Throughout its 150 year history there has probably been no time that Oak Park and River Forest High School received more attention nationwide than during the fall of 2018 when the 10-part docuseries America to Me aired on Sunday nights on the Starz network. America to Me was directed by then Oak Park resident Steve James, a noted documentary filmmaker who had made such highly regarded films as Hoop Dreams, The interrupters and Life Itself.
America to Me focused on the experiences of Black students at OPRF and was controversial within OPRF. The school administration had strongly opposed allowing James access to the school to film students but in 2015 the school board voted 6-1 to allow James to film at OPRF. Sharon Patchak-Layman was the only board member to vote against approving the contract with Kartemquin Films. Even now, some at OPRF are reluctant to talk about the series.
James followed 10 Black or mixed race students, and midway through the 2015-16 school year, added 2 white students.
“When we started the project, I was not thinking of following white kids,” James recently told the Wednesday Journal.
James wanted to focus on the experience of Black students at OPRF but former OPRF administrator Chala Holland and former school board member Jackie Moore convinced James that he should include some white students to get a fuller picture. James said that it was hard to find white families that would allow their children to be filmed because they feared being the poster child for white privilege.
America to Me is an unvarnished look at the students’ lives and their experiences at OPRF, focusing a lot of attention on racial disparities.
“I’m very happy with it,” James said. “I think it’s a completely fair and honest portrayal of the reality of that school and that community around these issues. And the series isn’t all negative, it shows inspired teachers and kids who are incredible and who are having a great experience there. This is not some expose of Oak Park and OPRF at all.”
Jada Buford, was a senior who James followed and filmed. Buford, who is now studying film in a master’s degree program at Columbia University, said although it seemed strange at first to have a camera crew follow her around at school, she soon got used to it.
“It was, I want to say, kind of surreal,” Buford recalled in a telephone interview with the Wednesday Journal. “It was kind of uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to the cameras it kind of feels like they’re not there.”
The cameras captured some uncomfortable moments she had with a teacher.
By the time the series aired on Starz, Buford was a student at Howard University. She was surprised by her new found notoriety.
“It would be a little bit weird because I would have classmates come up to me and be like ‘oh I saw you on TV,’” Buford recalled. “It felt like someone was reading my diary.”
Buford said that she thought America to Me accurately captured life at OPRF, at least for her.
Although the administration opposed allowing James access to the school to film once the school board voted to allow James and his camera crews in, administrators cooperated with him. But then-Superintendent Steven Isoye and Principal Nathanial Rouse and other top administrators refused to be interviewed by James for the series
“For some, having film crews in the building on a regular basis was exciting, but in many ways it was challenging to our educational mission,” said Karin Sullivan, the Executive Director of Communications at OPRF in an email. “Three teams of filmmakers were here for a full school year, and by the end, there were well over 700 entries on the filming schedule. The filmmakers’ goal was to have unfettered access to as many spaces as they possibly could, while our goal as a school was to protect the educational environment. The Superintendent, chair of the Faculty Senate, and I had weekly meetings with the filmmakers, and there is no doubt that we had some clashes around these different objectives.”
James said that the administration was mostly cooperative but tried to limit some access as the filming moved into the second semester. Throughout the year James could not film in the faculty cafeteria and could only film in classrooms if the teacher allowed it.
Sullivan is one of the few top administrators at OPRF from 2015-16 who is still at the school. Isoye announced during the year of filming that he would leave OPRF for a job as the superintendent of Niles School District 219. Isoye is now the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education having been appointed to that post last year by Gov. JB Pritzker. Rouse resigned as principal OPRF in 2019, a few months after America to Me aired. Rouse first took a dean’s position at Bartlett High School and is now the Director of Equity, Race & Cultural Diversity for Barrington District 220. Many believe that Isoye’s and Rouse’s departures from OPRF were connected to America to Me.
America to Me was also divisive among the faculty. Some supported allowing cameras into the school while others opposed it in public comments made at the 2015 school board meeting before the board voted to approve the contract with Kartemquin Films which gave James and his crews access to the school.
One teacher who emerged as something of a star of America to Me was young English teacher Jessica Stovall. Her attempts to connect with one of her students and her frustrations with administrators are shown in vivid and emotional detail. Stovall also is no longer at OPRF. She resigned her teaching position at OPRF in 2018 to pursue a doctorate in education at Stanford. This fall Stovall is beginning a job as a professor at the University of Wisconsin.
John Condne, a veteran film teacher at OPRF who is currently on leave, served as the producer for America to Me and was the impetus for the series.
In an interview with the Wednesday Journal after his documentary on Roger Ebert, Life itself, was released James, the father of three OPRF graduates, said that he was interested in making a documentary about race and OPRF but assumed that the school would never allow him to film in the school. Conde, who also has his own production company, read that interview and encouraged James to approach school officials and propose doing a film noting that it was the school board, not the administration, who had the final say.
Conde is happy with the way America to Me turned out.
“I thought it turned out amazing,” Conde said. “What I was super pleased with is how we were really able to tell and show the lives of these students and what they were going through. Yes it was about race, yes it was about achievement, but it was also about just looking into the lives of high school students and what they’re actually doing and going through.”
Tom Cofsky, the only current member of the OPRF school board who was on the board when it voted to allow James to film at the school, said he doesn’t regret his vote, except for one thing.
“The one regret that I do have is that if it caused some of our employees angst and made their life a little more difficult you don’t want to wish that on them, but in terms of actually doing it I have no regrets at all,” Cofsky said.
Cofsky said that he learned a lot from watching America to Me.
“It gave me a lens that I didn’t see and I had five kids who went through this school,” Cofsky said. “I think it was beneficial in the big picture of exposing things and learning things.”
Cofsky noted that the series was not a comprehensive look at OPRF.
“It was through the eyes of our students of color,” Cofsky said. “They represent a fraction of our students but this was their lens and I thought it was well done.”
Sullivan says that she believes America to Me opened a lot of eyes, especially in Oak Park, about the persistence of racial disparities and whose responsibility it is to address those issues.
“I think the biggest impact was on the white members of our community—and I say that as a white person who moved to Oak Park 30 years ago in no small part because I valued its diversity,” Sullivan said in an email. “Oak Park was a pioneer in deliberately fostering racial integration back in the 1970s; I think a lot of us thought that history automatically made us a progressive, anti-racist community. America to Me opened a lot of white peoples’ eyes to the racism that people of color endure every day, not just in school but in our community. It’s not enough to have good intentions. As white people, we have to recognize and be willing to actively disrupt racial microaggressions whenever we see them. I think the series made a lot of people realize that becoming a racially just community takes a lot of hard, deliberate, ongoing work by ALL of us, not just the high school.”