With school about to begin, we offer the third in a series of education-related essays. 

As the new school year begins in Oak Park, there is the usual sense of new beginnings and hope for the future percolating across the village. This year that sense is heightened as we welcome promising new leaders to our school board and an impressive new superintendent in District 97.

In a way, that sense of hope is always heightened in Oak Park because Oak Park is a community based on a promise — a promise to welcome and value all people, regardless of race, income, sexual orientation, or ability. This promise is the key to our sense of place, our vibrancy, and our prosperity.

Over the last 50 years, we have made great progress on that promise. Efforts to welcome a diverse population and promote integration throughout the village are recognized nationally. They form the heart of our identity (our brand if you will). We have understandable pride in our commitment to an open community. When it comes to the welcoming part of our promise, we have a strong sustainable structure through Oak Park Village Hall, nonprofit organizations, congregations, and community leaders.

However, we have more work to do on the “value” part of our promise. This has been and continues to be most evident in the gap in academic outcomes. A gap that has clear racial and economic divisions. The gap has persisted for too long. It is antithetical to our values. Now we must identify a solution to achieve our full promise and prosperity.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Oak Parkers are aware of this problem and committed to eliminating the gap. After decades of starts and stops, there is a longing for significant and sustainable progress. This is particularly true for the generation that moved to Oak Park this century with school-aged children. This generation chose Oak Park based largely on its reputation as an inclusive community and views equity as a priority.

There is renewed hope that our leaders will act to ensure that all of our neighbors will be valued, in addition to being welcomed. We can envision a school district that is a model of excellence and equity. A district where every child is encouraged to succeed and fulfill her potential. A district committed to high achievement and to meeting the distinct needs of its diverse student body. A district where every child gets the support he needs to succeed. A district where every class is filled with students who are enabled to contribute. Where our children are challenged by their peers in every classroom.

As the new school year begins, we ask our educational leaders to believe in the promise of Oak Park. We ask you to have faith in our community’s commitment to support you. We ask you to prioritize the single most important issue in our schools. 

We ask you to eliminate the gap.

Rob Breymaier is the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.

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