Temporarily embarrassed geniuses

Episode 8: 'Nobody can hold you down'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

After watching this eighth episode, I began to reflect on my first experiences at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I had transferred from Proviso East High School in Maywood my junior year. Because I was an honors student at East, my academic counselor recommended that I continue that path and take honors and AP courses at OPRF.

On my first full day at the school, my counselor walked me to the lunchroom, segregated back then as it is now, and guided me to the all-black section. A few moments into our introductions, a girl asked me why I would possibly want to leave East for OPRF.

Pressured to play cool, I lied and told her my mother made me, even though this wasn't the case. By semester's end, uncomfortable with the blacks and alienated from the whites, I would spend the lunch period sitting at a table of two, myself and a silent, eccentric Jamaican teenager I had befriended whose family lived in the apartment unit below ours.

By the time I graduated OPRF, I had been partially absorbed into a quirky, multicultural group of proud outcasts who congregated at a table on the western periphery of the lunchroom. This cherubic white kid named Blair was something like our ambassador, our emissary to the cafeteria's normal regions.

My time at OPRF, I realized long after leaving the school, was marked by this peripheral perspective. Fifteen years after graduating, I understand why one minority student at OPRF might yearn to leave for a "lesser" school like East while another might revel in OPRF's plethora of opportunities.

Before I watched the eighth episodeof America to Me, I spoke to John Duffy, chairperson of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education. He appears in the episode talking at a board meeting about tracking — "the practice of putting a small group of higher-achieving students into separate advanced or honors classes," according to an Atlantic article.

"That's almost a taboo word in this district and it shouldn't be," says Duffy of the practice, speaking to board members. "How does it contribute to racial equity? It's been the perception, year in and year out, that there are two schools here. Let's put that question on the table. What about tracking?"

Don Vogel, a retired OPRF longtime former administrator, says on camera that if the school did away with tracking, "I'm fairly certain the community would rise up and say, 'That's not a good thing.' You know, the cost to honors-level students would be far greater than the benefit to lower-achieving students."

Dan Cohen and John Hoerster both allude to the reality that white parents of high-achieving students fear what might happen to their children's prospects if the district de-tracked, so to speak.

But as an observer of a majority-minority high school district a few miles west, I can tell you that this fear is not just something white people in Oak Park feel.

Recently, parents and students from Proviso Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school within Proviso Township High Schools District 209, went apoplectic after they found out about a conceptual plan that merely flirted with the idea of moving PMSA's campus (currently a converted office building in Forest Park) onto the campus of either East or West.

The irony is that the selective enrollment school was built as an effort to persuade families from predominantly white communities like Westchester, Hillside and Forest Park to keep their children in predominantly black District 209, as opposed to sending them to private school or moving away in order to send their kids to public school somewhere else.

When the mere concept of moving PMSA closer to East and West was broached, the students and parents of the selective-enrollment school flooded the board with their fears and concerns (of bullying, of being around students who aren't as motivated, of behavior problems, etc.).

These concerns weren't coming from whites. PMSA's student body is 61 percent Hispanic and 29 percent black.

During our brief talk, Duffy, who taught at Proviso East for two decades, directed me to a document drafted for OPRF in 2011, informally called the Blueprint Assessment.

"OPRF leadership must acknowledge and address the commonly held notion that there are two schools within OPRF: one for high-achieving students and another for all other learners," the assessment reads.

That conclusion can easily be extended to Proviso — a district divided between one high-performing school and two low-performing ones and where student achievement is demarcated by factors that aren't as clear-cut as black and white.

Both districts, though, have similar mottos: "Nothing but the best" in Proviso and "Those things that are best" in Oak Park. There are subtle distinctions between the two, but both cleave closer to meritocracy than to real egalitarianism.

The black student who queried me in the lunchroom on my first day at OPRF, I realize now, was not necessarily ignorant or unmotivated. She was responding to her alienation from this culture that treats most of its white students as temporarily embarrassed geniuses, to rephrase John Steinbeck, and most of its black students as too far gone to aspire to this common exceptionalism.

To achieve true egalitarianism, or the notion that all students have equal rights to high-quality education, Duffy told me, there needs to be "a common base, a shared target we want all kids to move toward."

