Image from 'America to Me.' | Credit: Starz

This past Sunday was the premiere of America to Me, a documentary film series about race and the achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Since the initial plans first became public, I have been looking forward to seeing it. I was among the 700 area residents of all ages who attended the screening of the first episode at the high school.

In her welcome, Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams pointed out that every student at the high school should feel welcome and feel that the high school belongs to them. As we saw in the first episode, this is not the case for some of our students.

Today’s newcomers may not know that Oak Park has been discussing race for more than 50 years and adopted a statement welcoming all back in the 1960s. One of the key areas of concern since that time has been the state of the schools. In the early days, there was even discussion of what a “tipping point” (i.e. too many black students) might mean to schools. For at least the past 40 years there has been concern about an achievement gap between white and black students. 

As a young mother and former teacher, I served on the education committee of the Racial Diversity Task Force in 1983-84. We were asked to evaluate progress in Oak Park since adoption of the village’s original diversity statement in the prior decade. How to welcome black students and help them succeed was a key part of the recommendations.

This week I was able to find at the library a follow-up report from 1992 regarding our original recommendations. Little progress had been made to hire staff and teachers to reflect the racial diversity of the student population, although some new groups had formed. These included APPLE [African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education] at the high school and the Multicultural Center at the elementary level, both of which continue today. Efforts were underway to encourage minority student participation in the enrichment and after-school offerings of the school. Otherwise, not much had changed.

Rather than waiting till children entered school to address these issues, a group of visionary leaders decided to start at the beginning, to “catch” children who need additional help from birth and in the critical preschool years. The payback for this, according to an economist from the University of Chicago who addressed community leaders at the public launch of this program, was $6 for every dollar invested.

Their work led to the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education, whose goal was to help every child have the best opportunity to enter school prepared. They developed a plan and presented it to local governments. All six local governments came together to support this idea. 

The village and both school districts provided a five-year commitment of $500,000 in 2013. Over the last five years, these three governments have received quarterly reports on their efforts. Today the first children participating in this project are entering the early grades in Oak Park. It will be another decade before the full effects of this early intervention are known.

Meanwhile, the broader community has an opportunity to learn more about our local high school by watching America to Me. We can have a wider conversation than ever before about education in Oak Park. I hope you will watch this important documentary series and participate in discussions.

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