Oak Park-River Forest High School in Oak Park

In 1991, District 200’s first major effort to understand and end racial achievement disparities was set forth in the Report of the African-American Achievement Committee (RAAC). It came a year after District 97 made a strategic commitment to racially integrated and equitable learning. The RAAC’s findings set an agenda that would challenge D200 right to the present and only slowly translate into meaningful change. Such was the pace of education reform. Even more so — it was the nature of altering the dynamics of how racial injustice compromised America’s idealized vision of public education as the great equalizer of opportunity and social mobility.

Seeking a path forward

Don Offermann, former OPRF High School superintendent and now president of Forest Park National Bank. (photo source: positivelyproviso.com)

Racial equity goals being addressed by D200 today were present in the core findings of the RAAC’s four subcommittees. Superintendent/Principal Donald Offermann chaired the landmark study by teachers and administrators. The report 1) documented racial disparities in student grades, discipline, and standardized test scores; 2) identified faculty beliefs about why teachers were not succeeding with large numbers of Black students; 3) recognized and described African Americans’ centuries-long struggle for freedom and justice and the extraordinary obstacles Blacks faced in America’s oppressive racial order; and 4) reviewed the emerging national research knowledge on school organizational and instructional practices which contributed to Black student success. 

African-American student excellence

To show that the school was indeed working in many ways for African-American children, the report began with an impressive presentation of the names and accomplishments of 83 outstanding Black students in academics, the arts, athletics, and leadership — a proud proclamation that Black student excellence was occurring at OPRF. The challenge set forth, as is the case with racial justice and equity across America today, was to make those successes more equitable across race, class, and gender.

For certain, the barriers to equity examined by the committee had no quick and easy solutions. Still, the report’s lasting legacy was that it unabashedly set forth potentially transformative ideas for teaching, learning, and confronting the dominant culture and structures that inequitably shaped race and education at OPRF. It was an agenda that D200 would both commit to and evade in subsequent reports and plans right up to the present Strategic Plan, which prioritizes racial equity goals with strong accountability procedures.

‘Cultural deficit’ thinking widespread

In addition to a detailed presentation of quantitative achievement disparities — on average, 20 points on standardized test scores between white and Black students — the report included revealing faculty beliefs about Black students, their families, and the values teachers believed African Americans had about education. Teachers overwhelmingly put the burden on Black students expressing what sociologists refer to as “cultural deficit” thinking. Put bluntly, the vast majority of teachers believed African-American students and their family culture did not place a priority value on education. Only a few teacher responses suggested that any responsibility for racial inequities might be found in OPRF’s established curriculum structures and its white-dominant culture. On a positive note, most teachers believed improvement was possible and that they were willing to learn how to make that happen.

The report also established a key component that subsequent D200 research reports in 2003, 2011, and recent surveys and public testimonies embrace — asking Black students how they experience OPRF High School. The report’s survey data on Black and white students’ beliefs found that their attitudes on good teaching and valuing of education were very similar. It also concluded that negative peer pressure was not a significant factor impacting the motivation of students of color.

Culturally responsive teaching

Noteworthy for current professional learning at OPRF was how the work of the subcommittee on instruction, headed by African-American teacher Mark Vance, evolved a vision for instruction at OPRF. The subcommittee’s recommendations commenced D200’s slow-but-steady journey to adopting culturally responsive learning. That goal today is being advanced as part of racial equity procedure goals being coordinated by Dr. Levar Ammons, director of Equity and Student Success.

Unfortunately, despite faculty commitments to develop and innovate their practice, the RAAC, like subsequent achievement studies in 2003 and 2011, garnered a limited follow-up commitment. The lack of any reference to the report in the district’s 1995 Strategic Plan bore disturbing witness to this assertion. Nonetheless, many faculty continued to design supplementary programs to aid Black students, including support for African-American students who gained admission to Advanced Placement and Honors curriculum where Black students were disproportionately under-represented. Still, the overall organization for teaching and learning continued to perpetuate what equity allies viewed strongly as a system of learning that was racially separate and unequal in opportunity to learn.

Emergence of a D200 equity coalition

D200’s lack of urgency in responding to the RAAC, combined with the school board’s physical removal of APPLE mothers from the high school because of a dispute over who actually was the president of APPLE, contributed to the creation of a coalition that focused on equity, but especially on racial equity. In 1994, a year before the divisive 1995 D200 board election, the unprecedented coalition of equity allies, all based in Oak Park, formed Building and Renewing Institutions Dedicated to Good Education (BRIDGE). Coalition allies would sponsor a slate of candidates for the board in the 1995 election. All BRIDGE candidates would be defeated by a PTO-backed slate that saw no problem with the status quo at OPRF. 

To that unsettling story I turn in Part 9 of this series.

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