When the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board introduced Acting Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams as its permanent superintendent at a Dec. 22 school board meeting, several board members, and Pruitt-Adams herself, were brought to tears.
The hire capped off a year loaded with emotions, during which local tensions over high school swimming pools overlapped with racially charged headlines from around the country.
If in 2015 Oak Park seemed poised to finally grab the bull of racial inequity by the horns, in 2016 community members and school district officials seemed to have finally gotten a hold of some keratin, if only barely.
Oak Park will close out this year with African-American women helming its elementary and high school districts. Without strenuously digging through the historical record, one could probably safely conclude that this is a historic first.
But the milestone wouldn’t rise above the merely symbolic if there weren’t also rumblings of an organic, bottom-up impatience among community stakeholders of diverse interests who believe that the time for resolving the problem of racial inequities in a wide range of areas — including academic proficiency and rates of discipline within the schools — has for too long been just around the bend.
“A strange thing is happening,” said John Duffy, a longtime Oak Parker and member of the Committee for Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, during a December District 97 school board meeting. “For the first time that I know, we’re talking about racial equity in similar terms at the high school and at District 97.”
The similarities abound, from an increasing emphasis on a restorative justice approach to student discipline at both D97 and D200 to the dominant role that equity played in the appointments of Pruitt-Adams at OPRF and of Carol Kelley, who was hired in 2015, in D97.
The growing discontent could be due to a variety of forces, many of them converging. This year, Oak Park seemed vulnerable, perhaps in a way that it’s never been before, to the record gun violence happening just east of its border. The August murder of OPRF student Elijah Sims seemed to crystallize the racial and economic divide separating Oak Park and Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.
In July, as police-involved shootings roiled the country and presidential candidate Donald Trump mobilized for a historically controversial national campaign, an alleged incident of racial insensitivity at a local bar — part of what some people consider a pattern of abuses — ignited a march. From that demonstration, a new, aggressive nonprofit called Suburban Unity Alliance, created by OPRF teacher Anthony Clark, was formed.
Clark and Duffy, along with other grassroots activists, have kept constant pressure on district officials at both D97 and D200 to change some longstanding, but highly controversial, practices within the schools — from the pattern of academic tracking at OPRF to some punitive forms of discipline at the elementary schools that may disproportionately harm minority children.
Alongside the equity-related activist pressure, there’s also been the consistent pressure of D200 Pragmatic Pool Solutions, the group of residents formed in late 2015 to protest the high school’s decision to a build a new swimming pool without putting the planned project to a referendum.
This year, the group, led by former news anchor Monica Sheehan, was influential in defeating a referendum put on the ballot by the high school that would fund an alternative plan.
The plan’s defeat, which means that a community conversation around replacing OPRF’s two nearly 90-year-old pools will likely start anew, has made way for what high school officials are promising will be a more expansive conversation about more than pools.
It will also encompass, Pruitt-Adams said in December, a host of issues directly related to racial equity, such as academic achievement and early childhood education.
A pathway to directly confronting racial inequity has also seemed to open up at D97. In an interview in December, Kelley acknowledged that students in D97 experienced the learning environment in a different way.
“It’s blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians,” she said. “They’re all saying, ‘Our friends, us, everyone, experiences D97 in a different way.
“Now, more than ever, it’s going to be imperative for local agencies to put into action what we say we value,” she said. “In Oak Park, what I’ve heard from the community is that we value equity, inclusion, focusing on the whole child and those learning experiences for each student.”
Much of this paradigm shift, if it happens, will have occurred outside of the camera lenses and boomers of acclaimed documentarian and Oak Parker Steve James, and his crew, who in 2016 finished their year of filming at the high school for a documentary series, called America to Me, about the persistence of the color line despite the best intentions.
If a revolution is really happening in Oak Park, it will likely not be televised.