Part IV in a series on the history of educational equity efforts in Oak Park and the surrounding area:

By the mid-’70s Hawthorne School (now Percy Julian) at Washington and Ridgeland had 25 percent Black students. With growing white pressure and national research about racial “tipping points,” i.e. when the number of Black students was deemed unacceptable by whites and predictive of housing re-segregation, District 97 Elementary Schools took action to disperse students of color across the community. 

They created two junior highs that would be populated by students from across the remaining eight K-6 schools. It was the definitive beginning of “managed integration” in D97. The key metric for managed integration was that no one school should have a percentage of African American students more than, or less than 15 percent of the African American population in the district. It was widely opposed by whites.

School board leaders, like Galen Gockel, a leading voice for managed integration, stressed that re-districting by redrawing school attendance boundaries would place Oak Park in compliance with state integration guidelines, actualize the recommendations of two years of work by the D97 Committee for Tomorrow’s Schools and, most importantly, complement village housing integration strategies. Advocates of re-districting believed it provided a path forward to realize the ideals and property interests that brought so many racially diverse people to Oak Park.

The ultimate goal of re-districting was unequivocally to convince white residents to not abandon Hawthorne School, leave the neighborhood, cause re-segregation, encourage white flight, and thereby diminish property values. 

For the many in Oak Park committed to a new kind of racially-integrated community, D97 struck the essential balance that critical race historians refer to as “interest convergence.” Managed school integration represented the deliberate, planned actions that early African-American leaders like Sherlynn Reid and others believed were indispensable to reversing historic, equally-deliberate practices that maintained segregation in Chicago and around the nation.

Doubters and resisters 

According to Oak Park education scholar Art Hyde, there was a small group of Blacks and whites who had serious reservations about the promises of re-districting and the educational innovations that would accompany creation of the new junior highs in 1976. Key to their doubts were ongoing concerns about the emotional and academic welfare of African-American students and teachers. 

This led the 20 or so African-American teachers in D97 to form a minority teachers caucus. After a few years of petitioning to have “a seat at the table with a recognized voice,” as longtime African-American teacher Jarvia Thomas relates, the Oak Park Teachers Association finally relented. In the following years, courageous members of the Black Caucus like Ella Pappademos, Betty Smitherman and Earl Bitoy would take bold stands for multiculturalism and racial equity as I will relate in a later episode.

Multicultural and racial awareness

Changing white understanding and knowledge of African-American history and culture was essential to equity in racially integrated schools. As was the case then and largely still true today, most white parents, teachers, school board members, and administrators had little life experience in racially-integrated working, living, or teaching. 

The creation of the Multicultural Resource Center, headed by beloved Oak Park African-American teacher Dolores Register in the early ’80s in D97 was a major step in closing the racial, cultural, respect, and understanding gap. While such a move may seem minor today, it was a breakthrough in suburban schools. 

It came at a time when dominant political voices nationally were coalescing in the Republican Party and pushing back against efforts to bring authentic multiracial texts, voices, and history into the mainstream of American education. While board support for the center was present, it would not be until 1986 that the D97 school board created a Human Dignity and Cultural Pluralism Committee dedicated to expanding Oak Park’s understanding of racial and ethnic multiculturalism.

The 1980s – as divisive as the ’70s

The plan D97 developed for managed integration in education worked, and for a time alleviated some of Oak Park white fears, strengthened managed integration in housing, and set Oak Park on a different historic path than school policies and actions in Chicago and Maywood. It also provided a temporary respite for the deep rupture in the Oak Park community. 

The apparent-but-fragile equilibrium continued until a major rift tore D97 apart in the mid-1980s, and a new schism stirred community angst around race and education. Most importantly, the new divisions shifted attention to how schools would be organized internally. That struggle would contribute to making racial equity of equal if not greater importance than managed integration in the 1970s. 

That story on race and education in Oak Park I will turn to in Episode 5.

John Duffy is a co-founder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.

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