Ella Pappademos, District 97's first African-American teacher

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

During the first generation of school integration in Oak Park, African-American teachers, especially women, played inspirational roles in advancing racial equity in education. It was who they were and the primary reason they were here as teachers. As African-American philosopher Bell Hooks reminds us in her bookLove, before schools became integrated, “Black teachers understood that their jobs of teaching Black children was a political act rooted in antiracist struggle.” That historic role only became more vital in Oak Park for teachers like Ella Pappademos, the first African-American teacher hired in District 97 in 1971, who taught at Hatch and Julian. 

From the delta to Oak Park

Growing up in an Arkansas sharecropping family, Pappademos learned the principles of social justice early and often. In the first days of World War II, when white men looked to lynch the German immigrant straw boss who reigned over her father and other Black sharecroppers, her father, an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmworkers Union, hid the straw boss in their home until he could safely flee. After moving to St. Louis to attend high school, she was indelibly impacted when she was denied entry to the downtown public library because Jim Crow St. Louis barred them. A few years later she joined her future husband John in the Freedom Movement in St. Louis and participated in protests to integrate Washington University. In 1971, after teaching in Chicago, Pappademos brought her commitment to racial justice to Oak Park. 

Standing up for racial equity

Teaching at Julian, Pappademos assisted Black students in expressing their identity and creativity. She stood by a young hip-hop poet and made sure his work was shared in Julian’s literary magazine when the white faculty sponsor rejected it because of its innovative political and cultural style. She worked with Black students in organizing their own performing arts troupe for two seasons because the existing CAST theater program had virtually no Black participants. Students packed the auditorium with rousing shows each year. In the third year, the Julian principal ended the troupe, saying the school didn’t have the resources to run both CAST and the Black-centered shows.

At Hatch School, Pappademos helped lead the resistance to D97’s school reorganization called “rescheduling.” In the first year of the program her principal directed teachers to rewrite their evaluations, which were highly critical of the program and proposed ending its pilot run. In the face of heavy pressure and intimidation, Pappademos and others refused to yield. In 1985 at the D97 federal free speech trial, attorneys zeroed in on what happened at Hatch. Phil Beck, lead counsel for the Longfellow teachers, asked Supt. Ernest Mueller why Hatch teachers were directed multiple times to rewrite their evaluations. Failing to state anything about teacher opposition to rescheduling, Mueller claimed there were multiple drafts because of misspellings and other errors. At the end of the trial in a moment of collective comic relief, Judge James Moran, after announcing his decision that the district violated the constitutional rights of teachers, turned to Mueller and asked, “What did you ever do about all those teachers who could not spell?”

Longfellow leads on equitable instruction

Longfellow racial equity-focused, African-American teachers like Betty Smitherman, Earl Bitoy and white colleague Georgiann Schulte played key roles in resisting rescheduling. Smitherman stood up and denounced resegregation in D97 as well as the racial inequities of gifted education. She imbedded a rich multicultural content to her teaching and had a special mission of providing personal guidance and mentoring to young Black female students.

Following emerging national literacy best-practice research which went against ability grouping, Bitoy and Schulte taught a highly popular academically and racially diverse program that placed a strong emphasis on multiculturalism and antiracist teaching at a time when the district was re-segregating classrooms. The program followed principles set forth by Rachel Lotan from Stanford and Becky Barr from National College of Education who presented research on student literacy learning in 1986 at the Oak Park National Exchange Education Conference on racially integrated communities. 

These Longfellow teachers were also in sync with the research-driven principles of the Illinois Writing Project that launched its first district-wide professional development in D97 in 1983. Bitoy, Schulte, and Smitherman’s teaching was a brilliant demonstration of a time-tested formula — teachers cannot wait for beliefs and practices of schools to change. Instead, they must become the racial equity change they envision for the larger system. 

Strategic plan affirms curriculum equity

The D97 Strategic Plan, finalized in 1990, culminated several years of conflict, community meetings, forums, and equity-focused action by parents and teachers. In the strongest endorsement of the work and recommendations coming from the subcommittee on curriculum and instruction, the strategic plan stated that the district “will develop strategies for delivering instruction that meet the needs of all students aimed at improving instruction within the heterogeneous classroom so that it continually challenges the capabilities and provokes the interests of each student.” 

To ensure accountability, Ella Pappademos over 30 years ago insisted that best intentions were not enough. The strict accountability she wanted — to avoid the backsliding that was too common in Oak Park — was finally put in place with the recently adopted Racial Equity procedures for evaluation of all programs. This includes a set of explicit racial equity impact assessment protocols.

As D97 was making its unprecedented commitment to racially equitable learning, APPLE (African Americans for Purposeful Leadership in Education) mothers and grandmothers at Oak Park and River Forest High School were dedicating countless hours serving as adult mentors, counselors, and tutors for Black children. By the early ’90s, the issues of racial equity came directly to District 200 as a group of teachers created a small program for de-tracking. In 1991, OPRF High School issued an impressive and startling self-study on racial achievement disparities. 

Those stories and the racially divisive 1995 D200 School Board election I turn to next in Part VII.

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