Part 7 in our continuing series on the history of local efforts to achieve equity in education in Oak Park and the surrounding area.

As District 97 was reaching a consensus commitment to racially integrated and equitable education in 1990, District 200 entered one of its most racially tumultuous periods. This episode looks at the first two of four major developments at Oak Park and River Forest High School from 1990 to 1995 — the short-lived experiment with a de-tracked freshman course, and the extraordinary leadership and service of dedicated mothers and grandmothers of African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE).

Equity activists collaborate with D200 teachers

By the late 1980s, Jeannie Oakes’ landmark book Keeping Track: How schools structure inequality (1985) was impacting how some teachers looked at high school and the opportunity to learn. Oakes argued that most high schools, by design or default, perpetuated racial, academic, and socio-economic inequality through curriculum tracking. Just as happened in D97, in response to researchers like Oakes and their belief that the school’s curriculum organization was educationally unjust, a small group of OPRF teachers launched D200’s first effort to address the historic inequities of tracking.

Collaborating with Oak Park parents like Caren Van Slyke, Henry Fulkerson, John Lukehart, and Jaslin Salmon, president of the local NAACP, teachers, with guidance from the Small Schools Project at UIC, planned and taught a freshman humanities class open to all students. It was an intentional effort to create a de-tracked racially integrated program providing all students with a high-quality learning experience. 

For multiple reasons, it lasted only one year. In its planning stages, Van Slyke warned that if it were perceived as a remedial class, it would be stigmatized and academically segregated within the stratified learning culture D200 presented to incoming students. For certain, the class was anathema to the prevailing OPRF beliefs about learning. Most teachers saw no problem with tracking and believed it was fair and equitable to all students.

D200’s own research confirmed teachers’ dominant beliefs. The vast majority of teacher survey explanations for racial disparities in achievement in the 1991 African American Achievement Gap Report blamed disparities on weak motivation of Black children and weak family support for academic excellence. It was a racist misunderstanding, rooted in America’s history of race and education. It was not until 2011 that D200 made a major investment in unpacking employees’ as well as the school board’s beliefs about race and school — a process that continues today. Central to this learning has been coming to a critical understanding of personal and collective racial history and identity, how that shapes schools, classroom culture, and the interpersonal relations of teachers and students.

Today, Van Slyke points out that the program in 1990 was the earliest effort by the community to structurally address what was being called “the achievement gap” — which itself was a problematic construct masking systemic racism. However faltering, the program was the first step in what has been a 30-year process of coming to grips with tracking and its generations-old inequities for Black students. Unfortunately, Van Slyke says, the class came to be seen as a program for underachievers, a place serious students should avoid, a course that could never measure up to the honors curriculum. As Van Slyke stresses, without a countervailing perspective rooted in educational research and antiracist perspectives, many white parents in 1990, and today, see education as a zero-sum endeavor, where some children succeed, while others simply do not. 

APPLE mothers and grandmothers

Wyanetta Johnson

Growing out of work led by Gerald Clay in D97, APPLE came to OPRF in the late ’80s as Black women like Wyanetta Johnson, lovingly called “grandma” by students, Ruth Gorens, and Roberta Eaton became extraordinary parent surrogates in Black students’ lives. As Gorens relates, “Black women had to act. Our children were involved in multiple fights, turning their anger, frustration, and cultural alienation against each other.” In response, APPLE women knew they had to become part of the daily fabric of school life. APPLE understood, as did researchers and teachers, that expanding parent involvement was essential to Black students’ sense of belonging and success. APPLE organized the Parents Patrol and made sure the parents were present at school closing and opening. As Ms. Gorens recalls, these parents became “eyes, ears, and hands-on help for security to look at why these outbursts are happening, why are these kids fighting, and to stop it.” 

The school even provided an APPLE room where students, including many white and Latinx children, received social, emotional, and academic support. To connect Black students to the high school, APPLE sponsored an annual talent and fashion show as a means to celebrate Black cultural identity and artistic expression. The performance had multiracial participation, was wildly popular, and packed the auditorium each year. Then, as happened with the Black performing arts show in D97, the administration ended the event.

APPLE mothers organized weekend training retreats on conflict resolution. To respond to racial profiling and to build understanding between Oak Park police and Black children, APPLE ran workshops with Oak Park police officers. Grandma Johnson even worked directly with new teachers to ground them in sound class management techniques.

APPLE also advised parents on the intricacies of special education. The national pattern, present at OPRF, of over-assigning Black males to special education was very concerning to APPLE women. Witnessing the inequities in how many adults handled discipline issues, documented in a 1991 D200 report, was just as disconcerting to APPLE. Eventually in 2007, at a time when D200 outplaced more Black males than any school in Illinois, APPLE prepared a legal challenge to the inequitable pattern of how special education operated in D200. The action did not go to court, but it brought the introduction of restorative practices to OPRF with a school board presentation in 2010. Finally in 2019, D200 launched its first programmatic commitment to developing restorative perspectives and practices.

Connecting to allies

Being present in the building offered APPLE an invaluable firsthand look at student life. Their love, support, and advocacy for children became a model for all to emulate. It also brought a fundamental political understanding to APPLE — systemic changes were necessary if OPRF was to truly be a school for all students. 

In pursuing that ideal in 1994 APPLE would join Building and Renewing Institutions Dedicated to Good Education (BRIDGE) in the first community coalition to work for racial equity at OPRF High School.

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

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