Years back when the Journal first began reporting on quietly stated assertions that there was systemic racism built into Oak Park and River Forest High School — manifest in wide disparities in academic achievement, in stunning overrepresentation of black students in the discipline system, in the near total absence of African-American students in advanced classes, in the preponderance of black males in special ed — there was blanket denial and there was, from a few, ferocious pushback.
Dr. Bernard Abraham, then a school board member at OPRF, was outraged by the assertions, dismissive of the evidence and clear that he and others were not racists, either overt or covert. Bernie Abraham, as intellectually exceptional, and as bellicose, a person as I’ve ever met, brought thunder. And the thunder bought some cover. For a while.
It made our high school as data-averse an institution as was imaginable. We can’t track discipline. Each situation is unique. Handled by the deans. We don’t track it by race. That wouldn’t be right. We can’t tell you the racial makeup of honors classes or of special ed classes. Violation of the privacy of our families. You want to see test scores by race? We don’t know how to do that. We don’t intend to find out.
Allowed a lot of deniability, which allowed a lot of wasted years of “Those Things That Are Best for Those Whose Future is Already Secured.”
A superintendent once told me that change was just about impossible at OPRF. Between the faculty, the board and the community, the superintendent felt basically powerless. That would be a faculty too focused on teaching AP classes, a board elected to preserve the illusion of the shining school on the hill, and a white community (and a white local newspaper editor) boastful of having accomplished integration and devoted to resting on that laurel.
Would have been the mid-1980s, we added Jaslin Salmon as a freelance columnist. He was a member, and later president, of a local chapter of the NAACP, an effort that never took hold in this town. Salmon wrote provocatively about race, about liberal whites, me among them, who thought that letting black people live in our town was plenty good, darned progressive. Salmon was mocking. Black people don’t simply want to live in Oak Park. They want to be part of Oak Park. They expect to share in making decisions. They have to be on school boards and village boards.
Some progress was made in that regard. There have been African-American school board members. A black principal for 10 years at OPRF. These past two years a black superintendent at OPRF.
But as the final episode of America to Me spooled out Sunday night, the indelible moment for me was Jessica Stovall, a teacher passionate for equity, for connection with black students, stating simply that there wasn’t a leader in the building interested in leading on equity.
That was 2015-16. Steven Isoye, the disconnected school superintendent, had bolted for the exit after more years of purported consensus-building on equity turned out to be a sham. Jeff Weissglass, the school board president and a believer in equity, acknowledged that his board had been consumed by ridiculous debates about a swimming pool. Two aging white fellows, Phil Prale and Don Vogel, who climbed the ladder to administration at OPRF and did damned little with the privilege, critiqued the black principal. Not a good look. Neither was yet another declaration by that principal, Nathaniel Rouse, that he could never be the status quo.
This is 2018. Still the damned swimming pool. A bolder superintendent. A school board that swears equity is the only issue. A 10-hour nationally broadcast documentary makes plain that we aren’t all that, that change is hard. Especially when no one wants to change.
If not now, OPRF, when?