In December 2018, a group of Oak Park and River Forest High School students proposed to District 200 school board members a racial equity course created mostly by students and that centered on student perspectives.
Now, students and administrators are well on their way to making the course a reality. Naomi Leach and Rhyan Miller were among the OPRF students who presented to the board in 2018. They’ve since graduated, but returned to the school during a board meeting held Jan. 23 to formally introduce the Youth and Action-Race Equity course.
“We came up with this idea of having a class where we discuss race in modern terms past slavery and oppression topics, because we felt that even when we did try to tackle race in class at all, it was frustrating,” Leach told board members.
“Our teachers didn’t even know how to hold a conversation with it and it was very hard for students of color and non-students of color to have a conversation,” she said, “because they were afraid it would be disrespectful or they’d be easily offended.”
Miller said that the class “is definitely a safe space for these topics to happen and by it being student-drive, students can actually talk to other students and create a safe dialogue between each other, instead of having it be controlled or forcing it.”
Back in December 2018, Greg Johnson, then the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that the high school’s Spoken Word Club is a model for how the course might work logistically. As with Spoken Word, some students will be identified to train as student-leaders, who will then “push out to other courses to facilitate curriculum.”
At the time, Johnson said that the administration was working to identify teachers to develop and teach the course. Last year, D200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams implemented an organizational realignment, with Johnson promoted to associate superintendent and LeVar J. Ammons hired as director of equity, a position the board created to help administer initiatives like the Youth and Action-Race Equity course.
“We’re looking to bring awareness to the disenfranchisement of racially diverse groups, so that we can drive that conversation forward,” Ammons told board members on Jan. 23.
In a district memo, Ammons explained that the course is “solution-based, whereby students will engage in conversations that increase their understanding of racial equity” and will “also have the opportunity to critically think about necessary steps to challenge racial inequity.”
At the Jan. 23 meeting, OPRF teacher Lavie Raven, who is spearheading the development of the course, said that the district has partnered with Chicago Freedom School to facilitate four separate full-day trainings between January and March in four different areas: anti-oppression, understanding adultism, creating positive partnerships and generating solutions in solidarity.
According to its website, Chicago Freedom School “creates new generations of critical thinkers who use their unique experiences and power to create a just world. Inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Era, CFS takes an innovative approach to youth activism, leadership development, and movement building.”
“About every two weeks in the class, we introduce a main topic or series of topics, concepts and a relevant vocabulary through intertextual resources, which means there are books, articles, artworks, films and music tied to those concepts and the students,” Raven told board members.
Raven said that the burgeoning student-leaders learn a range of concepts, and conduct academic research and critical inquiry together before “conceptualizing how to transmit the information they’re learning to other students and to use Chicago Freedom School as a model.”
He added that he’s identified other OPRF teachers, such as Avi Lessing and Devon Alexander, to help facilitate the trainings. Raven said he expects more OPRF teachers to help write curriculum for the course over the summer.
Ammons said that Youth and Action-Race Equity class participants will develop and facilitate workshops that will be incorporated into three classes — Youth and Social Justice, College Prep U.S. History and AP Psychology — at the end of this semester.
Ultimately, he explained, the goal is to establish the class as a standalone civic engagement course with multiple sections that will also incorporate the involvement of parents, among other goals.
On Jan. 23, D200 board President Jackie Moore praised Leach and Miller for their work in bringing the course about. Many of the students were members of the extracurricular group Students Advocating for Equity.
“These two young ladies here are amazing and have tenacity and drive like you can’t believe,” Moore said. “There were moments when literally their plan was in the trashcan and they pulled it out and I promised them they would have the support they needed. This has been a vision since I got on the board … and watching you all now come back and lend your expertise and leadership to this is so awesome.”