A group of Oak Park and River Forest residents seeking to put Oak Park and River Forest High School’s planned freshman curriculum restructuring on the November ballot as a non-binding advisory referendum question has scrapped the effort.

The group, called Equity and Excellence in Education (the E3 Group), cited the recent wave of protests and unrest over a series of police-involved fatalities involving African Americans as one of the reasons they decided to withdraw the proposed referendum.

“In the wake of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, and in light of the nationwide movement spotlighting systemic racism and inequities in the justice system, fostering debate on what specifically is the best course of action to reduce the opportunity and achievement gaps at this time may end up causing further pain and trauma within the community,” the group explained in a June 12 statement.

The District 200 administration announced the proposed freshman curriculum changes in August 2019. The changes would eliminate the district’s longtime practice of separating incoming freshmen into different academic tracks like honors, where students are disproportionately white, and college prep, where students are disproportionately black.

Instead, administrators explained in a statement released at the time, all incoming freshmen at OPRF will “be given the chance to earn honors credit through one, high-level, rigorous curriculum” in English, science, history and world language.

The announcement of the curriculum change, which is designed to help eliminate the fact that race has historically been a determining factor in academic outcomes and student experiences at OPRF, prompted significant backlash among residents.

Critics of the move, which is popularly referred to as de-tracking, said that it was being done without a rigorous evaluation of whether or not it might succeed. During a series of public meetings about the proposed curriculum change held over the last year, some residents said they felt blindsided by the administration’s announcement, even though administrators announced the proposed changes years in advance of implementing them.

In its statement, the E3 Group said it “believes the proposed curriculum change needs study and sponsored the question to provide a catalyst for public debate and an opportunity for community-wide input.

“The E3 Group promotes the excellent and equitable education of all students in District 200, regardless of race, and is concerned the change proposed by District 200 would dilute the rigor of the overall curriculum and reduce every student’s chance to pursue their educational potential.”

When reached by phone on Monday afternoon, Steve Lefko, an E3 Group administrator who ran unsuccessfully for District 90 school board last year, declined to comment beyond what was in the group’s joint statement. When asked whether or not the referenda could possibly be revisited ahead of another election, Lefko said, “I don’t know at this point.”

Susan Conti, a former River Forest clerk and trustee, is listed as an outreach leader for the E3 Group, which “is an ad hoc community group of Oak Park and River Forest, IL residents [that] grew out of concern over significant changes in education, especially in curriculum and instruction,” the group’s website states.

The referendum would have asked: “Shall Oak Park and River Forest High School eliminate separate, standalone, freshman honors courses in English, history and science?”  The E3 Group said the non-binding advisory question was submitted to the Oak Park and River Forest township boards in January and was originally scheduled to be discussed at a River Forest Township board meeting on April 14.

Due to COVID-19, the meeting was rescheduled to June 16, but that has since been cancelled. In addition, the Oak Park Township board has not yet rescheduled its meeting before Aug. 3, which is the deadline for filing petitions for advisory referenda to appear on the ballot in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.

When D200 administrators announced the curriculum changes last August, they said that they would take effect in the 2021-22 school year and that they could be implemented without a board vote. Since then, administrators have said that a board vote on the changes will be taken and that the implementation date has shifted to the fall of 2022.

It’s possible that a final board vote on the curriculum changes could be after the 2021 school board election, when the terms of four of the board’s seven members will be up, making it possible that a new board majority more hostile to the proposed changes might roll them back or even undo them completely.

During a protest against racism on Sunday, River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci spoke briefly on the withdrawn ballot question. 

“I don’t know what the referendum indicated, but I know that the schools work hard at ensuring equity for all,” she said, adding that “certainly we shouldn’t do anything that removes that or takes us back.”

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