Last year, Oak Park was riveted and then spurred to action after watching America To Me a docu-series that detailed the experiences of racial/ethnic minority students at OPRF High School and some of the systemic and individual race problems the school and community face.

This isn’t a new topic. To recap, Oak Park and River Forest High School, in their over-100-year history, and like many schools of comparable demographics, have yet to have one “racially academically equitable” year that can be considered a successful academic experience for the majority of black students. 

In fact, by almost every measurable outcome, they have failed. Many believe that black students have failed to be academically successful because of poverty, single-family households, and lack of parent involvement. I disagree. I believe black students have failed because of white racism.  

It is important to me to use the word “racism.” In my favorite book series, Harry Potter, the villain Voldermort gains power because people refuse to say his name. Racism is similar. Racism isn’t “the thing that can’t be named.” In order for us to truly eradicate racism, we need to know it, we need to speak it, we need to call it when we see it, and we need to work on fixing it.

Factual examples of racism — both individual and institutional — in Oak Park Elementary School District 97 include:

On average, black students during the 2017-2018 school year are 40 points behind white students in nearly every subject in every grade at every school.

According to the Illinois School Report Card, D97’s teachers are 80 percent white and 76 percent female. Research finds that, generally, white teachers are likely to hold implicit biases against black students, and that low-income black boys benefit most from exposure to same-race teachers. It closes “the belief gap” in expectations for their futures.

Data suggest there are inequities in discipline in D97 schools. For example, at Julian Middle School, while overall rates of suspension were low, black students were seven times more likely to be suspended than white students and Latinx students were 13 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

Research shows the established practice of admitting students to gifted programs based on teacher referral discriminates against children of color. Although there is currently a discussion about changing the delivery of gifted education in D97, changing how students are identified has not become a focus of discussion. Broward County, Florida, pioneered the use of universal screening to identify gifted children, and saw the percentages of black and Hispanic students accessing services skyrocket. Florida’s Orange County followed suit in 2012. By changing how giftedness is identified, D97 could do a much better job of finding and supporting gifted students of color. Eventually that could put an end to high school Advanced Placement classes with only one or two black students, as is too often the case today in Oak Park and River Forest High School.

I am an unapologetic supporter of school choice. One of the reasons is that it produces irrefutable proof that black students, regardless of income/class/parent involvement, can be educated at a high academic level. This is especially true for private religious schools, which have historically done an excellent job of educating black and Latinx students and producing high academic success in high school, high school graduation and college enrollment.  

Oak Park is a diverse suburb, mostly middle class, but there are private and charter schools that are in and around the community that have different academic outcomes for their black and Latinx students:

Here are a few examples of local schools with academic success with the same Black and Latino demographic in the community: Providence St. Mel Academy, Proviso Math and Science Academy, Urban Prep – Garfield Park Campus, North Lawndale College Prep, Fenwick College Prep, St. Joseph High School, Walter Lutheran High School, St. Patrick High School.

Now, I know there are lots of problems with private and charters schools, just like there are problems at OPRF High School. However, what charter and private schools have proved, and that OPRF has not been able to do, is show that educating black students and preparing them for college at a high academic level, is possible.  

I am excited to see how the new senior level position at District 200, Director of Racial Equity, affects outcomes for students of color. I anticipate lots of follow-up community conversations with hopefully a new/different game plan to eradicate the racial achievement gap. 

But what this new plan is not going to do, is put the blame on academic racial equity solely on black students and their parents, when there are successful racial equity models in other high schools. It is time to call a spade a spade, and to call racism, racism. Any “racial achievement-gap plan” that doesn’t address white racism, both personally and structurally, will fail to educate minority students.

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is a west suburban resident who is involved in multiple service organizations and projects in, and around, Oak Park. Her writing can be found on her blog, sharhondatribune.com.

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