Part 9 of an ongoing series on educational equity efforts in Oak Park and the surrounding area.

In the early 1990s, at the start of the second generation of school integration in Oak Park, activists were hopeful for change that would confront ongoing racial inequities at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Despite positive developments in Oak Park’s District 97 elementary schools, racial equity advocates ran up against a perceived lack of urgency by District 200. That frustration, along with other developments, led to the creation of the unprecedented but short-lived coalition Building and Renewing Institutions Dedicated to Good Education (BRIDGE). 

Soon after its formation, BRIDGE announced a set of goals aimed at advancing equity. It then sponsored board candidates dedicated to an open inquiry into curriculum at OPRF with an emphasis on what was working and what was not working for students, especially for students of color, who were disproportionately assigned to the lower curriculum tracks. It was an agenda that elicited strong opposition from supporters of the status quo, who resorted to racist dog whistles to defeat the BRIDGE slate in the 1995 election.

Mel Wilson

In 1989 through the unwavering work of the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) and courageous advocates like the late Mel Wilson, the D200 board, after hearing months of virulent homophobic and hateful opposition, made OPRF the first high school in Illinois to protect the rights of its gay and lesbian members. Still, when OPALGA representatives met with OPRF counselors to explore ways to make the school safe and welcoming for all students, they were deeply discouraged by the lack of institutional understanding and support of gay and lesbian students. OPALGA later joined BRIDGE and helped solidify Oak Park’s first broadly-based alliance for equity.

Jaslin Salmon

The Oak Park NAACP chapter, headed by Jaslin Salmon (a Wednesday Journal opinion columnist) would also join BRIDGE. In 1992, the historic civil rights organization focused on systemic discipline inequities and called for a community inquiry into the disciplinary system that was not working for Black students — a goal BRIDGE would later endorse.  

In November 1994, BRIDGE was formally launched — with APPLE, OPALGA, the Oak Park NAACP and OPRF Students for Peace and Justice. Then in the summer of 1995, BRIDGE introduced a slate of three candidates for the upcoming Board election — former D97 board members Charles Brauner and Henry Fulkerson, and African-American Connie Van Brunt.

Call to action

At BRIDGE’s public introduction, moderator and OPRF parent Larry Shapiro proclaimed that BRIDGE was coming together to serve as an umbrella organization for students at the school who were experiencing individual and institutional discrimination. Shapiro stressed that BRIDGE was focused on student rights and representation, academic achievement for all students, and sound financial management. BRIDGE called on D200 to reverse its ban of APPLE from the school, to appoint a student to the school board, conduct a review of the school’s discipline policy, provide more services for suspended and expelled students, and hire more African-American and Hispanic faculty members.

OPALGA’s Wilson stressed the historic moment in Oak Park, saying the coalition was “the first time that African-American organizations, gay and lesbian organizations, and student organizations within the community all banded together to confront common problems at OPRF.” 

Centrality of curriculum inquiry

With unwavering commitment from Oak Park racial equity advocates, BRIDGE prioritized an evaluation of curriculum and instruction, with attention to what might be done to enhance student achievement. This was the exact call for action later proposed by the D200 Learning Community Achievement Gap Report in 2003 and in the 2011 Blueprint Assessment. 

Backers of the PTO election slate, however, were relentless in denigrating the BRIDGE platform, believing all was fine at OPRF. Their persistent chorus was that BRIDGE proposed to dumb down the school, eliminate Honors and AP programs, protect gang members at OPRF, and bring financial chaos to D200 — allegations that had no basis in reality.

In rebutting opponents in Wednesday Journal in July of 1995, BRIDGE leader Caren Van Slyke argued that the coalition “wants the best for OPRF students, nothing more.” She insisted that one of the group’s central tenets was a commitment to “educational practices that foster the academic achievement of all students.” Van Slyke further denounced as unfounded the charge that BRIDGE was out to scrap the two academically advanced curriculum tracks, Advanced Placement and Honors. She challenged school leaders and the community to act, insisting that “OPRF can hold onto the current way of doing things or we can approach these problems with an attitude of transformation and continual improvement … and begin to think in new ways.”

Dog whistle campaigning

The weekend before the 1995 election, backers of the PTO slate delivered a campaign flyer to every home in River Forest, but not to Oak Park residents. It was replete with racist dog whistles — phrases, symbols, and alarms cloaked in subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to racial fear. It stressed the danger of an all-Oak Park “takeover” of OPRF, taxation without representation, and previous dog whistles about dumbing down the school, letting gangs thrive, and predicting fiscal disaster if the all Oak Park BRIDGE slate were to win. It was a clear attempt to divide D200 and it worked, at least in 1995.

Michael Nevins who ran the campaign of the two CALL candidates from the third slate of board candidates, characterized the leaflet as “lies and misrepresentations, if you will, but it was effective in River Forest.” When questioned about the River Forest leaflet, Barry Greenwald, a longtime activist with the Village Managers Association, which slated candidates for Oak Park village elections, ran the PTO slate campaign. After the election, Greenwald admitted that the PTO candidates “wanted to make it dramatic enough to call attention to the issues at hand … you begin to say things to make a point.” Whether the strategy helped defeat BRIDGE is uncertain. Without a doubt, it demonstrated Oak Park and River Forest were deeply divided over what, if anything, to do about gross disparities in how students experienced school.

The BRIDGE slate was defeated and the coalition soon dissolved, but the issues it raised and its insistence on a serious racial equity-centered inquiry into hiring, discipline, and curriculum reform did not. 

In 2003, D200 would publish a second revealing study on racial inequity with findings and recommendations in the areas of concern BRIDGE addressed in the divisive election of 1995. 

John Duffy is a co-founder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, a retired teacher, and education historian.

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