Narrowing the gap
Ken Trainor’s column “Why not call it RFOP High School?” touches the third rail of our community: the achievement gap and its relation to overall performance at District 200. [Viewpoints, April 29] Thank you for having the courage to squarely frame the issue so we can have a productive debate.

It is unfortunate, however, that the column focused negatively on Amy McCormack’s election. She hasn’t even been sworn in yet, and the problems at Dist. 200 are not her fault. It’s hard enough to get people involved. Let’s not knock them before they begin. Also, I fear that your approach provides an opportunity for the status quo to attack the messenger and deflect from the considerable merits of your argument.

River Forest is indeed “joined at the hip” with Oak Park through the high school. The achievement gap and the relative decline in overall test scores are statistically related. It is not a coincidence that, for the first time in memory, OPRF fell out of the Tribune’s list of the top 50 high schools in the metro area. School performance is the single biggest variable in housing value, and homebuyers will not miss this in the Internet age. Fix the problems at the high school, or housing values will be affected.

Trainor’s column stands out because it accurately divines the thought process west of Harlem. He is correct that District 97 is blamed for the achievement gap because it “does a poor job preparing the students.” This translates to, “There is nothing we can do about it, so why bother really trying?” Thus, there is nothing morally disturbing about disappointing minority outcomes as long as the “high school within a high school,” (the honors program) maintains its standing.

There are many things wrong with these rationalizations. It ignores that Dist. 200 – through the “backdoor tax hike” – guaranteed that Dist. 97 could never pass a referendum as Oak Park taxpayers were taxed out. It essentially starved Dist. 97 from access to the very resources that it needed to prepare the students that eventually arrive at Dist. 200’s doorstep. When the tax hike was passed, the Dist. 200 board promised to use the funds to address the achievement gap in a “measurable” way. That was three years ago, and the achievement gap hasn’t significantly improved. In the meantime, Dist. 200 used the tax-hike proceeds to amass a $72 million reserve. While Dist. 97 is pinching pennies, and its students allegedly remain unprepared, Dist. 200 is projecting a $110 million cash reserve by 2012.

There are also the predictable whispers that the problem is the “parents’ fault.” We don’t have to debate whether this is fundamentally racist, because it isn’t factually defensible. Evanston Township High School – which has nearly 50 percent more minority students and three times more low income students than OPRF – managed to maintain its place in the top 50 while materially improving on its achievement gap. Evanston is OPRF’s only real benchmark, and it is cleaning our clock. Unless you think there is something inherently superior about Evanston’s minority parents, blaming Oak Park’s minority parents just doesn’t fly.

On its face, you can’t blame River Forest residents for these rationalizations to the extent they reflect what people perceive is their self-interest. Unfortunately, this isn’t systemic thinking. And, because we exist in a system, it is doomed to fail. Starving Dist. 97 of tax funds, while stashing cash, isn’t helping anyone, including River Forest. Dist. 200 ought to lower its tax rate and draw down on this huge cash reserve. This would lower taxes for Oak Park and River Forest – and what is the point of having all that cash in a public institution, anyway? With a smaller tax burden, Dist. 97 could pursue a referendum that would enable it to better prepare its students. In so doing it would: 1) lower taxes in River Forest, 2) not detract from the resources available to Dist. 200 students and 3) improve the Dist. 97 feeder system into the high school at no cost to River Forest. This would be a win-win-win situation for River Forest and a win-win for Oak Park.

Like it or not, Oak Park and River Forest are in this together. And, the problem isn’t just the achievement gap. Equal attention needs to be paid to the vast middle, which seems to get lost in the discussion. I, for one, disagree that the achievement gap should be the main priority. It is second to educating students to their maximum potential. We need a culture of excellence at all levels, not just among the top performers and minorities. What would happen if the achievement gap widened so greatly that a civil rights lawsuit eventually led to the restructuring or dismantling of the honors program? How would that go over in River Forest? What would that do to property values?

We need to fix this – at all levels at OPRF – or it might be fixed for us. Not just because it is in our self interest, but because it is the right thing to do.

Steve Hoke is a River Forest village trustee.

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