On April 11, Success of All Youth collaborated with Wednesday Journal and the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation to convene a first-of-its-kind videotaped conversation with the superintendents of the three public school districts in Oak Park and River Forest. 

The talk focused on race and equity, but those subjects were portals to much deeper, sometimes personal, reflections on the human experience. Below are excerpts from just a few minutes of that more than hour-long conversation.

The superintendents’ on-camera comments have been edited and slightly modified for print. 

Wednesday Journal: Each superintendent shared personal experiences that helped inform their current racial equity work. 

District 90 River Forest elementary school Supt. Edward J. Condon: My first experience with racial equity was as a principal in a school district not far from here. It was highly diverse and, admittedly, a very affluent school district with not much income inequality. More importantly, though, students, regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, were showing high performance across the board. That was my first experience seeing that this does not have to be. There was no significant [academic performance] gap. That’s the aspiration we’re striving toward.

District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams: College solidified why I got into education in the first place — and that was to remove barriers for black and brown children. I wanted to remove the perception that because of the color of my skin, I can’t rise to the same level. 

I once had a professor in my master’s degree program ask me why I wanted a doctorate. That professor would say things like, ‘You have a master’s, isn’t that good enough?’ or ‘How did you learn that?’ I once had a counselor tell me I should have been a file clerk instead of a teacher. It was my mom telling me that, as a black female, I had to work harder than everyone else. 

One of the things that drew me to Oak Park was that race was a key factor in every single meeting that I was in. It was about removing those barriers. 

District 97 Oak Park elementary school Supt. Carol Kelley: I’m a product of public schools. I grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia. Public schools can totally change the trajectory of a student’s life. So while neither one of my parents graduated from high school … I was afforded that opportunity.

I feel like Joylynn and I can be sisters, because we had the same home experience (of living with parents who had high expectations for them). When I was in high school, I wasn’t allowed to take home economics or things of that nature, but I was also blessed to have teachers in elementary school who helped my mother. 

Philadelphia did a desegregation order when I was in elementary school. Now, Brown v. Board of Education was in 1945, so even 25 years later, schools were still very segregated by where you live. I had teachers who would take us to various sites in Philadelphia that we would never get to outside of our neighborhood. I had teachers who did not look like me who helped my mom and really advocated on my behalf. I think all students should have that. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm yet, but I definitely feel that it’s possible. 

Wednesday Journal: Some people see the measures that the districts have taken to deal with racial inequity and institutional racism and dismiss them as wrongheaded or as attempts to arouse ‘white guilt.’ How do you respond to those people and their concerns? 

Supt: Pruitt-Adams: I don’t know if we’ll ever persuade them. There are some people who are so set in their ways that, for them, everything we do must be wrong. For me, it’s about transparency and having them sit at the table. Every single committee we have, there’s community and student voice at the table.

Supt. Edward J. Condon: It is challenging to have conversations in America, certainly in this day and age, around race and ethnicity. It’s challenging, of course, in different ways for different people based on their experiences and how they’re walking through this world. 

But there’s a lot of research that indicates that two concepts in particular are really powerful and need to be acknowledged: stereotype threat and implicit bias. This is heavy stuff probably for all of us, in different ways, and it should be. But I’d encourage people to take solace in the idea that implicit bias exists in all of us. While it’s not something we should embrace, we should at least have an awareness that we all carry with us these biases and that should be, in some ways, liberating.  

Supt. Carol Kelley: I believe that when a lot of people sometimes hear terms like institutional racism or systemic racism, they take it personally. But it’s really not about the people, it’s about the system that has historically helped to produce the inequitable results we see. This applies to the adults and the students. It’s not about fixing the students (I believe that all students can learn) — it’s about fixing the system. 

As system leaders, we have to really critically examine the systems we lead.

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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