For Oak Park and River Forest High School’s high-achieving African-American students, the academic achievement gap has always lurked quietly in the background. From a young age these students recall being aware there was something almost invisible dividing their school, but by the time high school began, it became obvious that academics seemed to split along racial lines.

The numbers are well documented and startling. Only 32 percent of black students at OPRF H.S. are meeting or exceeding state standards in reading, while over 80 percent of their white counterparts are. In mathematics the numbers are even worse with less than 31 percent of blacks meeting or exceeding standards compared to 84 percent of white students. The statistics are gleaned from the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which students across the state take during their junior year. The full school report card, as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, can be found at oprfhs.org.

Unfortunately, the achievement gap is nothing new and as readers of Wednesday Journal know, it can be a sensitive issue. New Superintendent Attila J. Weninger unveiled “A Plan to Raise Student Achievement” (also available at oprfhs.org) in October 2007 and in November, the District 200 Board of Education adopted a resolution stating that “the continuous narrowing of the academic achievement gap between black and white students” is a “top priority.”

Since then, community discussion about the gap has reached an all-time high. Board members and administrators have wrangled over the wording of the resolutions and the focus of the gap, and teachers and parents have had their say as well. But the one group that hasn’t been heard from much-unless you count their test scores-is the students.

Specifically, high-achieving African-American students might shed light on this issue from their unique point of view. While there are low-achieving white, Latino and Asian students, statistics show the gap to disproportionately affect black students. Many students have opinions regarding the achievement gap but by peering into the lives of a few minority upperclassmen, we can catch a glimpse of the worlds that exist at 201 N. Scoville.

It should be noted that the following interviews were conducted before Barack Obama’s recent speech in Philadelphia about bridging the country’s racial divide.

Gabrielle Cole

“I didn’t think about the achievement gap that much before this year, but seeing the statistics opened my eyes,” Gabrielle Cole said quietly. “As an African-American, it’s sad not just for the school but for me. I live in two different worlds with two different groups of friends.”

The idea of two different worlds existing within one school has been mentioned previously, and, specifically for African-American honors students, it’s a reality they learn to navigate quickly. Cole said the worlds are not divided necessarily along racial lines, but due to the class track structure isolating the honors and AP students from the lower level classes.

“Ability grouping,” as OPRF calls it, divides courses (and frequently students) into three levels-honors and AP (Advanced Placement), college prep, and transition. Kay Foran, director of Community Relations and Communications at the high school, said “students select-and recommendations are made for-individual courses, not for a whole program.”

Like most high-achieving students, Cole’s parents and teachers expect her to do well. “I was raised with the expectation of going to college. Students who are underachieving don’t have that plan. Not having a plan or goals for the future breeds apathy and quickly school just becomes a chance to socialize.”

Cole’s opinions and understanding of issues pertaining to the gap have developed since she joined the School Improvement Board this year. By researching the achievement gap and Dr. Weninger’s new plan, Cole has worked with students and faculty to address the issues and move the school forward.

She is impressed with Weninger’s plan for the most part and strongly agrees with the proposal regarding honors enrollment: “I want students to achieve at a high level in high level classes, and therefore think honors classes should be mandatory at least once during their high school career.”

As a junior, Cole is aware of the issues the school faces, but is excited to be able to work on these issues for one more year.

“The student population knows there is a problem and wants to move forward. I think we are all ready to really see a change in achievement levels. Weninger’s plan is a plan of action and that’s definitely what we need.”

This past January, Cole delivered the winning speech at the school-wide Martin Luther King Jr. Day Oratorical Contest. She called on students to fight against self-imposed segregation at OPRF. In the future, Cole hopes to become either a politician or businesswoman. She jokes that while both occupations are frequently corrupt, she won’t change anytime soon.

Aaron Saunders

For senior Aaron Saunders, the achievement gap started long before high school. During first grade he recalls students being tested and quickly assigned to different groups. “I’m good at taking tests, so I was placed in the gifted group right off the bat,” he said.

“When high-achieving black students enter OPRF, the administration gets excited. They look at us as capable, intelligent, black students who, by succeeding in their program, will not only affirm the actions taken, but will reverse the stigma that we have too many black students who are failing,” Saunders said. “The success of certain black students takes the stress off the school to close the gap.”

Saunders said OPRF’s course tracks-transition, college prep, and honors/AP-create three different schools and that the teachers assigned the transition and college prep classes lower their educational standards. Moreover, he argues, students, particularly those in lower level classes, are taught the concept over the content in preparation for state tests. For Saunders, this makes classes seem boring and is more likely to loose the interest of the already apathetic students.

Over the past four years, Saunders, who participated in student council, track and theater, was recently nominated by teachers to work with Supt. Weninger-whom he affectionately refers to as Attila-on the Principal Selection Committee.

While interviewing candidates, he studied Weninger’s achievement plan. Saunders has suggestions for improvement but is glad to see the issue being addressed after all his years in Oak Park schools. Most importantly, he’s glad to see increased communication between parents and teachers on Weninger’s agenda.

Informing students and parents clearly about all the resources OPRF offers will ensure student success, he said. Because the achievement gap represents a cycle of poor education and poverty, Saunders believes getting parents on board and educating them about their child’s route to success will help close the gap.

Aaron Saunders has not just been a high-achieving student, but attempted to be a force for change at OPRF. He plans to double major in Business and Theater and dreams of opening his own theater company where he will assure struggling kids of their potential. Great things were expected of him, he said, and it made all the difference in the world. The way he sees it, expecting greatness of others is the least he can do.

