OPRF High School's Cori Conley is one of only two African-American players on the Huskie field hockey team. David Pierini/Staff Photographer

For at least the last 20 years I have been urging the high school to “affirmatively market” those sports and activities in which students of color were under-represented, so it was gratifying to see that Sharon Patchak-Layman has taken up the torch.

A goal is far from a quota, and I am disappointed to read that some board members viewed her excellent proposal as suggesting a quota. Do these naysayers want to continue the “separate but equal” policies of segregation days? Are they opposed to having all students feel “comfortable” in any and all sports and other activities at the high school? I think not, but perhaps they do not understand the historical realities that have led black students to sports in which they see large numbers of black athletes.

Segregation holds people back by not exposing them to the full range of opportunity. It is hard to believe that black students cannot excel in soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, and other sports perceived as “white.” In countries in the Caribbean and Africa, we see black tennis players and coaches excelling in a sport they do not see as “white.”

Segregation in sports at OPRF High School can be ended. When coaches, teachers, and deans assist in outreach to students who may show talent in one sport that can be transferred to another sport, we are all working to eliminate the achievement gap. As with affirmative marketing in employment and housing during the Civil Rights Movement, we are trying to reverse the conditions that were established during periods of segregation when blacks could not participate fully in our society.

Let’s take a look at swimming as an example. We know that black children drown at three times the rate of white children because they do not learn to swim. There is now a national movement to change that situation and it is led by top black Olympic swimmers. Often the parents and grandparents do not swim and convey fear of swimming to youngsters.

We are changing this picture in Oak Park with our excellent park district swimming programs and now have young black lifeguards at our pools. Yet we see few blacks on the swim team or in water polo. Years ago, a friend of mine encouraged her two sons to go out for water polo, which they did. Being on the team — the only black swimmers — opened new opportunities for them and they won scholarships to Ivy League colleges where they did extremely well. Water polo helped to open new doors for them. Since that time, we have seen few students of color in water polo.

What do we need to do to change this dismal picture of segregation in sports at the high school?

1) Provide early exposure to these sports before high school. Students in Oak Park and River Forest are already in soccer, tennis, and other sports from the age of 6. After several years of intense participation, they land at the high school where they are already highly qualified for the teams.

2) Have an annual student sports/activities fair in which all activities are marketed to all students with a realistic picture of what universities are looking for in student applications. We cannot do enough of this outreach to give students a feeling that they are welcome in all programs the school offers.

3) Encouragement from deans and counselors to students who may need more information on what is required to get the maximum benefits from their four years at the high school. Start early with this personal affirmation.

4) Understanding from physical education teachers and coaches that we are depending on them to eliminate segregation in sports. Their response is often that kids choose the sports they know about. Yes, this is true, but it is part of their job to expand, not limit opportunity. When they see a student in a phys. ed. class who may have a talent for lacrosse, they should approach them with the suggestion to try out for that sport.

Thank you, Sharon Patchak Layman, for raising this important issue and for promising to revisit it next month. Lessening the achievement gap requires us to reject the status quo and examine all areas of student life. Only by honestly facing the full picture of student involvement can our wonderful high school increase the level of student achievement for all. And the interesting result is that all students benefit when the lowest achieving students move up the ladder.

Bobbie Raymond founded the Oak Park Housing Center in 1972. She more recently co-founded the OPRF High School Alumni Association. She is a graduate of OPRF.

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