The COVID-19 pandemic may have upended normalcy at Oak Park and River Forest High School, but education activists and administrators say the current crisis shouldn’t knock the district off-course from its goal of increasing minority representation among teachers to 35 percent and among all employees to 50 percent by 2024. 

Burcy Hines and John Duffy, longtime Oak Park activists and members of the Campaign to Hire More Teachers of Color in District 200, agree that over the last few years the district has made significant strides toward this ambitious goal laid out in its Strategic Plan.

“In August 2017, the board made this commitment to hire a faculty that reflects the racial and cultural diversity of the school,” said Duffy. “That commitment must continue unabated, especially when our communities of color are being most harmed by the current public health and economic crisis.” 

According to D200 data, the percentage of minority hires increased from the 2018-19 school year to the 2019-20 school year. In 2018-19, minorities comprised 54 percent of all new hires and roughly 38 percent of faculty new hires. In 2019-20, minorities comprised 60 percent of all new hires and 45 percent of faculty new hires. 

In 2018-19, African Americans in particular represented 33 percent of all new hires while in 2019-20, they were 48 percent of new hires. Blacks comprise around 20 percent of the student body at OPRF. Black and Latinx teachers comprise around 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of the total teaching population at the high school. 

Data suggests that the district’s actions within the last two years have been paying off. Those actions include implementing a Talent Management Plan in HR that prioritizes hiring diverse faculty and staff, making hiring committees more racially diverse, requiring hiring committees to undergo anti-bias training and more aggressively recruiting minority candidates, among others. 

But despite the progress, the district still struggles to hire minorities as teachers in core subjects like English, math, science and history, said Hines. 

“The excuse has always been the availability of the teachers in the core subjects,” she said. “Historically, the concern at OPRF has been, ‘We’re looking, but we can’t find them. They don’t want to come to Oak Park.’ … There has to be someone sitting at the table who can not only make all of us accountable, but who has the know-how of what’s out there.” 

The data shows that the district may be slowly pushing against that historical tendency. Karin Sullivan, D200’s communications director, said that last year the district hired two African-American math teachers and two Asian-Amercian science teachers. 

Duffy said he hopes the district builds on its plans to develop and support a Grow Your Own program in the district. 

Sullivan said the district has partnered with Concordia University in River Forest on the Grow Your Own program, which educates and trains aspiring teachers who prefer to return to their hometown to teach. 

“We had two students enrolled in the program during this current school year, and as of now we have six enrolled for next year,” Sullivan said. 

Duffy also hopes the district keeps working on changing the culture in the school to make it more welcoming for minority employees, which, he and Hines said, has historically been an issue at OPRF. 

“The more teachers of color feel they are empowered and respected and part of the culture, the more students will feel that,” Duffy said. 

Hines and Duffy said that, with the current administration, they’re more hopeful than ever that meaningful minority representation will eventually come to OPRF. 

“It’s a new day,” Hines said. “I’m pleased with the accountability. I really am. I just don’t want it to go away and I want this to be just as important as everything else, in spite of the crisis the country is in now. We still have to move forward. I’ve been waiting 30 years. We don’t want it to be another 30.”

Sullivan said that due to COVID-19, administrators aren’t able to attend live recruiting events, but that this setback “has no bearing on our commitment to hiring highly qualified minority candidates.”

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