If 2016 and 2017 were the year of the pool and raw racial controversies (including major drama related to an Oak Park and River Forest High School student’s Blackface Snapchat and members of the football team and band taking a knee), 2018 was the year of America to Me, equity and Imagine OPRF.
Of course, there were protests after protests after protests — including at least two major student walkouts at Oak Park elementary schools and at OPRF earlier this year following the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
A frenzy of demonstrations also followed a series of racist and anti-Semitic incidents at the high school in November.
Much quieter were the genuinely impactful actions taken at school board tables and in community meetings across Oak Park.
In June, the District 200 board implemented a monumental overhaul of the district’s gender equity policy, adding a series of protections for transgender students.
Almost as consequential, the board’s vote on Dec. 21 set a course of action on at least a portion of long-term capital improvements resulting from Imagine OPRF’s long-term master facilities plan — roughly a year after the Imagine committee was formed, based on direction provided by D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams.
The series of initial construction projects, estimated to cost around $32.6 million and take up to four years, represent the first phase of a more comprehensive Imagine capital plan that could cost around $220 million and take up to a decade to complete before all is said and done and voted on.
That the plan was completed in itself is a milestone, marking the most comprehensive and ambitious assessment of OPRF’s physical needs in decades (possibly ever).
And the board’s vote to go forward with the capital improvements marked what would be the largest capital expenditure in decades for a campus that hasn’t had a major capital improvement investment in 50 years, according to district officials.
Not to mention (which we will) the documentary series, America to Me — an event that swept through Oak Park and River Forest like a Category 4 hurricane, plopping the high school into national publications like the New York Times, Slate Magazine, Vulture, the Hollywood Reporter, Forbes and Time, to name a few.
The documentary arguably catalyzed what has typically been the slothful course of progress when it comes to racial equity in Oak Park schools.
The momentum could be heard in the language of administrators. “Equity, to me, is an antidote to — and I’m going to say it — institutional racism,” said District 97 Supt. Carol Kelley during an interview September.
Kelley said she hopes the dialogue about the documentary would prompt people to start looking at issues of race and education much more seriously and analytically.
The momentum could also be felt in the passion of students, such as those from Students Advocating for Equity, a student club at OPRF, whose members stormed the stage at a panel discussion about America to Me held in November at the high school and hosted by the New York Times and a range of local community groups.
The students’ demands included implementation of a racial equity course and hiring more teachers of color.
In the last few months of 2018, the D200 board has quietly worked to implement a less draconian dress code that was seen as perpetuating race-based disparities in student discipline, overhauled the district’s HR department to give higher priority to recruiting and retaining teachers of color and teachers with cultural sensitivity, added more multicultural offerings to the books that students study, and took steps to implement the racial equity course that SAFE students have wanted for years (and that they have played a large role in helping to design), among other markers of that quiet progress.
“Shhh” is the sound of getting things done.