“There has not been a single year in any of my kids’ lives where there hasn’t been an issue of race that has come up in school,” said Jackie Moore, a school board member at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “Not a single year.”

Moore shared that raw reflection in what may have been the most introspective and contemplative public school board meeting in the district’s recent history. The May 24 special meeting was the first time the board had formally met to focus on racial equity since new members Fred Arkin, Sara Dixon Spivy and Jennifer Cassell put the issue squarely at the center of their respective campaigns last April.

Last month’s discussion was designed, according to the meeting agenda, to “set the landscape for the Board of Education’s future work to (1) deepen their understanding of how race affects their decision making; (2) develop a common understanding of equity, and (3) frame the next stage of equity work in the district.”

The meeting’s co-facilitators — former OPRF history department chairman Joshua Seldess and Patricia Savage-Williams, a special education department coordinator at New Trier High School in Winnetka and Evanston Township High School District 202 board president — noted that first, however, the conversation had to happen; along with some soul-searching.

“It takes diving deep, it takes a lot of time and some pretty intense self-reflection for everybody, no matter what your experience or race,” said Savage-Williams, referring to the process of realizing equity. “That can be difficult and hard.” 

Savage-Williams would know. She said she ran for a seat on the District 202 school board for reasons strikingly similar to why the D200 board wants to commence the discussion on equity in the first place. Evanston’s problems, Savage-Williams noted during the meeting, are so strikingly similar to the high school’s that she felt herself experiencing something like de ja vu while listening to the D200 board talk about OPRF’s struggles with racial equity — struggles like those experienced by D200 board member Jennifer Cassell.

Cassell said she first ran for a board seat to “serve my community,” but that her experience as a parent of an African-American “helped inform my views and thinking,” before recalling her experiences with OPRF’s infamous tracking system, which separates students into widely divergent curriculums according to their perceived academic ability.

“I had to kind of push and advocate for my daughter to be placed in some honors classes that I felt she had the ability to achieve in and I received some pushback from at least one division head who I’ve since talked to about the issue,” Cassell said. 

“Now, [my daughter] is a rising senior and has a done very well at that level, but it opened my eyes to an issue that the school struggled with,” she said. “Parents who are savvy and understand advocating for their students are able to get their students placed in the track they think is appropriate for their students. Parents who might not be as savvy, may not be as comfortable advocating or don’t think they have the ability to push back with administrators don’t have their students held to that same high level of expectation.”

Cassell said that, as a board member, she yearns to “see us have a school where all students are held to the same high expectations and their success is not dependent on the ability of their parents to advocate for them.” 

Although there were no concrete action items that came out of the May 24 special meeting, board members expressed a unanimous resolve to continue the equity discussion through various measures, such as a collaboration with the village of Oak Park’s community relations commission to plan community-wide dialogues on race and equity, and more focused attempts to deal with the sensitive issue of tracking. 

But, in the meantime, some board members conceded in apparent frustration, other matters, such as the ongoing pool discussion and an upcoming referendum, compete for their attention and handicap their abilities to build what equity may require most — trust. 

That lack of trust was on full display during the meeting, which few African-American community members attended. 

“I tried to reach out to some more black colleagues to come to these meetings and one said, ‘Will any good come out of those meetings?” said Oak Park resident Mary Bird.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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