Let's redefine the typical

A parent offers a positive critique of OPRF's postsecondary prep

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By Michael Romain 'Connects'

Staff reporter

For some graduates and parents at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the state of postsecondary preparation — in the form of career and technical education; electives like film and culinary arts; and extracurricular activities — has been strong for years. 

What may make it stronger for some students who may feel left out of these offerings? Perhaps even more individualized attention to students' specific social, emotional and intellectual needs, say an outspoken OPRF parent and a nonprofit report. 

"I feel that OPRF has a lot of different clubs and activities for students to do," said Alex Albers, a documentary film editor based in San Francisco. "They're a great way to utilize the school's many resources." 

She said that the process of finding her professional path was ignited in a film and video class at her alma mater. 

"We were doing music videos and infomercials," said Albers, a 2004 OPRF graduate who edited a short documentary called "Women's March" that recently screened in Oak Park. 

Cerissa Arnieri, a 1998 graduate of OPRF whose son graduated from the school in 2014, said that she remembers all kinds of trade courses available to students when she attended, such as automotive, shop and home economics. 

"Now, they have even more than they had when I was there," she said. "They have culinary arts classes, they have a lot. It's really great." 

But the experience of accessing OPRF's plethora of vocational and technical options isn't universally smooth. 

Lisa Brown's daughter, an OPRF sophomore, is a whip smart, college-bound honors student and aspiring musician. She's also a test case for how effectively OPRF prepares all students for life beyond high school — not just those who Brown describes as "neuro-typical." 

"My daughter is slipping through the cracks," said Brown, a technology sales professional who is also a single mother. "She's on the autism spectrum and I have grave concerns that she is not being adequately prepared for when she leaves OPRF." 

According to Brown, OPRF is a great school if your child is "smart, self-motivated, self-driven and able to function independently … that's your neuro-typical kid. They'll do fine, but if your student is anything but that, they'll probably not do extraordinarily well at that school. They won't know what resources are available." 

Brown said that her daughter is considering a music career, but her IEP only focuses on preparations for college.

"They only talk about the college path," she said. "In fact, it's written into her IEP, specifically, that the student will begin to fill out college applications and essays. They know full well that she wants to become a musician, but they haven't individualized her plan to reflect this. I've done all the work in terms of sending her to music school in the summer and doing those kind of things." 

Brown's experience seems to bolster the findings in a new report released by the education advocacy nonprofit Stand for Children. 

The report points out that nowadays, effective postsecondary preparedness needs to be about more than just course offerings, extracurricular activities and counselors checking on students' graduation requirements or college and financial aid applications. 

Schools should also put resources into providing students with individualized social and emotional support while preparing them for life after high school, the report explains. 

Teachers and staff should look at "students as individuals," Brown said, not "as a typical population."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

Email: michael@oakpark.com

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