Three Oak Park and River Forest High School seniors who were not on track to graduate now have the chance to walk in Saturday’s ceremony, as the District 200 Board of Education voted Thursday evening to waive local graduation requirements for the Class of 2021. The decision came after a lengthy discussion during the May 27 meeting and was among three items up for vote based on concerns voiced by some students advocating for a “no-fail” grading policy.

For the last two weeks, students from the Revolutionary Youth Action League in Oak Park have demanded school administrators change the school’s A through F grading policy as a way to help students of color who are failing their classes. Black and Brown youth leaders have said police brutality and racial violence on top of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted their academic performance and their mental health and urged the school to show empathy.

Board member Gina Harris, who voted for the graduation requirement measure, said she felt “torn” and “disheartened” by the conversation. Harris said she understood how faculty has worked throughout the pandemic to help students, but she also recognized the outcry from students, including those who have continued to succeed and those who have struggled and fallen behind.

“People should not be penalized because we’re in the pandemic,” said Harris, adding the issues at hand are yet another example of “division.” “At the same time, there are going to be students who did work very hard to gain that letter grade who are going to feel what about all their hard work? This breaks my heart. I can’t determine who worked harder. I can’t determine who was traumatized.”

Echoing Harris, board member Kebreab Henry said he believed no student at OPRFHS should fail this year and to “let these kids walk” and give them the opportunity to move forward.

Tom Cofsky, board vice president, was the only member of the seven-member board to cast a dissenting vote. While Cofsky agreed with his colleagues that the decision was difficult, he said he was against modifying the graduation policy. Like Harris, Cofsky reflected on the resources staff offered to students, especially when it came to meeting their social-emotional needs.

School administrators initially reported that a total of 29 seniors – which is less than 5% of the Class of 2021 – were not on track to graduate. The board’s decision to waive all the local graduation requirements brings that number down to 26. Those 26 students still need to meet state requirements in order to graduate.

Local graduation requirements are courses selected by the district, not the Illinois State Board of Education, and the school board can change those requirements, as they see fit, said Associate (incoming) Superintendent Greg Johnson in a separate interview. Examples of those courses are writing, computer proficiency and fine and performing arts, according to the school site.

Also at the meeting, the board rejected an item that sought to change students’ failing marks into a “no credit” for the 2020-21 school year. When a student receives a “no credit” on a report card, the class does not impact his or her grade point average, the school site stated. F’s, however, are factored into the grade point average.

Henry joined board member Mary Anne Mohanraj in voting for the measure, while the rest of the board opposed.

“I don’t know how I could fail a kid when I know adults who are struggling – and have more coping skills to put food on the table, to go to work – who can’t get out of bed,” Henry said. “That’s real. I can’t put the same level of burden or high level of expectations on a child.”

During the meeting, board member Ralph Martire offered up his opinion. Martire, who at the last minute voted “yes” to waiving the local graduation requirements for this year’s senior class, said he disagreed with converting F’s into “no credit” marks for all students.

“I look at the supports that our administration and faculty put in place and the very small number of students that were seniors that were at risk this year [of not graduating] compared to years prior to the pandemic, which means that our faculty and administration stepped up to the plate,” Martire said. “They put in place great supports.”  

“No matter how great the supports are, no matter how well you design a system, not everyone is going to thrive in that system,” he said. “Not everyone’s going to take advantage of that system and not everyone will succeed in the system, even if it’s as well designed as it possibly could be.”

Board members unanimously agreed to waive summer school fees for district families and aim to reimburse those who have already paid. The cost for summer school classes varies, Johnson said. For students who have to retake a class over the summer because of failing marks, they are charged $100 for that class. If students are required to retake more than two classes, the fees do not go beyond $200, Johnson said. Students who choose to take a regular class over the summer are expected to pay a $250 fee.

Summer school fees typically bring in revenues of $215,000 to District 200. The district plans to reimburse the $161,022 already collected.

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