Members of the student-led organization Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League gathered outside Oak Park and River Forest High School Wednesday morning and continued to ask District 200 officials to reconsider its A through F grading policy and help the Black and Brown students who are at risk of failing their second semester classes.
During a press conference, four members of ROYAL spoke up about how students of color have fallen behind throughout the school year, as they watched their communities confront issues of racial injustice and police brutality on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference came off the heels of yesterday’s meeting where ROYAL’s Black and Brown youth leaders met with district officials and urged them to not give failing grades during this semester.
“It’s not fair that we have to ask the school for empathy and equity during this time of death, gun violence and police violence,” said Chloe Leach, of ROYAL and a graduating senior, at the press conference.
OPRF sent a letter to school families and the community Wednesday morning referencing the Tuesday meeting between ROYAL and school officials. Included in that meeting were Supt. Joylynn-Pruitt Adams, Associate Supt. (and incoming superintendent) Greg Johnson, Laurie Fiorenza, director of student learning, Sara Dixon Spviy, board president, and Gina Harris, board member.
At this point, D200 board members are considering hosting an emergency meeting. If changes are made to the grading policy, they must be approved by the board, said Karin Sullivan, the high school’s communications director.
Sullivan added school administrators are already holding conversations on what other services and resources they can provide for students. “We recognize we’re coming back to school next year after a pandemic. Kids are still going to be struggling and recovering from this worldwide trauma that they’ve experienced. So, those things are under discussion now.”
Leach said she was hospitalized twice this past year and found it hard to just “step back into the swing of things” after her health recovered. While Leach was able to keep her grades up, she said she was lucky enough to have the “willpower” to study and to have support from her parents.
“I know that a lot of students don’t have two parents at home and the resources that I have, and it’s not fair that the school is expecting students to continue to get things done,” she said.
Among ROYAL’s list of demands, youth leaders are calling on the district to give students credit for their current classes and an option to opt out of grade-based assessments. They also want the district to prioritize their students’ mental health, especially as this year comes to a close, and to continue those efforts when school resumes in the fall.
In its statement, District 200 officials shared the number of ways that they have tried to help their students, especially those of color, throughout the pandemic. The district has already eliminated finals for the second semester and replaced it with Bridge Week, where students can work with teachers individually. Among many things, teachers have held office hours after school and the school has offered on-site and online tutoring.
“We care deeply about the success of all our students,” the district said in the statement. “We too are concerned about the inequitable ways that the pandemic and racial violence have affected our Black and Brown students.”
District officials said they have “deliberately enhanced our academic and social-emotional supports” so all students, “particularly those who struggled, have had equitable access to learning.”
For ROYAL organizer and OPRF parent Cynthia Brito, those efforts are just not enough. Brito believed that the school failed to recognize racial and police violence as part of an ongoing pandemic toward communities of color.
“This is traumatic for students of color, but we still want them to get up and be on Zoom for hours and make up all semester work in one week – Bridge Week?” she said. “You want to boast about Bridge Week?”
Brito said several Black and Brown students, including those in ROYAL and her own daughter, are failing classes. She went on to say the school should have revised its A through F grading policy sooner and not waited until the end of the second semester. The final day for seniors like Leach is May 20, while the last day for underclassmen is May 27.
ROYAL has also called on the D200 Board of Education to host an emergency meeting and discuss the policy.
Brito’s daughter, Marlene Menaz, and nephew Jacob Diaz, also spoke at the press conference about their shared frustrations.
“We’ve had family members pass away and have been severely affected by COVID-19,” said Diaz, a sophomore at OPRF. “Many of our parents are essential workers who have put their lives on the line so that society can continue to function. Many of us have been sick ourselves.”
Menaz, a freshman, added the fight to upend the grading policy isn’t about teens being “lazy,” “bad” or being on their “phones too much.” This was about their mental health.
“I don’t understand how the school doesn’t understand what we’re going through when there’s just so much, especially for youth,” said Menaz, adding she, herself, is failing her first year at OPRF. “There’s so much going on. There’s so much stress. There’s so much anger within us. It’s just so much.”
Menaz said her grades started slipping after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 last November, and she was not the only person in her family who suffered from the novel virus. Even though she recovered, Menaz, who was a straight A student, said she couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork and this is the first time she has received failing marks.
“Adults aren’t doing nothing for us,” she said. “The school’s not doing nothing for us. It’s not a safe place for us.”