Oak Park and River Forest High School is designed to prepare students of middle and upper incomes for a four-year college degree. OPRF is also designed to prepare low-income students for service jobs after high school or unemployment.

In order to get different results for our low-income students, we need to change the system. If the OPRF board, administration, teachers and community truly care about the futures of our low-income students, we will implement seven changes:

1) Create a smaller school, an academy with a dedicated teaching staff, in OPRF for the 400 students who are of the lowest ability. In this smaller school, students would develop relationships with their teachers and vice versa. It is simply too easy for low-ability students to get lost in a complicated school, with more than 3,000 students, that is built for middle- and upper-income students to succeed.

2) Extend the time. The seven-hour school day is perfect for middle- and upper-income students. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out that kids in middle- and upper-income households get enrolled in special programs and go to summer camp. When they are bored at home, there are plenty of books to read. They get better at reading and math over the summer.

The seven-hour school day and 210-day school year are simply too short for low-income students. Gladwell sites research that shows that, “Poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session.” There’s no money for low-income kids to attend summer camp, and there aren’t books lying around the house. There is probably just a television.

This academy would have an eight- to nine-hour school day like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools and the Noble High Schools in Chicago. Teachers in the academy would carry cellphones like KIPP teachers. Students could get the help they need with homework after school since they are less likely to get it at home.

If we don’t increase the time that our lowest achieving students are engaged academically, there should be no surprise each year when Wednesday Journal announces that the achievement gap persists in Oak Park.

As a former principal of a KIPP school, I know that there are teachers who would take on these extra hours to work alongside other like-minded, driven social activists who want to change the world. They would get addicted to seeing results with low-ability students.

3) Focus on remediation and focus on acceleration: Our low-ability students need to be taught at the academic level they come in at. To truly compete on the ACT and on college applications, they need to start low and then be accelerated.

4) Students in the academy would need to commit to the program. They would need to commit to the following:

Do homework for about two hours every night

Call teachers when they have questions

And apply to at least five universities and get accepted into at least one to graduate from high school

5) The academy would be a calm environment with a culture of respect. Students would efficiently get to class and be engaged in effective lessons. This strong culture would result in more learning time.

6) There would be a focus on college. Students would attend 10 four-year universities before graduating from the academy. Teachers would talk about their college experience every day. College banners would be everywhere. College would be the expectation like it is in most middle- and upper-income households.

7) What would the students get out of the program? They would be ready for AP classes that currently only the middle- and upper-income students are prepared for. They would get support when they are in these classes. They would also get their AP test fees and college application fees waived. They would truly get the skills they need to complete a four-year college degree. As a result, they would have the same options that middle- and upper-income students have when they graduate from OPRF.

As Gladwell summarizes, “Our kids don’t need gleaming facilities, a laptop, smaller classes, a teacher with a Ph.D. or a bigger apartment. These things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. They need a chance.”

If we thoughtfully change the OPRF system with low-ability students in mind, then they will get different and better results. Until we do this, we can expect more of the same. Oak Park and River Forest residents, let’s demand that the OPRF board and administrators make dramatic changes to OPRF so that all students are truly prepared for college. Let’s also demand District 97 to take a similar approach. Show your support by e-mailing D97board@op97.org.

Jim O’Connor is an Oak Park resident and former principal for KIPP Ascend charter school in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.

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