What’s holding back progress on narrowing the achievement gap? That seems to be the question a lot of people are pondering these days. At any rate those who believe the achievement gap can be narrowed are asking that question.

Others don’t believe it can. Too complex, too many deficiencies to overcome, too many societal impediments to hurdle. Maybe, they say, we should just accept it as a fact of life and go from there.

Count me in the first camp. If you create a better set of circumstances, progress will follow. I’m more interested in strategies to move us forward than analysis of what’s holding us back. Then again, in order to develop strategies, you also have to be familiar with the impediments.

It’s not enough to say that African-American students need to work harder if you don’t know what’s holding them back. It’s not enough to say parents of African-American students aren’t involved enough in their kids’ education if you don’t know what’s holding them back. It’s not enough to say the administration and teachers at districts 97 and 200 don’t do enough to help African-American kids if you don’t understand what holds them back.

So part of the solution involves studying the problem, learning the causes, understanding the pitfalls. But all the insight in the world won’t narrow the gap unless we experiment. We know enough to give some ideas a try.

That’s why we’re asking readers to share their ideas with us. By “us,” I mean the entire Oak Park and River Forest community. Yes, River Forest is involved in this too. Their resources could be invaluable – not to mention their perspective. Same holds true for the teachers, and the administrators, and the rest of the high school’s staff, and the white parents and students, and the black parents and students who enjoy higher economic status, and the residents of Oak Park and River Forest who have no kids in the public school system – or in any school system.

This is one issue where if you aren’t actively involved in the solution, you’re part of the problem. No one wants to hear that, of course. We don’t want to accept our share of responsibility. This is somebody else’s struggle.

But no one is asking you to solve the problem – just be part of the solution, however small a part you play. One place to start is ideas. Last November, we published an essay by Bobbie Raymond, founder of the Housing Center and, more recently, of the OPRF Alumni Association, which started a summer enrichment program in response to the gap.

In her essay, Raymond proposed a list of “What ifs?” that she said could have an impact on the gap. Among her proposals:

1) A think tank or task force involving all the schools, which remains ongoing until the gap no longer exists. Community stakeholders would serve on it.

2) Taking OPRF’s 2003 study, “The Learning Community Performance Gap: An analysis of African-American achievement at Oak Park and River Forest High School,” off the shelf and using it as the basis for implementing specific programs.

3) Conducting a study of black families whose kids achieve at a high level academically to determine what works – and what might work for other African-American families.

4) Doing a better job of sharing information with other communities engaged in this same struggle.

5) Reading and disseminating every new article, book, and study about the gap.

6) Stop blaming “the other guy” for the existence of the gap, and recognize that we all lose as long as the gap persists. Conversely, we all gain if we solve it.

7) Actively recruiting students of all races to all school activities and sports so that none end up, as is the case now, in effect, segregated.

8) Distributing a “guidebook for student success” to all parents with a checklist of activities to help them become more involved in their child’s education.

9) Actively solicit assistance and advice from experts all over the country.

This is a good start, but we’re confident readers can add plenty of others. We invite you to submit them in the coming weeks (ktrainor@wjinc.com or fax: 524-0449). The local schools don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. If they see the community actively engaged and interested, it will, we hope, inspire them to redouble their efforts.

We haven’t exhausted anything when it comes to addressing the academic achievement gap.

In fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

We can do this. We may be the only ones who can.

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