After decades of dithering over profound issues of racial inequity at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the stars aligned these past several years with a superintendent and school board finally fully in sync on this complex and seemingly intractable challenge.
I’ve been worried now for some while about the coming April election for the District 200 school board. There will be multiple seats open almost certainly as incumbents step away. And the progressive energy in town seems to have shifted to the race for the Oak Park Village Board. It has been oddly quiet on the OPRF front, with only former board member Fred Arkin announcing his plan to seek a seat in 2021.
A month from now the board race will be made plainer as filing for ballot positions starts Dec. 14 and ends Dec. 21.
Then came the news late last week that Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams is retiring at the end of this screwy school year, planning to return to St. Louis, where her husband and grown family have remained for much of her five-year tenure here.
This is a loss. A profound loss. A dangerous loss.
No one would begrudge her decision. Being superintendent of OPRF during a time of intense change — change that the superintendent largely propelled — is more than daunting. This is a hard job with many constituencies inside that fortress on Scoville Avenue and across Oak Park and River Forest. There are tensions over race and equity; gender and equity; over taxes and finance; over a major construction project; over empowering students while supporting faculty; and now, the hopeless tension over how to teach and connect with kids during COVID.
And then, there’s the tension that is the stand-in for all the other tensions when you want to pretend it is not what you’re really thinking about: building a damned swimming pool.
Having watched for so many years as OPRF inched forward, to the left, sideways and in every other contortion to make hardly any headway on race and equity, I am deeply worried about just how fragile is the coalition to substantively tackle this issue.
In her time at the helm of the district — and with extraordinarily strong backing from a single-minded school board — Pruitt-Adams has crafted a strategic plan around equity; built consensus on an expansive equity policy which demands that all decisions be considered from an equity perspective; remade discipline policies that were stacked against young black men; restocked the administration with hires focused on equity, including trading in a failed principal for a new post that includes the words equity and success in one phrase; elevated the voices of students, specifically young women of color; and put in motion a plan that would detrack freshman year in a bold move to boost black and brown students into honors classes.
She has done it while bringing along a traditionally balky Faculty Senate/union. And she has done it while steering the boldest construction project in 50 years off the shoals of incessant pool talk and focusing instead on physical remakes that foster new educational and social spaces for students.
It’s no wonder she is worn out.
The reality, though, is that all of this boldness is largely still in the teed-up stage. Has the timid culture of this place been changed? Unlikely. Is freshman detracking locked in? No, it is not. This might have been the school year when, with police officers out and social workers ascending, the restorative justice aspects of discipline took hold. We’ll never know because of COVID. Intense budget pressures from COVID may also derail further phases of construction.
And then there is the election in April and the hiring of a new superintendent. All unknowns. All unknowable.
We’re poised for progress. We’re simultaneously braced for regression.