Last week’s District 200 school board discussion about how far Oak Park and River Forest High School should go in addressing the black/white student achievement gap was more impassioned and candid than usual. Thursday’s meeting included the discussion of two board resolutions offered by new member Ralph Lee.
The board voted 4-2 in favor of the resolutions, one stating the board declare that eliminating the black/white student achievement gap is its top priority. The other resolution stated the board considers improving reading skills to be one of the school’s primary focuses.
Lee, along with members Sharon Patchak-Layman, Board President Jacques Conway, and John Allen voted for the resolutions. Voting against were John Rigas and Valerie Fisher. Board member Dietra Millard was absent from the meeting.
The resolutions, which Lee submitted to the board two weeks ago and which were first reported by Wednesday Journal last week, sparked intense public reaction, members said.
Board members received e-mails and letters from both sides of the argument. Some in opposition spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Nancy Leavy, a former Dist. 200 school board member, said the resolution-which calls for eliminating the gap as long as achievement isn’t “substantially lowered” among other student groups-would lead to “race-based programs.”
Leavy said eliminating the gap has been the highest priority of the board for years. But OPRF, she insisted, has never created programs that were “specifically segregated.”
“I am philosophically opposed to that and I have grave reservations about resolution number one,” she said.
Leavy added that she knew of no data or evidence that programs created specifically for black students could potentially work.
Lee responded to criticism that the resolution was unfair and showed favoritism to one group of students over another, saying the school already shows favoritism with some students in certain programs, such as in music and competitive athletics.
“Why then, when we try to better serve the educational needs of our lower-achieving students-and a disproportionate number of those students are black-all of a sudden we are showing unwanted favoritism, we’re showing reverse racism?” Lee asked.
He also responded to criticisms about injecting race into the achievement discussion. Lee said he could not ignore that race was a significant factor the school and community faced in its educational system.
“Denial of the significance of race and how we deal with it will only impede our progress toward solving our problem,” he said.
Rigas, however, took issue with the gap resolution, saying the racial make-up of students in the bottom half of low-achieving students at the school was nearly equal between blacks and whites.
“So now you’re telling me you want to leave half of the class behind because of race?” he asked. “If I look at where achievement is, I look at the people who are on the bottom half of achieving. I would like to take that bottom half and move that whole half up,” he said. “Don’t you want to take all the people in the bottom half and help them move up?”
John Allen, though, brought up the school’s standardized test scores showing an achievement gap, and black students in that bottom half not making AYP (adequate yearly progress).
“From the evidence that’s been presented, there is an achievement gap, there is a bottom half of students, based on those tests, that are mostly from one racial group. What Ralph is trying to say is that we need to make it our top priority to bring those students up to where everybody else is.”
Some members attempted to come up with a different wording for the resolution to reach a consensus, to which Lee responded: “Why is the board squirming to come up with a different wording? The wording here indicates that this school board, and its administration, would be committed to giving attention and time [to narrowing the gap] that is at least as serious as the attention and time given to raising the achievement level of all of the students.”