For the second time in recent weeks I have been in the audience as a black, female leader of an Oak Park school has reported that they felt disrespected and undermined upon their arrivals in their own schools. 

Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent at OPRF, told a crowd at the Lake Theatre watching an America to Me preview in August, that she has experienced racial bias directed at her both within the school and in the community. 

Last Thursday evening, the PTO at Mann School in northwest Oak Park, hosted a brave discussion about race and equity in response to the now seven broadcast episodes of America to Me. There was a panel of five, four Mann parents and Faith Cole, the school’s principal for the past four years. Cole, a black woman, has an interesting history since she is a graduate of Mann. After school, she returned to District 97 as a teacher for seven years before being chosen as Mann’s principal in December 2014.

But she also reported hearing stories on her arrival of opposition to her appointment, based on her race. “Having me as a leader is not what some people wanted.”

Last week, in the auditorium of Mann School, Cole was clearly wanted and much respected by her activist parent community.

But I add in the unceremonious departure of LeeAndra Khan as principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School a year ago after her bold, and to some antagonizing, efforts to jump-start black kids into advanced math. And I include the departure of Chala Holland, a leading voice for change in early episodes of America to Me. Holland was assistant principal of OPRF and expressed frustration at the lack of urgency in the school. She is now principal of Lake Forest High School.

There is not an unlimited supply of black women eager and determined to work in our schools, women with the experience and chops to create change that is so overdue. This is something for us to think about.

Meanwhile back at Mann’s PTO meeting, Cole launched the evening in principal-mode with a detailed presentation on the school’s demography – 68 percent white, 6 percent black, 8 percent Latino, 14 percent multiracial. Then before noting the reality of an academic gap in math and reading between the school’s white and black and Latino students, she made a point that would be repeated many times during the two-hour discussion. 

Unlike any other school in Oak Park, there is no income gap between races in the Mann community. That removes the go-to response often heard when we look at dramatic disparities between races on test scores. “Well, maybe its not race; it’s really about income levels.” At Mann School there is no income gap between races yet the academic gap persists.

A parent asked, if there is no income gap, then why is there a racial gap? Cole called that “the million-dollar question. And if anyone can do [something about] it, Mann can do it.” 

They’ve already started. A PTO co-chaired by two former teachers intently focused on equity (Aimee Davis and Dot Roche), a PTO ready to convene a meeting solely on equity, parents (Davis, Oscar Johnson, Katie Korrison and Doug Rainey) ready to sit on a stage and talk plainly about race and racism and how it is real in the lives of their young children at Mann.

Korrison said that racism is out there in the community. “We have to talk early and often about this. Many whites don’t talk about race. If we don’t, our kids will learn their values elsewhere.”

Join the discussion on social media!

Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...