In the presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama is spending his week working through the discomfort of talking about race in America.

In Oak Park and River Forest, members of the high school board of education are on their own personal and public journey to talk about how race has affected their own lives and how it might be affecting academic imbalances between black and white students at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Last Saturday, board members held their second workshop on race and the achievement gap. Their purpose Saturday was to share their individual stories of race in their lives.

Working without a facilitator (see sidebar), the session started awkwardly as members tried to figure out how to launch their discussion. But, as with the February workshop, once members got going, the conversation grew more open and candid.

Board members shared personal stories about the role race played in their lives as students. Some of the stories were painful, some were humorous. Members said later they had been unaware of what their fellow board members had experienced.

Issues such as expectations of teachers, parents and students came up throughout the discussion. Members’ stories weren’t restricted to their high school experiences.

John Allen talked of being one of four blacks in his law school class of 160. Out of 640 total students in the predominantly white law school, less than 10 were black.

“Our expectation, of course, was that you needed to make it through the first year of graduate school because if you don’t graduate, then we confirm other people’s beliefs in our abilities,” he said.

Allen shared another story from his grammar school days of a white teacher who routinely made disparaging remarks against black children, including him, but not toward white students. Responding to something Allen said in class that he now admits might have been a smart-alack remark, the teacher responded, “That’s why you’re failing” and laughed at him in front of the class.

Allen said he didn’t believe such incidents were happening as blatantly at OPRF, but asked if such things were happening on a minor level.

“No teacher in this school is going to laugh at a student in front of everybody else for failing, but on a smaller scale, is that happening here, and how do I stop it?”

Dietra Millard talked of growing up in a mostly white community and later going to medical school. Millard said she wasn’t aware of it then, but as an adult understood that she had an advantage because of her skin color.

“I didn’t appreciate that because I grew up in a white community,” she said.

Ralph Lee, a retired chemistry teacher at OPRF, broke some of the tension, sharing a story about attending graduate school to study chemistry.

Lee talked of expectations between students while growing up to believe in racial integration.

He regrets not helping a fellow black student who was struggling. The student’s name was Marion Barry, who went on to became mayor of Washington D.C. and who was later ousted from the job after a 1990 arrest for drug use.

“Now you might be familiar with Marion Barry’s experiences in chemistry,” said Lee, to a round of laughter. “So I left him alone to fend for himself. He dropped out of the chemistry program, and sometimes I think ‘what if I had reached out to help him?’ “

Facilitator bails out

Last Saturday’s workshop took place without a facilitator. Mark Janda, a high school teacher in Columbus, Mo., who facilitates such discussions in school districts, notified the board last Wednesday that he would not be moderating Saturday’s workshop.

Board member John Allen told the board that Janda’s primary reason for backing out was because the board was holding their discussion in open session. The board flirted with closing Saturday’s workshop to the public but backed off after the high school’s attorney informed the board that they would be in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.


The Dist. 200 school board’s next race workshop is April 17 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville Ave.

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