As has often been our historic racial narrative, recent divisions around how to conduct a racial equity assessment (REA) of Imagine Project 2 at OPRF High School, while unfortunate, were not a surprise. What is more important now than those deep disagreements is what happens next for the goals of racial equity that so many seek.

Committee for Excellence & Equity in Education is now ready, with District 200, to evaluate what worked, what was problematic, and to consider ways to improve the existing REA procedures.

In doing so, it is paramount to remember that D200’s racial equity assessment was the first to take place in our school and community. The fact that it occurred on a decision of the magnitude of Project 2 made this event even more notable.

Like other landmark events centered on racial diversity, equity and inclusion, many in the community disagreed and felt betrayed about the process, substance, and outcome of unprecedented developments aimed at reconciling tensions around racial equity. Some examples from Oak Park’s past are illustrative of the divisions that major developments involving race predictably elicit.

When the village of Oak Park in 1968 codified fair housing, large numbers of white people vehemently objected. Then in the ’70s many whites fled Oak Park and many African Americans joined the community as racial integration advanced. Still, even supporters of fair housing were critical of some of the means the village considered, or in fact implemented, to maintain racial stability and prevent housing segregation.

In 1974, District 97 elementary schools committed to community-wide school integration, instituted limited busing, and reorganized K-8 schools by creating two new junior highs and eight K-6 buildings. The sea change brought heated debate and large contentious meetings where some parents felt betrayed by D97.

Many Oak Parkers, mostly white families, echoing Chicago and Boston resistance to school integration, saw re-districting, as school boundary changes were called, as destroying a proud tradition of K-8 neighborhood schools. Even supporters of the plan worried that integration by itself was no guarantee that African American children would feel safe, be supported culturally, and thrive under re-districting.

D97 developments in the early ’80s confirmed doubts of pro-integration proponents as re-segregation within schools followed a major change in the daily class schedule, purportedly to address achievement disparities. Deep divisions, mistrust, and militant multiracial resistance followed for most of the decade.

In 2019, the D200 high school board, responding to proposals made by African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE), CEEE, and Suburban Unity Alliance in 2016, brought forth a final racial equity policy that was a shadow of the strong policy a D200 community committee had drafted. After bitter accusations both ways, community and board leaders hammered out a stronger policy that mirrored what the committee had drafted during five months of meetings.

Today, we look forward, not with the hope that disagreements will end, but with the understandings that our local and national history around racial justice and equity teach us. Decisions and policies impacting race will remain contentious.

What we must guard against is a situation where white-dominant institutions like OPRF and the larger community become complacent — for that likely means racial equity is being ignored.

In advancing the racial equity vision of D200, we accept Superintendent Greg Johnson’s recent pledge to move forward in collaboration on multiple fronts:

•      to ensure that future REAs on major decisions are conducted more faithfully, effectively, and satisfactorily for all involved

•      to find, grow, hire and retain more teachers of color

•      to expand curriculum changes that promote racial equity in opportunity to learn for all students

•      to finalize a procedure to evaluate resource allocations for equity

•      to make school culture safe and welcoming for all

•      to reduce the racial disparities in school suspensions and outplacements

CEEE and racial equity allies remain dedicated to realizing these goals.

CEEE is a multiracial group of Oak Park and River Forest residents advocating for racial equity at OPRF High School.

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