The District 200 Board of Education c. 2015: Jeff Weissglass, Jackie Moore, board President John Phelan, Tom Cofsky, Steve Gevinson, Sharon Patchak-Layman and Ralph Lee. (Courtesy OPRF D200 board)

This is the 12th and final installment of John Duffy’s series on the evolution of educational equity efforts in Oak Park and the surrounding area.

In 2012, Superintendent Stephen Isoye introduced the District 200 strategic plan process, centered on racial equity, to the 60-member steering committee gathered at OPRF High School. In an upbeat spirit he described how transformative understanding about race underway in the district provided a critical mindset for addressing racial inequities. 

He referred specifically to critical race perspectives and the personal learning that board members, administrators and faculty had been engaged in around racial consciousness through a program called Courageous Conversations About Race (CCAR). That professional development program focused on understanding race and whiteness as social constructs, engaging personal beliefs about race, and examining structural racism across society in general and inside OPRF in particular.

Sharon Patchak-Layman (File)

Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman and teachers Jessica Stovall and Devon Alexander first introduced CCAR in 2008. While yet to be formally evaluated, the program continues today as a foundational learning experience about race and how race shapes the culture of OPRF. CCAR has been a key process internally in D200’s journey toward racial equity, the day when race will no longer be a predictor of student learning outcomes, discipline or cultural experience. 

Blueprint Assessment of 2011

Unfortunately, in describing the personal and organizational insight CCAR was fostering about race and education, Isoye failed to share, or even mention, the recent compelling critical study about race and culture at OPRF — the Blueprint Assessment (BA) commissioned by the board in 2009 and completed by consultants from Minneapolis in 2011.

The BA findings, based on lengthy qualitative interviews with a representative group of 60 administrators, teachers, and community members, concluded that OPRF was two schools, separate and racially inequitable — an assertion made by APPLE and community activists for a generation. Especially disheartening was the finding that the faculty also experienced an educational divide between the honors/AP faculty and those who taught the college prep and transitions track.

The BA was rejected by influential board members and essentially hidden from ongoing discourse around racial equity. Only when the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education called on equity advocates and new board members in 2015-16 to examine the report did the study begin to play a role in the emerging commitment to address structural racism in D200, including the report’s recommendation to develop a unitary freshman curriculum grounded in equity.

The pattern, sadly, was familiar at OPRF — sponsor focused research on how race and education intersected — then either delay action, provide more remediation, or simply reject the unsettling findings the study revealed.

Following through on 2003 study

Among the strongest final recommendations of the 2003 Learning Community Performance Gap Study (see part 10 of this series) was the call for an evaluation of what role curriculum tracking might play in racial disparities at OPRF. In 2008, Sharon Patchak-Layman and Ralph Lee pushed the board to take up that evaluation but faced ongoing resistance from the administration, board members, and many faculty. Patchak-Layman also moved racial equity thinking forward with ideas taken up only recently. In her first of eight years on the Board she informally proposed an all honors freshman experience and suggested a full-time equity director to complement the CCAR work. 

Ralph Lee (File)

Board member Ralph Lee zeroed in on the structural issue of how OPRF and other schools for generations organized learning. Lee, a former university chemistry professor and college president, who taught chemistry and physics at OPRF before retiring, expressed deep concern about the possibility of reduced expectations teachers might have for students in lower tracks. It was a hypothesis questioned by leaders of the teachers union and other dominant voices in the community and on the board. Lee nonetheless insisted that “If we are going to continue ability grouping, we ought to be able to say the assumptions we are basing this on and how what we are doing actually compares with what theoretically we think we are doing. I am concerned because what we have is a system whose basic tenet is separate but equal.” Lee’s fundamental question about curriculum organization at OPRF found one answer in the Blueprint Assessment.

As the assessment stated, OPRF had a remarkable history of student accomplishment in all educational endeavors. It has enjoyed extraordinary community support, a beautiful campus, and an outstanding, hard-working and talented faculty. But as the BA painfully also pointed out, our high school was stuck in the same racial inequities and unfulfilled promises that has plagued the longer and larger story of public education — an inequitable, segregated, and debilitating curriculum structure. 

Since 2011, reams of local, national, and international research have answered Ralph Lee’s fundamental question. Racial inequity is a result of both design and default, ingrained for decades in schools serving African-American children. Second generation segregation, in the form of heavily segregated curriculum tracking, perpetuated historic inequities in both D200 and District 97.

Acknowledging that history and altering personal and institutional beliefs about race and how OPRF perpetuated white advantage and harmed students of color is a sea change of the last five years. Strong equity leadership from board members, an administration with the knowledge and skill to put needed changes in motion, along with an alliance of racial equity community organizations and courageous students of color, all made possible OPRF’s institutional epiphany imaged by equity advocates for decades. 

Tentative equilibrium on equity

In moving forward we must understand that racial equity is a process, not an arrival point. D200 has encountered intense opposition to racial equity for most of its history, even as thoughtful teachers designed important supports for expanding Black students’ access to honors and other high-status curriculum. Still, as the recent D200 and D97 elections demonstrated, the outlines and vision for equity are gaining broad support. 

For certain, the fears that have blocked racial equity-minded change in the past have not disappeared. What has changed is a newfound honesty by many in our community and a willingness to call out and actually confront denial about racial injustice. When we act to change educational inequities, work to make schools places where all of our children can thrive, we can begin to take some solace that we are heeding the guidance James Baldwin so wisely offered at the peak of the Civil Rights struggle years ago: 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

John Duffy is a retired teacher and curriculum historian who co-founded of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education in 2011. He led teacher union community coalition efforts for racial equity in curriculum at Proviso East in the 1970s and 1980s and in Oak Park as a member of the Concerned Parent Association and the Oak Park Community Action Organization during the first generation of racial integrated schools.

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