime volunteer in the Oak Park school system and educational advocate on the West Side of Chicago.

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