A new group has formed to help improve equity, diversity and inclusion at District 97 schools, and in the wider Oak Park community. 

The D97 Diversity Council (DivCo) includes leaders from each D97 PTO, school teachers and members of Excellence With Equity in Education (E-Team)—a grassroots coalition of community members who are focused on providing resources and support systems for children in Oak Park and River Forest. 

Makesha Custard, a DivCo co-founder and Holmes PTO co-president, said that one of the group’s main priorities is to reach out to students and families “who don’t historically feel like they have a voice” in the D97 community. 

“The D97 Diversity Council was formed when a few interested parents focusing on diversity work for their schools’ PTOs came together in March to discuss ways to collaborate,” explained DivCo members in a recent joint email statement.

After that March meeting, those parents reached out to the PTO-Council, the body of all D97 PTO presidents, and asked them to approve a diversity leadership position within every D97 PTO. 

The parents also advocated that funds be allocated for district-wide diversity programming and that PTOs “advocate for improvement in our schools (be it pushing for welcoming efforts and activities, professional development for teachers or funding for tutoring programs).” 

According to the statement, the parents “received unanimous support from all PTOs” and there are now diversity committees at all D97 schools “with the intent that these committees will be an ongoing aprt of the PTO structure.” 

“Our ultimate goal is inclusion so everybody feels part of this education community,” said Venus Johnson, a DivCo member and Mann PTO diversity council chair, during a July 18 regular school board meeting. 

 DivCo member and Lincoln PTO diversity council chair Elizabeth Jarpe-Ratner said that at the time of the group’s founding, different PTOs were already facilitating various equity- and inclusion-related programming, but they were operating separately. DivCo, she said, would consolidate those efforts in a way that would be “more aligned [and] more intentional.”

“[We really wanted] to think about how we can make sure families, some of whom may not have felt super-connected to the school community, feel more welcome, engaged and included,” Jarpe-Ratner said. 

Custard said that the new group will help scale up previous diversity-related efforts, enhance their efficiency, and allow different groups to share what they learned and improve their outcomes.

DivCo members held up the E-Team’s newly developed “Ready, Set, Kindergarten” program at the Oak Park Public Library as a model for how partnerships and collaborations can work to produce better programming.

“Some parents are members of both the PTO and the E-Team … Seeing a need for early intervention, they worked in close partnership with the library to secure space, then raised the necessary funding, assembled a team including teachers and a speech and language therapist to create curriculum and lead the sessions, and worked with numerous local agencies and D97 to publicize the sessions,” said Frances Kraft, a co-founder and lead organizer for E-Team. 

Currently, DivCo is working on administering a parent engagement survey designed to collect information about students and families in the district that would help DivCo members and district officials develop programs, resources and supports. 

The purpose of the survey is to ultimately improve student outcomes, lead to more “equitable access to rigorous instruction,” enhance the effectiveness of teachers and staff members, and strengthen family and community relationships, according to a PowerPoint presentation that DivCo representatives showed D97 board members on July 18. 

DivCo representatives assured school board members that the survey won’t duplicate the Illinois 5Essentials Survey, an annual survey administered to pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the state designed to measure school performance based on five essential areas, such as family involvement and school leadership. 

“The survey is key to understanding how parents feel and what their needs are,” said Custard. “It’s not a perfect survey, but it’s the first step that focuses on the families that we’re trying to get to, while recognizing other needs and differences that exist.” 

 The group has also created a 2017-18 district diversity calendar and partnered with other organizations, such as the E-Team, the Oak Park library, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and the Collaboration for Early Childhood development. 

“We’re a fledgling organization that’s gotten a lot of momentum,” Custard said, adding that the survey is a first, albeit imperfect, step in identifying the needs of families who have traditionally been on the margins. “We’re really encouraging families to want to get involved to make Oak Park the place they thought they were moving to when they first came here.”  

To take DivCo’s parent/guardian engagement survey, visit: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PTOEngage. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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