Michelle Harton is a longtime Oak Park resident who worked as a senior staff engineer with Motorola for nearly two decades before becoming a high school math teacher.

For 13 years, she and her husband, Austin, facilitated Math Academy, a homemade Oak Park support group that offered hands-on math tutoring for dozens of African American students. The couple, both engineers-turned-educators, drilled into participants the importance of self-confidence and a sense of belonging. 

“Of course, math acumen is important, but it’s really important for any student, especially students of color, to believe that they can excel and that they can achieve,” said Harton, a former District 97 school board member. 

“When you believe that you can excel and achieve, it changes your whole academic experience,” Harton said. “Stereotypes play a big role in students’ perceptions of themselves.” 

LeeAndra Khan, the former principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, said that those stereotypes can be invisibly reinforced through curricular barriers, which may bar black and low-income students from being exposed to high-level math. 

That’s why, when she was hired in 2015, one of the first things she did was examine the district’s process for allowing students to enter advanced math courses.

She found that some black and brown students were not able to progress into higher level math with their white peers — despite having similar test scores, which are major criteria for advancement. 

“I wondered whether or not the district was keeping true to its own standards of entry,” she said, “and I found that this wasn’t the case.” 

There were clearly other factors influencing the selection process. One of them, Khan discovered, was parent advocacy. White students benefitted from having parents who were familiar with the rules of advancement and who were able to “subvert the process” to their children’s advantage. 

What some black and brown children at Brooks needed, Khan decided, was an advocate of their own with some insider awareness. That’s what she would be.

“I bumped them up myself,” she said. 

One year after Khan left Brooks, the available data suggests that her strategy may have worked. Although the gap in math achievement separating black and white students, as well as low-income and non-low-income students, at District 97 has diminished over the last three years, the contraction at Brooks has been even more pronounced. 

Khan’s radical intervention seems to have been a leading indicator of how District 97 plans to address the so-called achievement gap between black and white students in the years ahead, particularly in math. 

The idea that is gradually taking hold within the district, said Amy Warke, District 97’s chief academic and accountability officer, is that achievement follows equitable access and opportunity, as well as uniform expectations. 

Both Warke and Khan said that a student’s ability to perform advanced math often hinges on whether or not that student is exposed to advanced math in the first place. High performance follows exposure and exposure reinforces high performance. 

“Generally, we decide that if a kid can’t do one thing in math, then they can’t do what’s next,” said Khan. “That’s not true. Not every aspect of math has to be linear. Just because I don’t understand fractions doesn’t mean I can’t understand solving the system of equations. Is the goal for students to demonstrate mastery on an exam or is the goal for them to get it?” 

District 97 officials are thinking along these lines, as well. Warke said that the district eliminated a “bottom tier” math curriculum last year, automatically raising standards across the board for all incoming sixth-graders — regardless of “achievement” level.

“We ensured that all of our students are getting exposed to grade-level math or above,” Warke said. 

As a result, she added, the district saw a 7 percent increase in the number of students of color taking advanced math in sixth grade. 

“Next year, those sixth-graders will be in the seventh grade and we’re anticipating that the percentage will go up,” Warke said. 

Warke said that, in addition to eliminating low-level math curricula, the district has also implemented a variety of professional development procedures designed to identify implicit racial bias, and to promote cultural responsiveness, among teachers in the district. Officials have also taken steps to boost the number of minority teachers and staff in the district. 

“All of these steps go to breaking down the stereotype [of low achievement among minority and low-income students],” Warke said. “It’s about making sure every student knows that we know that they can do the work.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).  

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