It was a remarkable evening Sunday in the Little Theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Finally, in public, without apology, code words or pretending, the full dimension of the decades-long educational failings of our public schools in educating, welcoming, accepting, demanding, loving our students of color were laid out — and laid out by two school superintendents, a school board president, an array of educators, parents, students and, also, a full contingent of angry student protesters demanding that their school aggressively address equity issues and during their time in the school.
The event was a town hall meeting marking the conclusion of Steve James’ America to Me documentary series. If, on a local basis, the purpose of allowing James and his colleagues nearly unfettered access to OPRF for a full school year was to open a true and urgent debate on equity, then Sunday night was both culmination and launching pad.
Charles Donalson, one of the 12 OPRF students featured in the documentary, joined a panel of documentary “stars” and current student equity activists.
“Comfort and change don’t live in the same house,” he said.
That pointed comment about this high school and these villages’ long desire to be praised as leaders in diversity while the white majority never took on the pain and hard work of actual change was a theme for the evening.
Both OPRF Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and Elementary School District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley said straight out that these institutions are built on systemic racism. Full stop.
Kelley said “institutional racism is prevalent in our schools.” She said racism is seen in academic tracking, in what she called “opportunity hoarding” that directs resources to students, mainly white, who are set up to succeed.
“District 97 needs to dismantle the obstacles,” she said.
Pruitt-Adams, who came to OPRF after filming of America to Me was completed, seconded Kelley in specifying tracking as a tool to segregate students of color. She said the school is working quickly to remake a curriculum that does not reflect the diversity of the school.
“Race is underlying all of this,” she said. “We see resistance within the building and in the community. We’re told we are moving too fast.”
After 50-plus mainly black and brown students took over the stage during a panel discussion, making plain demands for new curriculum, restorative justice, more teachers of color and, remarkably, “a safe environment for our black teachers and administrators to do their work,” Pruitt-Adams, board President Jackie Moore and Nate Rouse, the principal, took the stage to pledge urgency and to promise students a seat at the table as these complex issues are thrashed out.
Addressing the protestors, Pruitt-Adams said that during her tenure the school “jumped on” issues related to sexual abuse in the school, on concerns of the trans community within the school.
“Now we need to jump on equity,” she said.
Later she told the audience that of all her challenging days at OPRF, listening to student protestors “tonight was most sobering to me. I’ve failed. I thought we were chipping away on equity, but we have not done it with a sense of urgency.”
Moore, who had addressed students when they gathered outside the school to protest in advance of the town hall, said she had urged the students “to find their voices. I feel that same frustration [as students]. We need to step it up and we need to do it now.”
This is a moment. There is an alignment on equity among top administrators and the school board. There is a raised consciousness among more people in these villages resulting from the documentary. There are charged-up students unwilling to simply trust the adults. And there is a core of teachers, and passionate ex-pats, ready to make powerful and imperfect change.
Don’t squander this moment.