Editor’s note: The first paragraph of this story has been rewritten to clarify garbled percentages which were included in the print version of this story.
According to a spring 2007 survey of 2000 Oak Park and River Forest High School students, the vast majority of black students and a smaller but significant percentage of white students acknowledged that white students commonly or occasionally have an undeserved advantage at the school because of their skin color.
Twenty-five percent of white students surveyed and 46 percent of black students surveyed considered that situation to be a major problem at the high school.
A total of 2,004 students participated in the Student Survey on School Community and Civility administered by OPRF this spring.

The survey was given in part to gauge students’ views about overall climate at the high school. Students participating in the survey included Hispanics, Native Americans and those who are multicultural.

Thirty-five areas were addressed where students were asked to respond on whether they saw an issue as a problem or not and if the issue was common or important to them.

On the issue of whether white OPRF students had an undeserved advantage solely on the basis of their skin color, 43.4 percent of black students believed it was a “common or important” issue while 12.2 percent of white students felt the same.

Yet more than 45 percent of black students surveyed and more than 24 percent of whites said the skin color advantage of whites at OPRF was a “major” issue in terms of significance.

These results represent a significant statement about students’ experiences at OPRF, said Carl Spight, the high school’s institutional researcher.

“This was a powerful interrogation of students that cannot be ignored. This makes the point that there are two school experiences, especially with respect to stereotypes and whether white students have an advantage because of skin color, which black students do perceive to be the case,” Spight said.

Students were asked about stereotyping at OPRF based on a person’s race or ethnicity. About 34 percent of black respondents said racial stereotyping was a major issue while 23.7 percent of whites described it as major.

The results also reveal what is commonly known by some but rarely talked about with candor publicly: There are two OPRFs, said Theodoric Manley, a sociology professor at DePaul University. Manley, an Oak Park resident, was part of a 2002-2003 high school and community study group that look at OPRF’s achievement gap. The group’s report, the “Learning Community Performance Gap,” also revealed two schools at OPRF, Manley said-one for blacks and one for whites.

“That report recognized the two schools, and this survey confirms that,” said Manley, who is the parent of two OPRF grads.

Manley described a “racialized educational terrain” at OPRF and other U.S. schools, where black and white students have different educational experiences.

Manley noted that the survey showed black and white students responding that white student advantage because of skin color was a main concern for them.

About 66 percent of black students surveyed said the “white skin advantage” was a moderate/major issue. About 44 percent of white students rated it a moderate/major issue.

“The students are recognizing something,” he said. “They know that there are two schools at the high school.”

‘An uncomfortable truth’

Two weeks ago, the District 200 Board of Education voted to make closing the achievement gap between black and white students its top priority. Some in the community disagreed, saying the school shouldn’t target any specific race of students for improvement. Others objecting said doing so would create a “segregated” school.

Manley, however, noted that the survey shows a racial divide already existing at the school, one that also hasn’t been addressed. Spight referred to it as “an uncomfortable truth,” which the survey starkly reveals.

That divide also exists across all academic levels of the achievement gap, Manley added.

Even black students who are among the high achievers on standardized tests, for example, are doing so nearly a full percentage point below their white counterparts, he noted.

With respect to dealing with race, Manley said the school has not yet reached a point where it can deal with it openly and honestly.

“Anyone who avoids talking about race in Oak Park, or in the U.S. in the 21st century, is playing a game of color-blindness,” he said. “When you bring up the race card, [the school doesn’t] want to be called racist. That’s not the point. We’re talking about our children and their experiences. When we don’t deal with race, public schools can’t serve kids, in particular African-American kids.”

What else do black students experience?

Spight also noted that the survey required further analysis and understanding of students’ varied experiences at OPRF. The survey, for instance, asked students about the issue of a lack of respect from an adult to a student.

Roughly 51 percent of black students saw it as a major or moderate issue. One issue brought up by some OPRF parents involves so-called teacher bias, perceived or otherwise.

Manley suggested that teachers, regardless of race, tend to talk to and view black students differently from whites. Smart black kids, for instance, are referred to as “exceptional blacks” rather than simply exceptional, Manley noted.

“Black and white teachers don’t want to discuss race as far as what they bring to the classroom,” he said.

Spight said the results from the survey were an opportunity to see what other experiences black and white students have at OPRF. Doing so is also key to addressing the black/white achievement gap, he insisted.

“Understanding those experiences is essential to addressing the gap,” said Spight. “You can’t raise student achievement if you don’t address the experience of those students you serve [and] there especially needs to be understanding and attention made to reconstructing that experience.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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