For two Sundays in a row this month, student activists at Oak Park and River Forest High School have circulated petitions, protested and led marches in order to pressure District 200 administrators and board members to act swiftly in implementing a series of demands in the area of racial equity.
During a regular board meeting held Nov. 15, students and community members kept the pressure on even as they acknowledged the support they’ve received from district officials, particularly D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and board President Jackie Moore.
As a crowd of roughly 100 people stood in support, students with clubs such as the Black Leaders Union (BLU) and Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE) told board members during public comment that they would like to see the district hire and retain more teachers of color.
“We’re asking that you all consider [forming] a racial consciousness committee as far as hiring, because, unfortunately, whiteness isn’t something that just affects white people,” said OPRF senior and SAFE member Grace Gunn. “It affects people of all colors, too. Examine every teacher you all hire.”
The students also urged the board to hire an undocumented student counselor to address the needs of Oak Park’s growing Latinx population and to ensure that all counselors are trained on issues affecting undocumented students.
Some community members, such as parents with District 97’s Diversity Council, recommended that all local school boards in Oak Park issue a joint statement denouncing instances of racist and anti-Semitic speech that had made headlines at OPRF throughout early November.
The parents also recommended that local schools in Oak Park create safe spaces for students to talk about race and other issues.
John Duffy, the chairperson of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, presented board members a document that he said should guide the district’s creation of a racial equity policy. Nathaniel Rouse, OPRF’s principal, announced in September that the administration would start working on a draft equity policy.
The document, which was drafted by Duffy’s committee, Suburban Unity Alliance and African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education, draws on Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97’s racial equity policy, along with equity policies from districts around the country in places like Seattle and Portland.
The document calls for D200’s racial equity policy to have a “strong rationale and clearly define equity to include a central focus on race as well as other characteristics that drive D200’s inequities, including disability, and different learning needs.”
The organizations also recommend that the district adopt a series of tools, such as a racial equity lens and an equity and diversity impact assessment — tools adopted by school districts in other areas of the country — that would guide the district’s decision-making and help measure its equity commitments.
During the Nov. 15 meeting, Pruitt-Adams read off a litany of actions that the district has already taken in the area of equity, including the implementation of a more culturally responsive curriculum and professional training in the area of racial equity, an HR plan to recruit and retain teachers and staff members of color, and tools to analyze the district’s policies, practices and procedures through a racial equity lens, among other actions.
For Duffy, the student activists and other community members, however, the changes cannot come swiftly enough. Duffy urged board members to adopt the equity policy with all deliberate speed.
“We urge you to move quickly on this, because if it’s adopted in the spring, it won’t be implemented until a year from now, if we’re lucky,” he said.