Kendale McCoy in a scene from the 2018 docu-series ‘America to Me.’ (Credit: Starz)

Multiple developments in the first decade of this millennium helped birth District 200’s racial equity vision and work. In these years, community action led by APPLE (African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education), a state of Illinois review, outside studies, and political discourse around race were as contentious as any period in the history of Oak Park and River Forest High School. These developments all helped move the D200 Board of Education to finally prioritize racial equity in 2009 and center it in the district’s strategic plans of 2014 and 2017. 

Strong advocacy by APPLE and community allies, regional special education experts, and bold leadership from board members Ralph Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman were key to developing transformative perspectives on race that were necessary for seriously addressing racial disparities at OPRF. In this process D200 had to move beyond conservative thinking that sought to exonerate OPRF of any responsibility for disturbing racial inequities in discipline, special education, achievement, and classroom culture around curriculum tracking. It also, perhaps surprisingly, required a rejection of the belief proposed by some board members that a “color-blind approach” to overall improvement should frame board goals and plans.

Discipline inequities

Three historic features of second generation segregation in post-Civil Rights Era integrated schools were especially harmful to African-American students at OPRF —glaring disparities in discipline, the segregation of Black students in lower tracks and special education, and the inequities of rigid curriculum tracking. 

D200 discipline inequities, where Black students were twice as likely to encounter the discipline system and be punished than white children, elicited a call by APPLE and the Oak Park NAACP for an independent evaluation.

In December of 2005, an audit by the office of the West Cook State Department of Education absolved D200 of any discriminatory actions. Wyanetta Johnson from APPLE strongly dissented saying, “The problem isn’t how children are treated once they’re in the system, the problem is what is causing our children to be disciplined disproportionately.” Specifically, the state findings did not look at causes such as cultural differences, or what role racial bias might play in discipline disparities. During the state audit, APPLE and the Citizens Code of Conduct Committee submitted anecdotal evidence and a data analysis, neither of which were accepted or included in the official record of the state investigation. By 2007, APPLE’s discipline study was expanded to include racial injustices in OPRF’s special education practices. 

In November of 2007, APPLE presented a disturbing memorandum: “Segregation, Outplacement and Noncompliance: How OPRFHS Violates Federal & State Special Education Laws, Harming Students, Families and Taxpayers.” It was a sweeping 41-page indictment of how the school’s special education was in violation of federal and state protections for Black children. It was a compelling plea advocating not just for the rights of Black children but all children, including those with disabilities. 

The memorandum accused D200 of serious problems needing immediate reform:

• placing a disproportionate number of African-American students in a segregated separate classroom in violation of guidelines for least-restrictive learning settings

• outplacing students, including more Black children than any high school in Illinois to alternative schools at a cost of $2.87 million per year

• over-identifying African-American children as having emotional disturbances and segregating them from the regular education classroom

• failing to adequately prepare special education and regular-ed teachers for teaching in an inclusive classroom 

As a consequence of APPLE’S work a possible federal intervention loomed — the exact fear required to begin best practices in special education and disabilities rights which most high schools in the region had already put in place. Unlike other critical studies of OPRF, the APPLE report led to sweeping changes to special education beginning in 2010 with the new superintendent, Stephen Isoye, and a new head of special education, Tina Halliman. 

Clinging to old patterns

The previous superintendent, Attila Weninger, arrived in 2007, replacing Susan Bridge. With new equity-focused board members Ralph Lee, an African American, and former D200 teacher, Sharon Patchak Layman, who served eight years on the District 97 and District 200 boards, and John Allen, the board continued slow-moving deliberations to address achievement inequities. To move that work forward, Weninger quickly laid out a plan involving over 60 initiatives, some new, but most in existence already. All but a few proposals continued the OPRF tradition of isolated remediation of Black students. 

From the start, Weninger premised his plan with politically and historically naïve assertions — claims that nonetheless appealed to status-quo thinking still clearly present in the community. He argued to not look backward and to end the rancor around how to resolve racial disparities. Perhaps most troubling for equity allies was his assertion that OPRF had no role to play in achievement disparities, that all was well with the school. In four short months Weninger concluded the source of achievement disparities was that too many students were unprepared to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities OPRF offered.

APPLE and other racial equity allies found Weninger’s plan a non-starter. Most problematically, the plan amplified a perspective some board members began simultaneously to advance — to wrap any plan to address achievement in a color-blind ideology, insisting that race should not apply, that a plan should exclude reference to any racial or ethnic group. Weninger was following a reactionary national discourse claiming race was no longer a factor in our lives, that America was in a post-racial world. It was a perspective outrageously out of sync with the reality of students and families, regardless of their racial identity.

Carl Spight decried the Weninger Plan’s claim that the district focused too much on “the gap” and not on solutions. The esteemed APPLE leader and OPRF researcher asserted, “What we have suffered from is too little insight, too little assessment, not enough truth-telling, and too little accountability.”

Most importantly, Spight rebuked Weninger for failing to recognize the persistent structural and cultural barriers that contribute to “two OPRFs,” one for high-achieving students, the other limiting the learning opportunity of African-American and other students. 

It was a racial critique as old as American public education. 

And it is finally being boldly addressed with today’s Access for All freshman curriculum restructuring.

37 years of APPLE advocacy

Burcy Hines

African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE) is an advocacy group formed in 1984. In its first years, it was composed of parents and students of OPRF High School and District 97 elementary schools and members of the community. Early in its history it focused on providing academic, cultural and emotional support for students. Other goals included winning access for Black students to college prep, Advanced Placement, and gifted education courses offered in both districts.  Although APPLE’s primary focus was the African-American student, to this day it has included the needs of other ethnic groups as well.

Moving forward, APPLE’s goals began to lean toward inclusion of the African American so they had a feeling of belonging and saw OPRF as their school too. APPLE then began to re-direct its work on behalf of those students who were “excluded” because of their race and ethnicity. APPLE also discovered that the problem which African Americans encountered appeared to be impacting other students, especially those enrolled in special education programs in D200. 

APPLE acted in collaboration with many allies over the years. The assistance and support from the community as well as state and local political leaders have always been important to advancing APPLE’s goals for all students in Oak Park.

With multiple allies, APPLE was indispensable in getting the Racial Equity Policy and Procedures and the Access for All equity curriculum reform now being implemented in D200.

After 37 years, the APPLE organization is proud to say, “We did it and we lived to see our goals implemented.”

Burcy Hines is a lifelong member of APPLE and was president in 2014-2015. She worked on the critique and challenges APPLE brought forth to end the OPRF discipline and special education inequities described in Part 11 of the series “Race and Education in Oak Park.” She currently leads the D200 work of the Campaign to Hire More Teachers of Color.

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