One in a continuing series of viewpoints on how the Oak Park and River Forest communities can move forward on narrowing the minority student academic achievement gap. If you would like to join in this public forum, send your thoughts to ktrainor@wjinc.com or fax 524-0447.

Thanks to Wednesday Journal for the continuing exploration of the achievement gap in our community in all the public schools (we have not yet heard from private schools on this issue). My essay on the achievement gap last year [‘What if’ we all tried to solve the achievement gap?LifeLines, Nov. 15] was summarized in Ken Trainor’s column. There are some new facts that should be shared:

1) The OPRF High School Alumni Association has now funded the Summer Enrichment Program for five years. It has included out-of-school programs in universities, music/art camps, and environmental field study in the Arctic, Costa Rica, and elsewhere. Students have traveled abroad to Asia and Europe. We fund students based on interest and need, not grade point averages. We do considerable outreach to locate minority students and have been successful in that effort.

There are also our “in-house” programs at the high school which focus on English and Math. To date, we have funded about 170 students and have referred others to sources of funding such as Rotary and the Community Foundation of OP-RF so they could participate in programs financially out-of-reach for their families.

The black students have ranged from 25 to 50 percent of the students, depending on the program or class. For example, our recent summer practicum in English, originated in 2006, was more than 50 percent black and got rave reviews from students. Their essays note that initially five weeks of English reading and writing for three hours per day seemed daunting and maybe even boring. But the dynamic, caring and talented teacher, Jim Hunter, soon won them over. One African-American male student stated that his reading and writing improved dramatically, and he now really enjoys reading. Others were equally enthusiastic. Here’s a case where the race of the teacher mattered little – what really mattered was that he wanted and expected his students to improve, and it sounds like they did. The math practicum under Mr. Wright also resulted in improvement – the program gains students entry to honors and AP classes in math.

Imagine if instead of 10 or 12 students in one class, we could afford to fund several classes with other excellent teachers, keeping the student-teacher ratio the same. We could do more than chip away at the achievement gap. We know that these programs work in equalizing the opportunities for black students.

Both Ralph Lee and Jack Flynn point to reading as critical. We agree. That’s why we asked the high school to develop this course last year, and they did. We hope to continue it in future summers.

2) The models are waiting for us to study them and use their model programs in our schools. For example, Providence-St. Mel is 100 percent black, and teachers represent all races. Class sizes are small (a 12:1 ratio); virtually all students go on to advanced education after graduation, and many end up in the professions. This is just one of many schools that expect dedication and hard work from their students. There are many studies on Providence-St. Mel that document their teaching approaches and results. Our excellent new superintendent, Dr. Attila Weninger, is open and anxious to look at all models. Let’s learn from others. In 1970, the Oak Park Housing Center was developed based on research on existing models of long-term diversity throughout the U.S. We should approach the achievement gap in the same way.

3) During the era of the Oak Park Exchange Congress in the 1970s and ’80s, we brought together school superintendents from other racially diverse communities and exchanged ideas on the achievement gap, hiring minority teachers, and other topics. Although we wanted our schools to try some of the ideas presented, they often did not have staff or programs to follow through. Perhaps it was too early. But now we can look at new leaders, such as the young Korean-American woman taking charge of the Washington, D.C. schools, who says she is not planning to decrease the gap but to eliminate it. This is quite a statement in the lowest-performing district in the U.S. If she dramatically improves the system, there will be much to learn.

4) Although hiring black teachers should always be a goal, mandating specific percentages will not solve the achievement gap problem. Every teacher and staff person at the school should be an ambassador reaching out to help the students who feel lost and alienated from the school. Until “their” school becomes “my” school to every student, we will have a problem with achievement. Marketing activities, classes, and summer programs requires creativity from school leaders.

We see that students who participate in orchestra at middle school are more likely to join an orchestra in high school. Let’s make music classes, instruments, and support available to all, regardless of family interest and ability to pay. We have had examples of students who went to music camp and greatly benefited in their achievement and their sense of importance. One young woman became a camp counselor in her third year, and, in addition to our scholarship, received a camp scholarship. Her first summer she was discouraged and felt alone as a minority there. Each summer she gained confidence, her playing improved, and she acquired friends of all races.

5) The Alumni Association allocates $10-$15,000 per summer for student grants. This is not much money, yet we know it has made a difference. With more money, we could do much more. We raise all of our funds from alums and private sources. We have already proven that the gap can be addressed and lessened. Unfortunately, we do not have the longitudinal studies on our students that could make an even better case for summer programs, as well as after-achool programs we have not yet done. With a staff of one part-time employee and our board volunteers, we addressed the achievement gap after we read the 2003 study. We decided that doing something, even if it affected small numbers of students, was better than doing nothing. We have learned from students and parents. When we have our fall reception for them, they tell us how important the enrichment program has been to them. We believe them. They tell us they don’t want to be statistics of failure; they want to be successful alums. Let’s talk to them more.

There is so much more that we have learned about African-American students and their parents. We are sharing this information with Dr. Weninger and look forward to decreasing the gap.

Bobbie Raymond is president of the OPRF Alumni Association.

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