Members of the River Forest District 90, Oak Park District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 boards of education, along with at least 100 audience members (a large number of whom were administrative officials from the three districts), crammed into a room inside of Roosevelt Middle School, 7556 Oak Ave. in River Forest, on May 1.
The event, promoted as a Tri-District Town Hall Forum on educational equity, gathered a range of perspectives on those districts’ decades-long struggle with the racial achievement gap, with some points of view more prominent than others.
While many in attendance lauded the town hall as a sign of progress, some people were less inspired and viewed the meeting as business as usual — yet another instance of district officials confronting the obstinate gap with more committees, consultants and meetings.
And at least one person, a River Forest resident, voiced open opposition to the meeting’s premise, arguing against the very notion that there is a problem to be resolved.
District 90 Superintendent Edward Condon said that the purpose of the town hall was to bring community members up to speed on some of the measures implemented by the three districts to enhance equity in their respective schools.
He also said that the gathering was an opportunity for district administrators to hear residents’ ideas and opinions on equity.
Ralph Martire, the D90 board president and the executive director of the non-partisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, opened the town hall with a 10-minute presentation on the structure of education funding in Illinois. Referencing data from the Education Trust, a national nonprofit research organization, Martire said that state’s “highest poverty district receives nearly 20 percent less state and local funding than the lowest poverty district.”
Across the state, Martire said, 55 percent of black students in Illinois live in 5 percent of school districts with the greatest poverty rates and the lowest property values. More than 90 percent of black students live in communities where the percentage of low-income residents is greater than 30 percent.
“African-American children have had significantly less invested in their education in Illinois over time than their white peers,” Martire said. “Local resources are far and away the primary funder of education in Illinois.
Martire argued that the race-based disparity in school funding has led to “some pretty bad outcomes,” such as a wage gaps between whites and Latinos, and whites and blacks, in Illinois that has grown 37 percent and 197 percent, respectively, since 1980.
In addition, Martire said, the unemployment rate for whites and blacks without a high school diploma in Illinois just before the Great Recession was 11.7 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Martire added that 58 percent of whites, and only 24 percent of blacks, with at least a bachelor’s degree in Illinois just before the Great Recession were among the state’s top wage earners.
Martire attributed the racially disparate outcomes to discrimination in the labor force and the fact that “we have literally tied the quality of public education a kid gets to property.”
During three separate 10-minute presentations, the superintendents of each of the three school districts updated community members on measures that have been implemented within the last few years to confront the persistence of the achievement gap even in relatively wealthy school districts in Oak Park and River Forest.
Many of those measures implemented in the three districts had common themes, such as the lack of minority representation among faculty and staff members, the racial disparity in discipline rates, the influence of implicit racial biases and the availability of early childhood education opportunities for low-income and minority families.
District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said professional development at OPRF has been enhanced to include an emphasis on equity and that the district has pushed to increase the number of minorities enrolled in Advanced Placement classes.
Pruitt-Adams also said that equity is a centerpiece of the district’s strategic plan that her administration is working on and that, starting in the 2017-18 school year, the district will conduct a series of equity-related audits and evaluations, such as a professional audit of the OPRF’s restorative justice programs.
District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley said that the district has been “designing targeted strategies to break down barriers” to achievement for individual students.
Kelley said that the district has implemented a program called multitiered systems of support to “provide appropriate interventions for all students around positive behaviors, attendance and academic support.” And it has partnered with the Oak Park Township to provide students with restorative justice peace circles, which are a form of non-punitive conflict resolution.
The district has also formed a partnership the Oak Park Public Library, which now houses the district’s multicultural educational center, and has hired a multicultural librarian to work with teachers and students in accessing it.
The school district also recently approved a purchase of additional books in elementary school classrooms that would provide students with a mirror to their own multicultural identities, Kelley said.
Condon touted the formation of an inclusiveness advisory board and a board equity committee, both of which were created to “establish a shared vision on equity” within the district. The district is also working with the National Equity Project, which is helping District 90 develop “internal expertise” on equity.
One District 97 parent in attendance said more needs to be done to provide all children with access to high-quality early childhood education.
“Fixing the achievement gap, and really making sure that kids are getting what they need is incredibly hard and the data shows it’s incredibly hard to do in elementary and high school,” said the parent, who said she was also a teacher.
“The research is very clear that children growing up in low-income situations have heard 30 million fewer words than there more affluent peers by the time they’re entering high school,” she said. “What can we do to make sure all of our students are having access to seriously high quality pre-K and making sure it reaches every kid who needs it?”
Some of those in attendance, however, weren’t convinced that another town hall meeting would help make a dent in the problem of equity.
“There’s proven research that everybody’s cited, so there’s no need for more communities and consultants,” said Jeff Kraft, a former River Forest resident and Dominican University professor who said that a comprehensive plan for the three districts on equity shouldn’t take more than 120 days to create.
“I’m hoping there can be goals you can set to end systemic failures and what are the action plans that include family engagement and restorative justice throughout the districts,” Kraft said.
River Forest resident Brian Timpone described himself during his public comments as one of the few skeptics in attendance, before arguing that equity-related measures could potentially tear apart the community. He also said that “everything [Ralph Martire] said about school funding is patently false.”
“Telling all white people that they’re privileged, that they’re racist and that there’s underachievement by black and Hispanic students because of some sort of inherent racism is not only false but patently ridiculous,” Timpone said. “It also stigmatizes the black and Hispanic students by telling them that they’re perpetually discriminated against.”
Timpone’s perspective, while opposite that of most people in attendance, helped illustrate Condon’s point that the problems of equity aren’t technical but value-laden.
“These are not technical changes,” Condon said. “Technical change is something you can address with expertise. These are adaptive changes. They’re systemic issues and solutions are going to have to be community-based. It can’t just be teachers and a group of passionate individuals.”