A key challenge Oak Park schools face is producing equal educational outcomes for all public school students, regardless of race. For over two decades Oak Park residents have heard about efforts to understand and resolve the racial academic achievement gap. Nevertheless, equitable student outcomes still remain an elusive goal in districts 97 and 200.
My recent dissertation study on race-related challenges in Oak Park indicates that community residents want this formidable challenge resolved. However, in-depth interviews with 40 Oak Park households, half white and half black, also indicate that white and black residents do not concur on key contributing factors leading to disparate student outcomes.
Both racial groups believe factors of weak parental involvement in students’ educational careers, a lack of student striving for academic success, and socioeconomic differences between whites and blacks are contributing gap factors. Yet, black respondents indicate much more than whites that racism in the schools also affects the educational experiences of black students. Whites generally see the problem of black underachievement stemming from factors outside the school. In contrast, blacks also incorporate an inside school factor-racial bias-as part of their explanation for the racial achievement gap.
Perhaps this lack of agreement on the role school racial bias plays in black underachievement has bearing on districts 97 and 200’s lack of progress in substantially dissipating the achievement gap.
A recent book by two anti-racist trainers suggests such a thesis. In Courageous Conversations About Race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools (2006), Glen Singleton and Curtis Linton argue that schools will not be able to eliminate the racial achievement gap until whites engage with blacks in difficult and protracted conversations about the role of race in student outcomes. If such conversations lead whites to broaden their understanding of the ways racial bias is embedded in our nation’s schools, the authors believe real progress can be made rectifying the racial achievement gap. Singleton and Curtis cite their involvement with a school district in Long Beach, Calif. to illustrate the benefits courageous conversations can promote.
Resolving the racial achievement gap in Oak Park public schools requires interest, commitment, and persistence from all Oak Park residents and stakeholders. Clearly it also requires knowledge about educational policies and systems likely to generate higher levels of educational accomplishments from black students. Following are some of the strategies I propose in my dissertation for their potential impact on raising black academic achievement levels:
a) Provide quality early childhood education and all-day kindergarten for Oak Park children so students are at optimal levels of social and academic readiness when they begin first grade in Dist. 97.
b) Hire parental outreach workers and generate effective school-home partnerships.
c) Raise faculty awareness regarding unconscious and conscious forms of racial bias that may be projected onto black students and their families.
d) Develop greater faculty proficiency in nurturing positive student-teacher relationships.
e) Ensure that topics of cultural and personal relevance to black students are a regular feature of school curricula.
f) Generate higher levels of black faculty by building relationships with black colleges and universities, national black organizations, and large black churches.
g) Utilize an equity-based funding approach to direct educational dollars to programs that will generate higher levels of black academic achievement.
h) Generate a positive community mindset regarding black academic achievement by persistently recognizing achieving black students throughout a variety of village venues.
To learn more about findings on race-related challenges affecting the Oak Park community and proposals for responding to such challenges, residents are encouraged to check out my study, Racial Roadblocks: Pursuing Successful Long-Term Racial Diversity In Oak Park, Illinois, A Metropolitan Chicago Community, from the Oak Park Public Library. I will also be giving a community talk on my dissertation at the library on Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.. Everyone is invited to attend and participate in the discussion following the presentation.