Beyond the binary: Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Leadership and Launch students pay a visit to Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. | Provided.

For many faculty and staff at Oak Park and River Forest High School, promoting equity has become a focal point in and outside their classrooms. They want to make sure their students feel welcomed and offer them ample room to grow, learn and discover.

Take Ginger Bencola, the school’s prevention and wellness coordinator. Over the last few years, Bencola has worked to advocate for LGBTQ+ students and hosts a weekly support group at OPRF called Beyond the Binary for trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students. Or Melinda Novotny and John Hoerster, a pair of teachers who founded a leadership course that brings upperclassmen and underclassmen together. There’s also Patrick Chrisp and Shannon Perryman, a couple of motivational mentors who recently created a mentorship program for students of color. 

These are just some of the many efforts that fall under what the school calls “Equitable Excellence in Action.” In recent months, the school released a newsletter titled “Equitable Excellence in Action” and shared with district faculty, staff and families its commitment to equity – and what that looks like in practice.

For Superintendent Greg Johnson, the words “equity” and “excellence” are synonymous.

“You don’t strive for one and then pause and take a deep breath, and then go toward the other. That’s not how it works,” Johnson told Wednesday Journal.

Echoing Johnson, Bencola opened up about the ways she and her colleagues have sought to cultivate a safe space for their LGBTQ+ students. In the last four years, the district’s Board of Education and administrators adopted a set of policies and procedures to affirm students’ gender identities, cementing the foundation of the district’s gender support plans. The plans aimed to address names and pronouns, locker and bathroom use, overnight school trip accommodations and more. More recently, this fall, the district installed eight all-gender restrooms for students.

“As a social worker and as a member of the LGBT community, I genuinely believe it’s life-saving and life-changing work. I really can’t express enough how lucky I feel to be at OPRF who has really embraced this work and embraced supporting this population,” Bencola told the Journal. “I know that is not the case at every school or every district.”

That’s the thing, Novotny and Hoerster said. An educator’s desire to create an inclusive place for their students comes from deep within. It’s work that’s personal, they said.

When Novotny and Hoerster started Leadership and Launch seven years ago, the two said their idea was simple: They wanted freshmen to feel more comfortable in high school, so why not partner them with juniors and seniors who can show them the ropes?

They explained further the idea, in some ways, hit closer to home. Growing up, Novotny and Hoerster were the eldest among their siblings and often helped guide their younger siblings.

“I have a younger sister,” Hoerster said, “and I know after I left [high school] and she entered high school, just even having name recognition, like teachers seeing the name on the roster, hearing the last name and saying, ‘Oh, are you John’s sister?’”

“Just that one little connection where a student feels like they’ve been singled out in a positive way, they’ve been recognized in a positive way … I think it opens doors. It opens opportunities. It opens connections,” he continued.

Not everyone has that, which is why Novotny and Hoerster first created Leadership and Launch. In the course, juniors and seniors mentor and support freshmen. They meet about three times a week and help them with homework during study halls, as well as find other resources, activities and more. This year, the program has 126 leaders – it’s biggest cohort yet.

“There was a lot of excitement for all sorts of reasons,” Hoerster said about this year’s large turnout. “Coming back in person, I think students wanted to find more ways to connect with each other and with other students.”

Patrick Hardy, executive director for equity and student success, agreed with Novotny and Hoerster on the importance of mentorship. Hardy, who works with Perryman and Chrisp, shared that the pair’s Motivational Mentorship program gives students of color the chance to gather and talk. This isn’t a one-on-one experience; this is group-led, Hardy said.

According to a school newsletter, the program runs daily, each day a different theme. For example, on Marathon Monday provides students an opportunity to discuss one topic and listen to each other’s perspectives, while What’s Up Wednesday focuses on reflection and how that topic impacts their life or the people around them.

Hardy explained further that the benefits of having group conversations is clear: There’s a “sense of acceptance,” “sense of self-esteem” and shared connectedness, he said.

“A group mentorship model can really be positively impacted when you put them in that type of setting,” he shared.

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