"Look at the Spoken Word Club," Duffy said. "Those kids are all on different tracks, as far as I can see, but what they're aiming for as students of the language is a really high standard of expression. They all know what that standard is. The same principle has to apply to every discipline and all curricula."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

Email: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Drew Rein  

Posted: October 22nd, 2018 9:07 AM

Finished watching the entire series (it's on demand for those that care) and without giving any real spoilers the RF portion of OPRF remained anonymous. HUGE disappointment.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 5:29 PM

Mr. Bell, When administrators are more concerned with equality of outcomes than the performance of individuals, then its time to move on. Holding the few gifted back to close the gap simply is a counter intuitive as it gets. Administrators should familiarize themselves with the Pareto Principle. I prefer disparity of outcomes. With out it, the Bach's, Einstein's and NIetzsche's of the world would be lost to obscurity.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:42 PM

Adrian - points well taken. There are many families of all economic strata who look to AP/Honors as way to change their lives. For example, if you make less than $110k Harvard is 100%FREE. Again, people deserve the RIGHT to excel if they choose ... So AP /honors helps many families achieve who would not otherwise have a shot.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:35 PM

Jim - exactly. This was 6-7 years ago so not sure now. Yes, CRAZY - they would not allow it because it was unfair to other OP schools. Same with technology - a rising tide can lift all boats. This does speak to one of the reasons the gap cant close easily - no easy to change when so many varied interest.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:14 PM

Neal - I really dislike the getting ride of track idea. LEt me tell you a story - N Kumar, myself and other parents raised $50,000 in private donations to start technology program at Mann in 2009. That along with advance math were both shot down by 97. They said would further the gap between haves and have nots .... our idea was to pilot it and then expand - We cannot cut our way to greatness - it is all about innovation new idea and approaches - simply saying don't allow others to excel is BAD for all.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:10 PM

Neal - Thank you and I ran for 97 unsuccessfully. I interviewed for the interim board role and was not selected (Amy Felton won it who did great job). I just like being whinny little baby! I do have a unique perspective - OPRF, Illinois, University of Chicago, etc. lived away for 21 years (returned to take care of family). I also have two boys in OPRF and benefit from wide base of AA who went to OPRF with me - from those who were killed senior year (PResely White and Tim walker) to those who are now worth $250MM (never came back to aok park)....

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:03 PM

Wow. Is that true about Mann no longer allowing advanced math "because it was not fair to other schools?" If so, that seems like a very warped way of achieving equal outcomes for all-- by actually limiting the growth of others! I really hope that's not true...

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 2:02 PM

And through all of this, the one big idea we are getting from Imagine is an olympic pool with seating for 600, with a few classrooms and meeting spaces sprinkled along the edges. No one is asking for a pool to solve the problems faced by so many kids, but the process has been hijacked by a small cadre, so a swim team can have a luxury experience for 100 kids. It is sick to watch this happening. Oh yeah, they worked so hard on it too.

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 1:59 PM

Christopher?" I do realize AP classes are needed for admissions, and if you read about what Evanston did, they only detracked the Freshmen class (outside of math). Doing that actually raised the overall AP participation numbers, again across racial demographics. Second, with all due respect, I'm not especially concerned with what a select group of families at the top of the economic food chain consider is "unfair" based on what they feel they paid. I'm concerned about the health of the student body as a whole, and what can be done to improve the student body as a whole without also hurting top academic performers (which in reality are not confined to top earner families). Again, if you read about it, Evanston has shown detracting improved the quality of the school as a whole, and did not drop high performing students in terms of other benchmarks. I'll let those results speak for themselves. Evanston is just as (if not more) prestigious as OP in terms of both HS perfomamce, and the economic prosperity of the top earners living there, and it's time we as a Village starting looking to others for examples rather than trying to rebuild the wheel each year (and failing).

