I am a black alumna of Oak Park and River Forest High School who has just received the news that my alma mater has [failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress”]. I spent my last year of high school in the early 1980s, shoring up my education at OPRF, which was the premier public school to attend in Cook County. What happened?
Even when I was going to OPRF, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what to do about the “Chicago problem,” and that was perceived as blacks settling west of the Austin Boulevard border. As I understand it now, the scores of the black students are dragging down the averages. People who were skeptics about blacks learning with whites may now feel vindicated in their beliefs that blacks are troublesome and unteachable. To you who do, don’t. Here is why:
One thing has helped to bring down the scores: the lessening of standards. Lowering one’s standards creates destructive forces. The first contributor is that silent killer of all things social: racism. A teacher or administrator who doesn’t believe that others can learn has no expectations for those students. School officials dumb down the curriculum, hold liberal pity parties for students of color and those who have family difficulties, and they don’t require student self-control or mete out discipline for these students. These educators would never treat their own children with these excuses, but for people they see as little more than numbers and skin, they allow their ideas about race to cloud their judgment.
I am sorry to say that some black educators have dealt in this practice almost as much as some white educators of Oak Park.
Secondly, the modern family for students who are in academic distress is too lax on effort. Many of them see education as the problem, as a product that should be brought to the student, rather than a coordinated effort of many people working together in order to help the child develop his potential. In addition, misplaced, misguided priorities alienate students further from education. Parents control those as they are the first teachers of their children. Educators cannot change what happens inside a house, nor is it their job. Change the schoolhouse.
I won’t even demand for educators to “Go back to raising equal standards for all students.” I’ll say, “Start!” When a student is acting disruptively or not working to his potential, make it clear to the student that “This is OPRF. You are not working as you should.” If a child doesn’t or cannot, call the parent in. Stop being afraid of litigation. A parent has a right to go to court in order to protect a child, but silliness will tell off on itself, and if school systems would stick to their educated principles, this retreat from standards and in scores wouldn’t exist.
If a child is trouble at school, is the trouble in isolation? Most likely not. As contentious as some parents can be about every little thing, do school systems sue such parents for neglect when the child doesn’t perform at behavioral or academic benchmarks? Isn’t tending to those benchmarks the parent’s job, too, as much as it is the school’s?
In addition, if a parent cries “racism,” then don’t be racist by capitulating to mediocrity. Say, “I expect your child to do what I know all children are capable of. Your child is not stupid. These are the rules, goals, and expectations. How can we best help your child?” After that, don’t automatically track the child unnecessarily in classes that fit a “problematic” description. The student may not have a special education concern at all. The student’s problem may have been the adults. He cleverly may have been playing the ends against the middle, trying to get out of doing work or feeling the false bravado that afflicts many adolescents.
It is a public school, but public school doesn’t mean throwaway. If all the adults and students on OPRF’s campus would tighten their clothes, tighten their attitudes, expect duty and responsibility, and build an environment of excellence for all, the school system could restore its reputation quicker than it lost it.
Kimberly Bowsky is a resident of Chicago’s South Side.