In the years ahead, if all goes according to the plans of District 200 officials, two big changes will come to Oak Park and River Forest High School.
incoming freshmen students at OPRF will no longer be separated into college preparatory and honors course levels. Instead, all students will enter the high school in a single rigorous curriculum in most subjects. And the artificial line dividing post-secondary and advanced academic coursework will be intentionally blurred.
That reality, which D200 officials are working toward now, fits within an overarching goal of eliminating race-based opportunity gaps at OPRF while also preparing all students for college and careers, officials say. And the glue that’s essential for holding the preparation for this singular change together is professional development.
“If you do that right, you’re empowering your extant faculty to really be part of that systems change and that’s what’s unique,” said Ralph Martire, a D200 board member during a meeting in January, in which the board discussed a chapter from the book Excellence through Equity, edited by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera.
During an interview in February, Greg Johnson, D200’s associate superintendent, said
when it comes to laying the groundwork for the district’s plans to do away with freshmen tracking, “there are three strands of this work required for it to go well.”
Those strands include culturally responsive pedagogy, a method of teaching that integrates students’ unique cultures into the curriculum in a way that enhances their well-being; differentiation, which “is how you respond to a wide range of learners in the classroom”; and assessment for learning, which is understanding how students learn in ways that go deeper than grades, Johnson said.
Johnson said all of those strands of professional development are critical to implementing the freshman curriculum changes in the years ahead.
In preparation, he said, teacher teams have visited other schools, such as Maine Township and Evanston, to learn best practices in data analysis and understanding more about support systems.
In addition, Johnson said, all OPRF instructional coaches and division heads have partnered with Rush Oak Park Hospital on executive functioning training, so that executive functioning skills, which “are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully,” according to Harvard’s Center on Developing Child, are integrated into more aspects of the high school’s curriculum.
Another area critical to the development of the new freshman curriculum changes is postsecondary pathways, Johnson said.
“We’re really interested in growing our post-secondary career cluster framework at the school,” he said. “Over the next three years, we want to make sure electives are very well arranged within postsecondary pathways, so students can choose their own educational experience based on the postsecondary mindset of how will this serve them when they leave here.”
Johnson said that the state of Illinois has set aside funding to “try to go after what is a very artificial divide between high-end academic experiences and postsecondary career experiences that goes back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s — that traditional divide between vocational and academic experiences.”
“There’s a misunderstanding about what it means when we talk careers,” said Sarah Wurster, D200’s postsecondary pathways coordinator and a former counselor at the high school. “Careers [used to be] kind of a taboo word.”
That is no longer the case, she said. The federal and state governments currently fund a significant portion of OPRF’s Career and Technical Education programming.
Wurster said the district is currently trying to meet a greater set of expectations established by the government several years ago.
“We do a really good job of checking boxes. We’ve done a really good job for a long time to receive that money. Where we are looking to grow the program is to meet this greater expectation of the state that has been put out there starting with Barack Obama,” Wurster said, adding that the federal and state governments have reevaluated its funding requirements for CTE programs.
“They looked at us and said, ‘Yeah this is great. You’ve got a bunch of stuff going on, but where is the continuation for our students? How are we seeing them through from eighth grade through graduation,” she said, adding that pathways can be “anything from a trade to law school … [For a long time] careers was a taboo word, but this work forces us to rethink how we’re looking at things, because we’re all in a career.”
Wurster and Johnson said the district is looking to partner with local businesses and government agencies, such as the police, fire and public works departments in Oak Park and River Forest, in order to develop those new career pathways.
“Let’s say I’m interested in a career as a police officer or I want to go into environmental work, what we’ll do is have you take an AP government course that will be part of that police career pathway or AP Environmental Science will steer you toward the environmental career pathway,” he said.
The intergovernmental partnership between the district and area agencies like police and fire departments could entail allowing students to do internships, micro-internships and other work-based learning experiences, Johnson said.
The planning in this area, however, is still preliminary, he said. What’s unquestioned is that partnerships and collaboration will be important to the endeavor, said Jackie Moore, president of the D200 school board in January.
“Partnership is necessary to be able to extend the reach that we’re trying to have,” she said.