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

From 1982 to 1990 in a period as volatile as the ’70s in terms of race and education in Oak Park, a strong racial equity focus arose out of an uprising of parents, community activists, and teachers in District 97. The common denominator in the new turmoil was Superintendent Ernest Mueller. 

Almost universal in the dissent was the belief that Mueller was out of step with Oak Parkers because of the authoritarian way he was imposing a major restructuring of curriculum organization called “rescheduling” — a change on the surface aimed at supporting students who were not meeting targeted achievement goals. The most significant development in the tumultuous history of race and education in the ’80s was that racial equity advocates indicted D97 for the racial resegregation that rescheduling had created within schools.

Multiple attacks

Under rescheduling, all teachers, no matter their expertise, were assigned for the morning in one of three levels of ability-grouped classrooms in math, reading, and language arts. Afternoon classes in social studies, arts, and science would be heterogeneously grouped. Almost immediately, widespread teacher opposition to rescheduling surfaced in all schools, but dissent at Longfellow, Whittier, and Hatch became most pronounced. 

Opposition came from a wide array of people: special-needs teachers, arts educators, members of the Black Teachers Caucus, the Oak Park Community Action Organization (OPCAO) and the Concerned Parent Association (CPA), formed by the late Sheldon Liebman, who would later serve on the D97 board for eight years. Additional opposition came from music students’ parents, led by Longfellow parents Mike and Cynthia Papierniak, who documented how music education was being harmed by rescheduling in a way that threatened program sustainability and growth. Even the Gifted Parent Association objected, claiming their children did not benefit from being assigned to the highest level classrooms.

The Oak Park Community Relations Commission from 1984 into the middle ’90s joined school activists in confronting racial inequities. When African American Luther Benton, who chaired the village’s Racial Diversity Task Force Subcommittee on Education, shared Black family testimony before the task force in 1984, many were pained to hear about the discrimination and exclusion Black families were experiencing. 

Leaders in the Concerned Parent Association, like Mary Daly Lewis, were especially outraged with the resegregation of students that rescheduling was causing. While not all opponents of rescheduling were upset by resegregation, an unresponsive administration, superintendent, and board faced throngs of opposition from 1984 to 1986. Still, the D97 board remained incredulous, and stood firmly behind their superintendent. In a move I later called “educational McCarthyism,” board President Donald Child dismissed the uprising as the work of “frustrated ’60s radicals.”

First Amendment case

In the spring of 1985, first-year Longfellow teachers Linda Beck Olson and Robert Trezevant were dismissed for publicly speaking against rescheduling. They took their case to federal court in Chicago and won their jobs back in one of the most embarrassing chapters in Oak Park school history. Principals, district leaders including Mueller, and the entire school board gave depositions. After five days of court testimony, as Judge James Moran noted in his bench decision, the trial turned on key witnesses, Principal Mary Costa and Mueller. Both testified that “free speech was against the policy of the district.” By September, racial equity activists believed the tide against rescheduling was finally turning. Sheldon Liebman and Mary Daly Lewis from the Concerned Parent Association, and later Henry Fulkerson from the Oak Park Community Action Organization soon joined the board to advance racial equity goals. 

At the height of the fight over rescheduling, the board shocked stalwarts of managed integration. They temporarily rejected the recommendation of the board-appointed committee on enrollment, headed by former board member David Walsh. The committee recommended several actions to bring more racial balance to school populations, including that school boundaries should be once again redrawn to maintain racial balance to nip fear that any school might be perceived by white residents as too Black. 

At the same meeting, Victor Yipp, a member of the OPCAO, questioned Mueller about resegregation of students within schools. Racial equity advocates were incredulous as the superintendent stated the district never considered race in assigning children to programs. Next, the Oak Park Community Relations Commission again weighed in. Commission Chairperson John Lukehart, an outspoken advocate for the ideals of integration and racial equity, insisted that resegregation of children within schools was doing harm that the district had to address. Further, Lukehart suggested D97’s problem was not too many African-American students in east-side schools. The focus instead, he argued, should be ensuring more Black families living across the community.

Jim Williamson, president of the Whittier PTO and a member of the Walsh Committee, told the board that parents opposed any boundary changes and they were happy and proud of Whittier where 41 percent of students were African American. Extraordinary pressure from the media, the enrollment committee, and longtime advocates of managed integration like Bobbie Raymond from the Housing Center, Sherlynn Reid, director of Community Relations, and Ann Armstrong, from the Village Manager Association, Oak Park’s candidate-slating group, all challenged the board to act. The board soon reversed itself and made the last significant boundary adjustment in Oak Park school history. 

Coup de grace

Going against best practices emerging within mainstreaming and disabilities education, the D97 administration in 1988 shockingly proposed a complete isolation of all special-needs learners into separate classrooms. Teachers stepped forward en masse to denounce the proposal. This time their voice would not be suppressed. The board rejected the idea. Within a year, the divisive Mueller would depart and Jack Fagan would be hired superintendent to help set a new commitment to racial equity with widespread community involvement in drafting the 1990 Strategic Plan.

John Duffy is a cofounder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.

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