After watching this eighth episode, I began to reflect on my first experiences at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I had transferred from Proviso East High School in Maywood my junior year. Because I was an honors student at East, my academic counselor recommended that I continue that path and take honors and AP courses at OPRF.
On my first full day at the school, my counselor walked me to the lunchroom, segregated back then as it is now, and guided me to the all-black section. A few moments into our introductions, a girl asked me why I would possibly want to leave East for OPRF.
Pressured to play cool, I lied and told her my mother made me, even though this wasn’t the case. By semester’s end, uncomfortable with the blacks and alienated from the whites, I would spend the lunch period sitting at a table of two, myself and a silent, eccentric Jamaican teenager I had befriended whose family lived in the apartment unit below ours.
By the time I graduated OPRF, I had been partially absorbed into a quirky, multicultural group of proud outcasts who congregated at a table on the western periphery of the lunchroom. This cherubic white kid named Blair was something like our ambassador, our emissary to the cafeteria’s normal regions.
My time at OPRF, I realized long after leaving the school, was marked by this peripheral perspective. Fifteen years after graduating, I understand why one minority student at OPRF might yearn to leave for a “lesser” school like East while another might revel in OPRF’s plethora of opportunities.
Before I watched the eighth episodeof America to Me, I spoke to John Duffy, chairperson of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education. He appears in the episode talking at a board meeting about tracking — “the practice of putting a small group of higher-achieving students into separate advanced or honors classes,” according to an Atlantic article.
“That’s almost a taboo word in this district and it shouldn’t be,” says Duffy of the practice, speaking to board members. “How does it contribute to racial equity? It’s been the perception, year in and year out, that there are two schools here. Let’s put that question on the table. What about tracking?”
Don Vogel, a retired OPRF longtime former administrator, says on camera that if the school did away with tracking, “I’m fairly certain the community would rise up and say, ‘That’s not a good thing.’ You know, the cost to honors-level students would be far greater than the benefit to lower-achieving students.”
Dan Cohen and John Hoerster both allude to the reality that white parents of high-achieving students fear what might happen to their children’s prospects if the district de-tracked, so to speak.
But as an observer of a majority-minority high school district a few miles west, I can tell you that this fear is not just something white people in Oak Park feel.
Recently, parents and students from Proviso Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school within Proviso Township High Schools District 209, went apoplectic after they found out about a conceptual plan that merely flirted with the idea of moving PMSA’s campus (currently a converted office building in Forest Park) onto the campus of either East or West.
The irony is that the selective enrollment school was built as an effort to persuade families from predominantly white communities like Westchester, Hillside and Forest Park to keep their children in predominantly black District 209, as opposed to sending them to private school or moving away in order to send their kids to public school somewhere else.
When the mere concept of moving PMSA closer to East and West was broached, the students and parents of the selective-enrollment school flooded the board with their fears and concerns (of bullying, of being around students who aren’t as motivated, of behavior problems, etc.).
These concerns weren’t coming from whites. PMSA’s student body is 61 percent Hispanic and 29 percent black.
During our brief talk, Duffy, who taught at Proviso East for two decades, directed me to a document drafted for OPRF in 2011, informally called the Blueprint Assessment.
“OPRF leadership must acknowledge and address the commonly held notion that there are two schools within OPRF: one for high-achieving students and another for all other learners,” the assessment reads.
That conclusion can easily be extended to Proviso — a district divided between one high-performing school and two low-performing ones and where student achievement is demarcated by factors that aren’t as clear-cut as black and white.
Both districts, though, have similar mottos: “Nothing but the best” in Proviso and “Those things that are best” in Oak Park. There are subtle distinctions between the two, but both cleave closer to meritocracy than to real egalitarianism.
The black student who queried me in the lunchroom on my first day at OPRF, I realize now, was not necessarily ignorant or unmotivated. She was responding to her alienation from this culture that treats most of its white students as temporarily embarrassed geniuses, to rephrase John Steinbeck, and most of its black students as too far gone to aspire to this common exceptionalism.
To achieve true egalitarianism, or the notion that all students have equal rights to high-quality education, Duffy told me, there needs to be “a common base, a shared target we want all kids to move toward.”
“Look at the Spoken Word Club,” Duffy said. “Those kids are all on different tracks, as far as I can see, but what they’re aiming for as students of the language is a really high standard of expression. They all know what that standard is. The same principle has to apply to every discipline and all curricula.”