During a regular meeting on Feb. 28, the Oak Park and River Forest High School Board of Education took a major step in its years-long effort to close the equity gap at the high school by unanimously approving creation of an executive director of equity and student success.
The new position — high on the list of priorities for many education advocates in Oak Park — would be implemented during the 2019-20 school year, said Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams.
The superintendent said putting the position up for approval now is so it can be staffed in time for the implementation of the racial equity policy that the district is currently drafting. Pruitt-Adams said the position will not come at an additional cost to taxpayers.
“In support of our strategic vision of becoming an ever-improving model of equity and excellence that will enable all students to achieve their full potential, we need an administrative position responsible for ensuring that all of the work throughout the district supports our commitment to racial equity,” Pruitt-Adams said in a Feb. 28 memo, adding that the equity director will report directly to her and “work collaboratively with the District Cabinet to help implement equitable practices in all phases of our organization.”
The measure drew measured praise from the audience of parents and advocates in the room, many of them from a variety of organizations created to advocate for racial equity in Oak Park schools, including the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE); African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE); and the Suburban Unity Alliance.
“This is a great day in a journey, for some, of many years,” said Mark Christensen, who said he spoke on behalf of those organizations.
“This is not, however, the end of the journey, but another critical and necessary step in the implementation of a racial equity and justice policy to be presented to the board in the next few weeks,” he said.
John Duffy, head of CEEE, urged the board to apply the commitments laid out in the Talent Management Plan approved last year. The plan is a comprehensive HR strategy designed to recruit, hire and retain more minority teachers at OPRF.
Duffy, who read the plan’s commitments to board members, said district officials should “develop a profile of the ideal candidate that is aligned to the district’s vision, culture, and performance evaluation expectations” before starting the recruitment process for the position.
He added that the management plan calls for community input in the development of a candidate profile and an interview panel comprising “parents, division head, teachers, staff members, and building and district team members.”
Melanie McQueen, president of APPLE, said she researched similar positions in companies and school districts around the country, including Kraft, UPS, and the Washington D.C. school district.
McQueen said she found “the commonality of power, zero tolerance for ignorance, and swift action,” adding that OPRF’s equity administrator has to have “power, authority, responsibility, and accountability,” in order to be effective.
Telecia Moore, APPLE’s vice president, said she hopes the new equity director is “forthcoming,” “transparent with students,” and can “collaborate and communicate effectively.”
Most board members echoed those sentiments. Board member Craig Iseli, channeling McQueen, said he has “reservations with creating positions unless these positions have ‘power, authority and responsibility,’ and that the administrator “has to execute this role.”
Board member Fred Arkin said the “devil is in the details” and “crafting a job description is critical,” before pointing out that despite the new position, “equity work won’t be focused on one person — this [will still be] a building- and community-wide effort.”
Board member Sara Spivy said, “We’ve been talking about this for years and I think it’s high time” that the position be created, while board member Jennifer Cassell said she hopes “we don’t see this person’s role as solely to do equity work.”
When board member Matt Baron asked her about timing, Pruitt-Adams said, “July 1 is when the 12-month position starts.”
Board President Jackie Moore said the equity director position will “put teeth” into the racial equity policy that the district is currently drafting and that the board could approve in the coming weeks.