The schools we build slowly over time, the systems within those schools that operate day to day, mirror what we believe as a community. That’s an observation, a truth, often expressed this past year as Oak Park and River Forest begin to actively grapple with what we mean by equity in education.
At Oak Park and River Forest High School those beliefs and systems reflect a school built over a century, largely unexamined, and crafted to benefit the white elite families of our villages.
A second observation, a second truth, often noted recently is that schools are ridiculously hard to change. Most large institutions are. Seldom do they change of their own accord. External forces must be brought to bear, possibly, slowly allowing bottled up internal forces to go to work. That is beginning to happen at our public high school.
What’s the DNA in a school? Not board members who come and go. Not administrators who have relatively short shelf lives. Maybe the faculty, working their 30-plus years to reach retirement, is part of that DNA. Certainly, though, you find the DNA of an educational institution in the curriculum which endures.
That’s why the real stuff of equity work at OPRF right now can be seen in the determined remaking of curriculum, division by division.
Last week the school board gave its thumbs-up to an interim report on the ongoing work to add a course to the curriculum next fall focused fully on teaching equity. Remarkable. More remarkable is that creation of this class is being driven by a small band of current students, members of the group Students Advocating For Equity (SAFE). At their side is Greg Johnson, the school’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
As planned right now, it would be a one-semester course open to juniors and seniors. But clearly understanding that the need is great to promulgate an understanding of what racial equity and inequity look like right now in our high school, the design builds in a structure that would take those students into classrooms across the school to talk about equity.
We’re impressed and we’re excited by this effort. It acknowledges an immediate need to teach equity. And it makes real the pronouncements of the superintendent and the board that they respect the voices of students in creating real change in this school.