Oak Park and River Forest High School’s equity department took to the Jan. 27 school board meeting and presented an update on its plans to cultivate a safe, welcoming space for faculty, staff and students. Addressing issues of racial equity is just one leg of OPRF District 200’s four-tiered strategic plan.

Patrick Hardy, executive director for equity and student success, led the conversation and shared with board members the work he and his colleagues have done throughout the school year and look forward to as they continue to strengthen the relationships among employees, students and community partners. During the presentation, Hardy outlined the department’s four goals, which include expanding the understaffed office; creating trauma-informed care practices; building a better resource program for families; and recruiting and retaining students for the department’s main counseling program, Motivational Mentorship.

       The new goals, each listed with a set of projects, were a response to a previous audit that pointed out the department’s lack of direction and members inability to work as a team, Hardy said on a Zoom call. Hardy, who stepped into the executive director role at the start of the 2021-22 school year, told board members that he and his colleagues shifted their focus to “figure out what we can achieve, what’s achievable and not try to do too much.”

“Ultimately, in the long term, it is our belief that Oak Park and River Forest High School should be a model school for racial equity. That’s the vision,” Hardy said. “And we believe these goals and the projects associated with them will help us begin and continue the process down the road.”

Cherylynn Jones-McLeod, the school’s trauma-informed specialist, joined Hardy on the Zoom call and spoke of some ways the department had tried to build a place for students inside OPRF. For example, there’s the Peace Room, a “flagship space” where students can go to “gain clarity” when they are stressed or overwhelmed, Jones-McLeod said. Faculty and staff are also welcome to use the Peace Room to decompress in between classes.

Jones-McLeod said the department would like to offer some professional development opportunities to teach meditation techniques, restorative circles or help teachers carve out safe spaces inside their own classrooms where students can retreat to if they need to take a “brain break.”

“We believe that this will help guide the work of trauma-informed care throughout the building,” said Jones-McLeod, “and create a more equitable and calm space for our faculty, our staff and our students, as well as the community.”

Hardy shared Jones-McLeod’s sentiments, adding professional learning is key to equity work. That’s why the department has sought to establish an advisory committee and recently partnered with OPRF to establish pathways for accountability and recommendations. The department also aims to examine the school district’s equity policies.

Another project is engaging with district families and connecting them to services outside of educational needs such as housing or food security in a “timely manner.”

“No. 1, we need to have a very clear referral system that connects families to resources that they need, and then the second half of that is we need to track that referral system,” Hardy said. “Remember, the focus is to build the capacity of the office, to build the capacity of our organization, and we felt that was a really important baseline project.”

At the meeting, Hardy also turned the board’s attention to his other colleagues, Patrick Chrisp and Shannon Perryman, both of whom run the Motivational Mentorship program for OPRF’s students of color. The two told the board their goal is to increase the number of the program’s participants to about 60 to 75 by the end of the school year. The program had experienced a decline in participation rate because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chrisp, an OPRF alumnus turned mentor, noted he and Perryman would like students to play a larger role in the program and become ambassadors to highlight that peer-to-peer method. He and Perryman also envision their mentorship program to have a space like the Peace Room where students can drop in during lunch or study hall and just feel comfortable among each other.

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