Like most of our Oak Park community, I’ve been in discussions about America to Me. As a lifelong Oak Park resident, my husband and I met in the fourth grade at Longfellow Elementary, and I went on to OPRF. I fully planned on having our children follow in our footsteps through Oak Park’s public schools all the way through high school.
However, after my eldest attended and struggled to graduate from OPRF, we have decided not to enroll our other children there. Though my eldest did graduate, it was a very rocky road, complete with a hospitalization, suspension, and a great many tears. My eldest son has special learning needs. I was afraid to move him out of District 200 because I feared he would not have similar resources elsewhere.
But when our younger son would have been a freshman at OPRF, we predicted there would be problems. What was frightening for us, he is a very tall, black male. From our experiences, coupled with research, we know many white female teachers are intimidated by large, black, outspoken young men.
So we live in Oak Park but send our children to Saint Patrick High School, a local Catholic high school. It is not as racially diverse as OPRF, but it is a better fit for our family. For us, the benefits at St. Patrick’s outweigh the loss of racial diversity at OPRF. My boys now have many male teachers, including their father. The school also has smaller classes, teachers who work with them before and after school, and a very strong school-parent-community network.
This was the school model that worked for my black family.
The racial challenges at OPRF have persisted for decades and as an alumnus, I saw them firsthand in my own experiences when I was student. Although I accomplished some great things there, I also saw problems. I had honors classes and I also had On Campus (OC) classes. OC classes are for kids who need to be self-contained for behavior issues. The high school segregates OC students on the 4th floor, isolated from the other students.
Now I take the negative “OC” label and have transformed into a motivator for me and for other black children. I am proud that on Dec. 15 at 3 p.m., I will be graduating from Concordia University with a master’s degree in education.
I don’t blame my parents. Like many black Oak Parkers, then and now, my parents thought OPRF was a “good school.” They didn’t know what OPRF was really like for black students. For some students, it was. But it was just not a good school for many black children. And even though I ultimately did graduate from OPRF, I believe I would have done much better at another school.
My point in sharing our family’s stories is to encourage more black parents to seek other options. It is a great place for some kids, but not for all children. I have seen too many black and brown kids struggle at OPRF. When talking to other black and brown parents who have children who don’t fit in at the school, I tell them, don’t wait for OPRF to change because OPRF won’t change.
If you have the opportunity to move your child to a different school, do it. I love my Oak Park village and wouldn’t think of raising my kids anywhere else. I am just not in love with the high school.
Juanita Bennett Griffin is an Oak Park resident, a mom and a graduate student at Concordia University. She works at Hephzibah Children’s Association and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1992.