Despite open and frank discussions during Beye Elementary's forum last Tuesday concerning the school's black student achievement gap, no consensus was found as to why its gap is the widest in the district.
Roughly 38 percent of Beye's black students have not met adequate yearly progress in reading and math under 'No Child Left Behind' since the law was passed in 2001.
Last week's regular PTO meeting turned into a sometimes-tense discussion about possible contributing factors, including racial stereotypes, black student ethnicity and culture.
For nearly three hours, Beye parents and teachers, as well as members of the District 97 administration, wrestled with many difficult issues.
"We know we have a significant challenge and we know it's more unique than at other schools because of the nature of our gap," said Beye Principal Jonathan Ellwanger.
Last Tuesday's forum, attended by nearly 100, scratched the surface on what role race plays. Participants, however, had trouble figuring out why such a disparity exists at Beye, 230 N. Cuyler Ave.
"If we have any group of children who are not performing well, we are not living up to our responsibility," said Dr. Constance Collins, District 97 superintendent. "We're not satisfied with the performance of our students. I think we can do better," said Collins.
Under Collins and former Superintendent John Fagan, the district has attempted to address the gap through several programs and initiatives. At the forum, however, some questioned the measurable impact of such programs.
Dozen gap-focused programs at Beye
"You've got a lot of programs here," said Carl Spight, an institutional researcher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, referring to a handout listing at least a dozen programs at Beye. "Are we to think that all of these programs are effective? Are we to think that all of these programs target the various subpopulations that they serve? How are we to assess programs like this? We invent new programs all the time. Do these programs work, and do you know if these programs work specifically for black male students at Beye at any grade level?"
Ellwanger said some programs at Beye are measured through surveys of parents and students.
Under Collin's goals for student achievement, the district is looking at the effectiveness of various programs at district schools. Some programs could be abandoned, continued or altered, Collins said.
"We have to constantly know as the year is going on are we getting the affect that we're looking for? If we are not we need to ask ourselves why?" said Collins.
Spight, along with a number of Oak Park African-American men joined in submitting questions to the panel prior to the Jan. 17. forum. In addition to asking how programs are measured, they also questioned if the gap for black males in particular was seen in earlier grades?
The role of culture
Stakeholders at both District 97 and District 200 acknowledge that culture plays some role in the achievement of black students. The conflict, though, comes as to what degree it does. The Beye forum allowed parents and school officials to talk about the conflict. At times, discussions grew tense as some black and white parents voiced their frustrations.
"My biggest issue is that my daughter who is now in the sixth grade and was promoted to the sixth grade is only reading at a first-grade level," said Beye parent Cynthia Hicks. "I think that is a totally outrageous gap."
Ike Smith's daughter is a fifth grader at Beye. But Smith stood up to talk about young black males and how they're treated socially and academically.
"Black boys are treated differently than everybody," said Smith, who added that Beye is at least addressing the issue of race openly. "There's a difference for us than any other reality. And black boys learn that early. If a black boy is in class and he's active and talking just like any other kid, he's disruptive. But if 'Tommy' does it the same way as the black guy, he's a leader, he needs to be challenged and put in a place of authority."
Juanta Griffin has children at Beye and Holmes Elementary. She addressed a perception felt by some black parents but rarely voiced in public.
"I've had a negative experience at Beye so far and my child has a label," she said. "And I know from experiences that once your child gets a label in District 97 it is extremely hard to drop that label. I don't want her to spend the rest of her academic career with a label."
Griffin also asked where are the black teachers that her daughter can identify with? Of the 348 teachers employed in District 97 schools, 13.2 percent are black. Officials from the district could not say how many black teachers, particularly male teachers, are employed.
Beye third-grade teacher Tye Johnson, who is black, is in her first year at Beye. She said teachers could work more on understanding cultural differences, but said teachers are not to blame for everything that goes wrong with the children academically.
"We keep talking about the teachers. Let's talk about the parents," she said. "Stop putting everything on the teachers to give your child what they need. We only have your children for one or two years. After that, the responsibility is yours."
Several black parents from Beye met over the weekend at the Oak Park Library to discuss the achievement forum and the needs of parents in dealing with the issue of underachieving students.
Beye parent Wendy Daniels, one of the group facilitators, said she and her husband try to reinforce the importance of education to their children. As for the achievement gap, Daniels said race was the defining factor.
"The school needs to realize that, it's more than just the curriculum," she said, "it's how you perceive my black son; it's about how you are looking at my black daughter...That is the face of the problem."
Some white teachers, she noted, may carry prejudices that they're not consciously aware of. Ellwanger said the discussions were difficult but necessary, and that last week's forum was not the last.
"If someone came here not sure if Beye School was not doing anything I hope that you would leave here knowing that there are some things we are doing," he said.
In light of the Jan. 17, forum at Beye Elementary, District 97 on Tuesday released information concerning achievement data at Beye and in the district. Graphs detailing the white-black gender gap and income gaps are available at wjinc.com.
1. Beye has the largest white-black achievement gap on the 2005 ISAT.
2. Beye has the largest white-black income gap for students who took the 2005 ISAT.
3. There is a gender gap in the district among African-American students with boys performing more poorly than girls. This is true at Beye also.
4. Over the past three years of ISAT testing (2003-2005) the gap at Beye has remained. However, the gap has fluctuated between 60.8 percent to 41.3 percent in reading and 51 percent to 46.4 percent in math.
5. 42 of the 50 African-American students whose 2005 ISAT scores counted at Beye, actually attended Beye. The other 8 students attended other district schools or had out-of-district placements. The 8 transfers were to provide special education services.
6. The district is looking into the impact that student mobility has on Beye's achievement gap.
7. Approximately 27.4 percent of Beye students are African-American; 62.1 percent are white. Low-income students at Beye make up approximately 20 percent of the student population. A breakdown in race was not immediately provided.
8. African-American students at Beye who have IEP's (Individual Educational Programs) represent 34 percent of the student body, which is comparable to other district schools.