Kudos to Wednesday Journal for promoting a public discussion of the achievement gap and for encouraging community involvement. Roberta Raymond and Jack Flynn have brought up some excellent ideas, but it’s worrying to read other writers who simply want to blame the gap on black families.
I have the unique perspective as a white parent who has spent hundreds of hours in the last four years at Oak Park and River Forest High School at school board meetings, board committee meetings, IEPs, meetings with administrators and teachers, discipline hearings, APPLE meetings, and meetings with individual black families. Some Journal letter-writers seem to assume the high school is doing its best and is simply up against a pervasive, national problem. That simply is not true. I know the high school has the resources and talent to do a much better job.
Currently, I’m reading a book about the struggle to integrate schools in the South during the 1960s.
It was easier for progressive people to understand the struggle then – the injustice was so blatant. Of course schools should be integrated.
The fight now for civil rights in education is more complex, more subtle. The injustice is not visible, but it is still there. Now it takes place behind closed doors.
Yes, there are some black families with problems who haven’t prepared their children for school, but there are also many supportive black families who have given their children an excellent background. Yes, there are other causes. What the community doesn’t have knowledge of is the injustice within the high school–the many times when OPRF’s actions exacerbate students’ problems.
There are many outstanding, inspiring, dedicated teachers and administrators in our system, and there are also people who have very low expectations of black students.
In the past, it was easy to see from a distance what was happening. The mobs outside schools to prevent the admission of black students in the South were so clearly, visibly wrong. In Oak Park, the Percy Julian family had their home firebombed when they became the first black family to move here in the early 1950s. In 1963, some board members attempted, and failed, to block the Oak Park-River Forest Symphony’s invitation to its first black performer. The injustice was visible.
I’ve witnessed injustice inside OPRF. I’ve seen students denied due process. I’ve seen students given excessively harsh punishment for minor infractions. I’ve seen students who were denied the accommodations required by law in their IEPs. I’ve seen meetings where families were intimidated by the school’s lawyer. I’ve seen the segregation that results from a subjective tracking system. I’ve seen students dumped in inferior alternative schools for years who fervently want to get back to OPRF to get an education. I’ve seen many students and parents treated with arrogance and disrespect.
These are also problems for some white students, but black students are the ones who are much more often affected.
Ken Trainor is right – “if you aren’t actively involved in the solution, you’re part of the problem.” More community involvement and oversight would definitely improve the situation. The injustice continues because it is witnessed by only a few people.
Oak Park and River Forest are rightly proud of their many successes in building diverse communities – communities that many of us chose because of the diversity, communities that are so much richer and more interesting because they are diverse. There has been incredible progress in civil rights since the ’60s, but it’s not surprising that we haven’t gone from segregation to integration without problems. The struggle for civil rights in education must continue inside schools.
As they did in the ’60s, I hope an involved Oak Park and River Forest can lead the nation.
Terry Burke and Scott Berman recently moved their family to Minneapolis.