Had a double dose of Chala Holland recently as the former assistant principal at OPRF was back in town, first as part of a panel talking about America to Me and a few days later when she presented on equity in education in a session at the Main Library.

Blunt and compelling, Holland made a strong case for vigorously ramping up equity initiatives at our high school, at all schools, as we rethink fundamentals of how we learn and how we teach, how we acknowledge and address the systemic racism that is in the roots of OPRF and every other public school. 

“Schools are historically conservative,” she told an animated audience at the library. “They don’t change often or easily.” And, she said, schools are fundamentally about “order and compliance.”

Holland, who turned up early and powerfully in the 10-part OPRF documentary, worked as assistant principal at the school for four years. But she left our high school, as too many teachers and administrators of color do. 

She is now the principal of Lake Forest High School. 

She “tries to imagine entirely different educational spaces and then I always go to a model I’ve seen at other schools.” It seems it is hard to be as radical as the situation calls for when the pull of the educational norm is so powerful. In her thoughtful and provocative presentation Holland talked about schools that are stuck in a command-and-control model, a patriarchal model that most other institutions have worked hard to shed, admittedly with mixed results. 

A week back, I wrote a piece urging the school board at OPRF to focus its capital improvement plan on projects most connected to equity. A few critics said equity isn’t about bricks-and-mortar construction projects. Can’t argue that, though new student learning spaces and gathering spaces have their place in equity work.

 At its heart, though, the bold work of equity is in the culture, the ethos of a place. It is in the people assembled and which direction they are looking. And it is where we have so often failed because the questions are so challenging, the change so gut-level.

Holland talks plainly about the permanence of racism and patriarchy, about white privilege, about classrooms that are teacher-centered when they need to be centered on the complex needs of students. This is the system we have built, and, she says, on a fundamental level “systems mirror what we believe.”

“We are the problem,” said Holland, and it is not that we are necessarily malicious in our intent. That said, “none of us is off the hook” when it comes to fostering actual change. “I still have hope,” she said, “if we all take personal responsibility to fight for something better.” 

At the end of the session at the library, a recent OPRF grad asked Holland how the school could build scale related to the innovation, caring and passion he had seen in both Holland and Jessica Stovall, another teacher of color featured in America to Me, another person who has, at least temporarily, left the school. Breaking my usual just-a-reporter-with-a-notebook mode I suggested the first step in building scale was to stop losing the talent you already have.

Our equity event

A week from now, Nov. 28, Success of All Youth (SAY) and the Journal will partner on an event shining a light on the grassroots equity work already underway in our villages. And it is considerable. There’ll be six people on the panel. Doris Davenport, radio host, will moderate. The event is at Percy Julian Middle School from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Admission is free but you need to reserve a ticket at OakPark.com/sayconnects.

Join the discussion on social media!

Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...