In recent months, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 officials have had to deal with one racial brushfire after another — from the controversy surrounding the removal of Depression-era murals in the middle schools to widespread reports about student behavior at Brooks and Julian to the delayed distribution of middle school yearbooks.
But during a roughly hour-long interview last month, D97 administrators took a break from the day-to-day crisis-handling to outline work they’ve done to confront the chronic, persistent problem of racially disproportionate academic outcomes and student experiences within the district.
“Our systems — whether we’re talking about public education or healthcare — were created in this larger historical context of institutional racism,” said District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley, during the May 8 interview. “As systems leaders, the bulk of our work is about looking at the systems still in place that is not serving all of our students.”
Carrie Kamm, the district’s senior director of equity, said that much of the classroom-level work she’s been focused on has to do with trying to get teachers, staffers and administrators to think differently about the students they’re serving.
Kamm said the challenge confronting the district’s instructional coaches at all 10 schools, the two IB coordinators who are each assigned to a middle school, and the middle school culture and climate coach who works with both middle schools is “how do we coach for equity? How do we coach for ensuring that every student is getting what they need in our classrooms every day?”
Kamm said that the district has created a system of “job-embedded learning,” which means that teachers and staffers are given professional supports within the work environment, as opposed to having to go elsewhere for development.
“My role has been to build the knowledge, skill-set and capacity of those coaches in those spaces with teams of teachers to be able to raise questions and be comfortable with leading in uncomfortable spaces,” she said.
Kamm said that the district has deployed everything from books to role-playing exercises to get teachers comfortable with “interrupting conversations that might reinforce deficit thinking about our kids” and to develop skills that “disrupt inequities.”
Kelley added that the district has also utilized data tools, such as a program designed to help teachers monitor how students are participating in class.
In addition, Kamm said the district has conducted “empathy interviews” with parents, students, teachers and families designed to “better understand what we see as some barriers and challenges to [less disproportionate learning outcomes].”
Eboney Lofton, the district’s chief academic and accountability officer — a role she was promoted to this year, from senior director of special education — said the district has attempted to make sure classrooms are more inclusive for special education students.
Lofton pointed to the district’s co-teaching model, which pairs general education and special education teachers, as an example how teachers “are learning side by side to create a community that is not just ‘them and us,’ but ‘we.'”
Laurie Campbell, the district’s outgoing human resources director, said the district recently tapped the Alma Advisory Group, a consulting firm, to provide expertise on how the District 97 can hire more minority teachers and staff members.
Based on a series of recommendations that Alma provided in a report presented to the school board last December, Campbell said that the district redesigned its human resources web page, so that it asks for the values of prospective candidates — not just the basic instructions on how to apply.
Campbell said the district also started tracking applicants more closely in order to monitor the number of minority candidates who apply for open positions. In addition, Campbell said, Alma recommended that the district have at least two people of color on hiring teams and that officials implement a standardized set of hiring criteria used across the district.
“We’re looking for someone who is focused on students, culturally responsive, committed to equity, strong instructionally, and who will learn and reflect—not someone who has arrived,” she said. “We want someone who is growing.”