Mixed board response on OPRF gap plan

Emphasis on all students may water down impact, says board president

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Web Extra! Read the full 29-page plan
Attila J. Weninger could sense the anticipation himself, sitting with the rest of the school board and looking out into an audience attending this particular board meeting to hear, and see, how he plans to address student achievement at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

"The anticipation, I can feel it," said new superintendent Weninger, quickly cautioning, "Don't smile because it might hurt a little bit."

Weninger formally presented his plan to raise student achievement at last Thursday's board meeting, which took place in the more spacious third floor library at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville Ave., to accommodate the large crowd.

The roughly half-hour presentation and nearly hour-long discussion that followed highlighted the meeting.

The 29-page plan covers four areas -parents, the school, student and the community- and how each can help raise student achievement at the high school.

The plan went into more detail than a draft outline Weninger released to the Citizen's Council three weeks ago, but no one else publicly.

The plan outlines more than 60 initiatives. Among them, establishing a freshmen and mentoring program, beginning with the class of 2012; professional development for faculty and administrators, including in the areas of race and achievement; and increasing parent involvement at the school and with their child's academics.


Weninger said the school will have to budget for the plan, which he added was still a work on progress.

"This plan proposes that we make some priority decisions, and that we live within our budget," he said.

And while the plan itself barely mentions the word "gap", Weninger stressed that he was not going to target one ethnic group, adding that there were white students at the high school who were also struggling to achieve. Yet, he acknowledged the challenge of addressing the performance gap.

"We have to narrow the achievement difference between minority and majority students, and we have to raise minority student achievement, and at the same time, continue to provide the same kind of services and academic program to all of our students," he said.

Board members, however, asked some tough questions following Weninger's presentation.

Board President Jacques Conway wondered if the plan called for raising achievement for all students or minority students?

"I do understand that achievement for all students needs to be looked at. But if you have two groups of people who are hurting, and one is bleeding more than the other, my effort should go more toward the person that needs it most," he said.

Weninger said the plan addresses both, noting specific areas in the plan that addressed minority students.

Conway replied, "I believe that if you remove race from the formula, it may become watered down."

Conway added that he experienced the gap as a student, and that having adult black males as mentors helped him.

"I do believe that if you have a majority of Caucasian teachers in a building, that you need some racial diversity training," he said. "I don't know where all these teachers come from, and I don't know how they feel about persons who are different from themselves."

Board member Ralph Lee said his comments, which he read from a statement, were based on the written plan members received a few days before the meeting rather than Weninger's presentation.


Lee focused on the achievement gap, which he said was mentioned only briefly in the plan.

Lee said he was disappointed with the content and focus of the plan, calling it "a rich smorgasbord of some of the most popular ideas that American education has developed over the last 25 years."

Lee said the plan does not focus squarely on the achievement gap between black and white students, which he cited as the school board's top goal.

"The people who assume that closing the achievement gap is the school board's most highest priority would expect that the plan for doing so would involve a careful assessment of the most serious causes of it that are under the school's influence or control," he said.

Lee noted that references to the gap has emotional baggage but avoiding it has much worse consequences.

Board member Sharon Patchak Layman said the plan addressed future students but not current students who are struggling. Layman said she was looking for an immediate plan.

Phil Prale, District 200 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who was present at the meeting, said the school does have programs currently in place for struggling students.

Board member John Allen gave the plan generally positive reviews, especially its focus on the responsibility of students.

"There's no place in your life where you're not responsible in some way for your own outcome," he said. "This plan is good."


Weninger said he and the board will spend the next month discussing the plan, how to implement it, and what changes might be made to it. He set a tentative date of Dec. 1 to adopt the plan, and a spring timeline to discuss costs, priorities and responsibilities.

A community town hall to discuss the plan is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, at Buzz Cafe, 905 S. Lombard Ave. The school will schedule another one for after Nov. 13, Weninger said.

Some initiatives, he said, are currently underway at the school.

The school's academic program is under review where, after evaluations, some programs may be collapsed or eliminated, and replaced with others.

"There are going to have to be some very difficult decisions that are going to have to be made about programs we currently have in place and those that we are proposing. Those are difficult choices," Weninger said, adding, "As I've told the faculty, those are some of the most difficult decisions to make because we've developed emotional loyalties to those programs and we don't want to give them up."

To underscore the challenges the school faces, Weninger started his presentation by showing clips from the films Apollo 13 and Star Wars. The Apollo clips focused on mission control and the trapped astronauts trying to solve various problems on the disabled ship in space. The Star Wars clip showed the famous quote by Yoda -"Try not. Do, or do not, there is no try."

Weninger said the school faced challenges-like the Apollo crew - and that the school has to stop talking and "do."

Weninger spent the rest of the time going through a power point of the full plan. Hard copies of the plan were released at the meeting, and is also available on OPRF's website www.oprfhs.org.

CONTACT tdean@wjinc.com

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