A board discussion last week about standardized test scores triggered a passionate debate about Oak Park and River Forest High School’s effort to address struggling black students amidst criticism from some white residents.

The discussion occurred during an administration report about this year’s Prairie State Achievement Exam, taken by juniors in the spring, showing OPRF failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for the second straight year. Black students were among the subgroups failing to meet or exceed state standards in both math and reading.

In talking about the disappointing scores, board President Jacques Conway talked about the school’s and board’s effort in the last year to address underachieving black students specifically. Many of those efforts have been attacked by some in the community, Conway noted.

Last November, the board passed a resolution, sponsored by Ralph Lee, declaring that closing the black/white achievement gap is the board’s top priority. The measure was later rewritten to specify “minority and non-minority students” after some residents objected. The change was approved in the spring.

“Many of our liberals in this community took offense at addressing the issue of African-American student achievement,” said Conway. “They felt that if we do that, we’re cheating the other students. We had a library full of people jumping all over our superintendent and Ralph Lee’s [resolutions]. But when it comes to the fact that our African-Americans-not all students, but African-American students-have not done well in this school academically for a number of years, it’s not as important as other issues.”

Conway added that black students have not received the same quality instruction, counseling, or push toward college as other students. But he stressed OPRF was not solely at fault, saying students and the school needed support from black parents and guardians.

“It starts at home, it’s carried on in the classroom with the teachers, and it’s finalized by the student him or herself, but if those three parts are not working in harmony, then you have a point where 30-something percent of African-American students are not achieving AYP.”

Board member Dietra Millard, however, said the board owed it to every student, regardless of race, to help them make AYP.

“I have no problem with an emphasis on the black kids who represent half of those not making AYP, but I personally feel an obligation to any kid, no matter where they are in this program, not meeting the minimum standard the state sets.”

But John Allen countered that simply mentioning black students specifically is what sets off the criticism by some whites. He noted the school’s hiring this year of an African-American parent outreach coordinator, a stated goal in Supt. Attila Weninger’s achievement plan, has also been attacked.

“Every time we mention African-American this or African American that, a whole segment of this community goes nuts,” Allen said. “We get e-mails and letters and letters to the papers saying how unfair we are to the underachieving white kids. How do I solve this problem, when I can’t even mention the word black, when the problem is black underachievement?”

Ralph Lee, though, warned that a few critical people didn’t represent the entire community.

“It’s incorrect to say the community objects because the community didn’t object. Some people in the community objected, and that means that we will sometimes have to do our jobs in ways that are not completely approved by every single person in the community.”

Still, Phil Prale, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, acknowledged OPRF needed to do better with black students, insisting that improving their experiences will help other underachieving students.

“Our challenge is the way we are working with those black students [compared with] those white students,” he said. “Absolutely, we have to be able to talk about the experiences of our African-American students when they come into the building. It is essential to our meeting their needs and doing our best for them.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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