Is less expected of black students at Oak Park and River Forest High School? The District 200 Board of Education wrestled with that issue at a workshop on race and student achievement last Thursday.

A discussion concerning expectations of students and the need to define racism were the main focuses of the roughly three-hour evening discussion.

Last week’s workshop was the third this spring exploring issues related to race and the achievement gap at OPRF. The board spent the bulk of its discussion time on expectations.

With no moderator, the evening workshop first started with each of the seven members providing his or her definition of racism.

Board member John Rigas said it’s a spectrum, which includes hate.

“The term means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It starts on the worst end with hatred, and that’s probably because of ignorance,” he said.

Rigas added that having a lower expectation of black students based on their academic performance was the other end of the spectrum.

As it related to OPRF, the board universally agreed that hatred with respect to race at the high school was not an issue, and the conversation steered toward whether there are lower expectations of black students at OPRF.

Board member Valerie Fisher noted, “I think what you’re talking about at that end of the spectrum would be a different set of expectations applied on the basis of race, and when that happens, that’s a form of racism.”

Board member Ralph Lee identified it as the school’s main issue.

“In my opinion, the single greatest problem we have in this school district is one of expectations,” the retired OPRF teacher said. “I would not make that synonymous with the term racism. I’m not sure it’s all that useful for us to define what the word ‘racism’ means in the abstract.”

John Allen, who initiated these race workshops, noted that some in the community perceive the high school as showing a certain level of hatred toward black students.

“Even if hatred is not a reality that we have to deal with, hatred is a perception in the community,” he said. “Since I first started dealing with this while running for the board, I’ve been told there are people actively in this school trying to put black students down-limit them, hurt them, prevent them from achieving anything. I’ve heard that from people of both races, white and black. That may not be a reality, but it’s a very real belief. Because the community is involved in this, I think it’s important to address their beliefs and concerns.”

The board embarked on this series of discussions in February, followed by a second in March. Before the first workshop, the board agreed on a set of topics and outcomes to guide the discussion.

Last Thursday’s session focused on what role racism plays in the high school. Toward meeting’s end, Allen felt the board had not gone far enough on the issue. Members agreed to have another session this spring, and the board is expected to set a future date at Thursday’s regular board meeting.

“Race is really that tough discussion we started out doing, and then we found ways to avoid having that tough discussion,” he said. “[I’m] not willing to let you guys avoid that tough discussion.”


Measuring the gap

The board and administration will establish a set of criteria the high school will use to chart whether the high school is making progress in closing the achievement gap.

The move came at the urging of board member Ralph Lee and after much discussion among members and administration on how to proceed. Lee contended neither the high school nor the board had any way of evaluating progress made on closing the gap between black and white students at OPRF beyond standardized test scores administered by the state.

Supt. Attila Weninger committed the administration to develop by this summer a set of criteria to chart progress on closing the gap and a schedule of how often that will be evaluated.

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