Alvie Bender

Like other students interviewed, senior Alvie Bender has felt pressure to succeed. “I feel like I have to be the one to represent [African-Americans],” Bender said. “I don’t feel that pressure from other students or teachers-just from myself, especially in the AP classes where I am the only African-American.”

Bender was familiar with the new achievement plan, but after four years at OPRF she didn’t think much had been done to close the gap.

“The differences between honors and [college prep and transition] classes are huge, making the gap very wide. In my honors classes, all the students are serious about their work, but in other classes the students are just interested in socializing.”

Bender’s frustration is the school’s as well. Motivating students to be serious about their work and their future is one of the teachers’ primary struggles. Bender quickly acknowledged she wasn’t always a high-achieving student, but during eighth grade, she realized how important homework was in the grand scheme of things.

“I haven’t always been the good kid, but when I realized I wanted to go to college, I started to work harder in school. Really, it’s not that hard to do well. It’s a little disturbing that we don’t have more students of color in higher classes. People make AP and honors classes seem so hard that it scares off minority students. If we just take the intimidation away, more students would achieve at a higher level.”

Bender remembers being a little intimidated when she sat down with her dean freshman year. Mapping out her high school career seemed overwhelming, but her dean’s knowledge about the courses and interest in her life encouraged her to take more honors classes sophomore year.

With less than 50 days of high school remaining, Bender isn’t letting Senioritis get the better of her. She is still working hard in her classes and debating whether to attend college at Loyola or Seton Hall and plans on majoring in English Literature. Yes, Alvie Bender, who four years ago didn’t know what she was capable of, wants to be a teacher.

Brigette Maia

Senior Brigette Maia’s light skin and piercing dark eyes have misled students and teachers over the past four years. “People assume I’m white,” said the Malawian and Irish trapeze artist (she recently performed in the Triton Troupers Circus).

With very few blacks in her honors classes, Maia said she has witnessed students slandering African-Americans because they weren’t well represented in these classes. She said this happened when the achievement gap was discussed in her sophomore honors English class.

“We need to change the way we talk to each other” about class and race issues, Maia said, noting that at OPRF those discussions have been met with a quiet tension and clear-cut polarization along race lines.

Like most students interviewed, her courses range from college prep to honors level and AP courses for college credit. Maia readily admits the work is intense and the pace is vigorous in honors classes but says the school should do more to encourage and prepare low-achieving students to succeed in honors-level courses.

Because the gap is “a social problem influenced by economic status,” Maia thinks mentors are a key to improving student achievement. Having adults from similar backgrounds meet and work with low-achieving students on a regular basis would broaden their horizons and challenge the students to push themselves academically, opening doors for academic and career success in the future, she said.

Her own horizons will broaden this fall as she enters Loyola University. But despite problems and tensions at the high school, Maia is confident that frank discussion and encouragement of students who demonstrate lackluster performance will transform the institution in the future. After all, she says, at OPRF she has learned that with education, hard work and big dreams, anything is possible.

Darien Pasulka

“Basically, the achievement gap is about students conforming to trends. What group of friends do you want to be like-those who are high-achievers or those who are low-achievers?” senior Darien Pasulka asked recently.

Since transferring from St. Ignatius over a year ago, Pasulka says it’s obvious that “no one ever expects anything from the lower-achieving students. You can’t just hope students will do well if nothing has ever been expected of them academically.”

A straight-shooter, Pasulka believes those who aren’t achieving at lower levels don’t have the motivation to learn, aren’t serious about school and don’t demonstrate respect for their surroundings.

“I don’t like to see [the achievement gap between black and white students] because it’s the perpetuation of poverty in the African-American community,” said Pasulka who is biracial. He sees the gap as a socioeconomic issue and says, “It’s embarrassing because [minorities] are stuck in this situation.”

Pasulka is not very familiar with Weninger’s achievement plan but has a few ideas of his own. He knows kids have to want to achieve, but suggests eliminating attractive “ping pong” courses compiled of underachievers saying, “If you’re not going to work hard, you shouldn’t get a diploma.”

While Pasulka hopes teachers and the administration begin to expect more from all students, he also thinks students should be treated the same way in regards to discipline. “From what I can see, it seems like the worse you act, the smaller your punishment is and that’s not right.”

In his AP Psychology class Pasulka has been studying genocide and the current events in Kenya. He draws a comparison between the ethnic violence there and the cycle of poverty and educational hopelessness that contribute to educational genocides of the poor in the U.S.

After Darien Pasulka graduates in June he plans to study psychology in college and hopes to become a therapist or teacher so he can “help kids at the bottom who have grown up with the wrong attitudes and goals.” Sometimes when he speaks out about issues related to the achievement gap, students tell him that he isn’t black enough to understand all the variables. But Pasulka doesn’t let it bother him too much. After all, he observes, that’s what some said about Barack Obama, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt him.

OPRF has a long “tradition of excellence,” molding and growing students who change the world, whether through business, the arts, athletics or sciences and today’s students will be no different. Their dreams are just as big and their understanding of difficult social and academic issues like the achievement gap is sophisticated.

As the district works to narrow the achievement gap, much can be learned from the experiences of high-achieving African-American students who haven’t let this gap define them. Instead they have succeeded not only academically but also socially while navigating the journey from adolescence to adulthood and exemplifying OPRF’s motto: “Those things that are best.”

Abigail Cramton, a substitute teacher at OPRF High School, is reachable at abbycramton@yahoo.com.

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