Neal Buer  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 1:58 PM

Mr. Bell - Have you ever thought about running for the D200 school board? You have my vote.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 1:52 PM

Clarification - most TOP 100 colleges look at GPA thru lens of rigor of coursework including honors and AP. In fact a study was just released which say more important than test scores etc. So, students are at disadvantage. My point on taxes is that you are going to drive away families by taking away Choice and some in community feel they are already subsidizing who move in just for schools (was mentioned with regards to equity). Finally, there is practical element - how wil that work when you have kids who are at 7th grade and 11 th grade reading in same class. At Mann, they would not allow advanced math for students because it was unfair to other schools - so rather than help kids improve at other schools lets stop kids from doing well. Makes no sense -

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 1:42 PM

Adrian - everything should be on the table but the scope of their approach is limited. First, you do realize that all the top colleges require AP classes for admissions so you are effectively asking families to walk away from many schools. Second, it may be seen unfair to ask for families to not have the option for honors. The hard truth many of those families are paying most/significant susidy of taxes for other families and than ask for additional sacrifice.

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 1:12 PM

Oak Park isn't alone in dealing with these issues, but I has shown that prior administrations hasn't done a great job in addressing the salient points. Look at tracking. It's treated as the great untouchable issue. Yet Evanston, which has similar demographics and similar achievement gap issues, took its freshmen class off of tracking back in 2010, and EVERY racial demographics ACT performance scores went up, along with increases in almost every other benchmark. Why can Evanston make a change, but we can't? That's what needs to be talked about, and that is why the series is looking at as well. http://www.kappanonline.org/detracked-and-going-strong/

Neal Buer  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 12:20 PM

A monkey, a fish, and an elephant are all judged by who can climb a tree the fastest. Ridiculous, you say. We do the same with school. Some kids do not learn by listening, only doing. Some kids perform in physical activities, but mental activities are boring to them. Germany tracks kids from middle school on, recognizing that not every child excels at math and physics, but does quite well in machine shop and mechanics. We really need to rethink our outdated system. When was the last time you used calculus? You probably used finance recently, which isn't taught in school to any extent.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 11:18 AM

Mr. Bell, I understand the narrative is very narrow, which by default makes it disingenuous and inaccurate. I was going to commend you on a previous post you made where you state " OPRF needs innovation not more money - new ideas and approaches, holding parents and teachers at middle/grammar accountable." Unfortunately, the masses believe throwing more money at something will solve a problem (especially when its someone else's money) and if that doesn't work, well then I guess we didn't throw enough money at it is the response. Thank you for your common sense, pragmatic, prudent and responsible comments. I find them refreshing.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 10:58 AM

Ramona ... please keep in mind that the narrative is very narrow ... there are 900 African American students many of which are doing quite well. We attended Ivy League open house and there were 20-30 black / Hispanic families in attendance. The series needs context ... yes there are huge issues for many black families but not all. This series attacks to of the Crown Jewels of oak park ... progressivism and high quality schools. Nothing in series is innovative outside woven program and the idea no more track systems. This is an innovations/change in culture process and approach issue. I graduated in 80 and same issues.... only difference is now the world knows and reputation of oak park takes a big hit of nothing chancges

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 10:19 AM

To achieve true egalitarianism, or the notion that all students have equal rights to high-quality education, Duffy told me, there needs to be "a common base, a shared target we want all kids to move toward." All students are OPRF have the right to a high quality education and it is right in front of them for the taking. This shared target you speak of though, doesn't seem to be shared by the black students and families.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 19th, 2018 10:16 AM

"The irony is that the selective enrollment school was built as an effort to persuade families from predominantly white communities like Westchester, Hillside and Forest Park to keep their children in predominantly black District 209, as opposed to sending them to private school or moving away in order to send their kids to public school somewhere else." It was built to improve educational opportunities. Black kids are welcomed there, as long as they can pass the test to get in. There have literally been hundreds of studies done when well behaved kids are mixed with poorly behaved kids. The result EVERYTIME is the well behaved kids get dragged down. The poorly behaved kids do NOT rise to the top. I see nothing wrong with segregating smart kid from not so smart kids. I used to work for CPS in a predominantly black school and the smart, well spoken black students were bullied, told they talk "white", "stop acting white", etc. etc. Lastly, the poor performers typically enjoy disrupting the class to the detriment of the kids who really want to learn.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: October 18th, 2018 1:42 PM

T-his rhetoric is so outdated, it's really tiresome. The lunchroom and schoolyard are the most anxiety ridden places for any student, stop making it always about race when it's not.--by doing so you are racist.

Tom Leeds  

Posted: October 18th, 2018 1:18 PM

Let's see, why would you leave Proviso East to attend OPRF. Because you moved into Oak Park or River Forest, I hope.

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