Joann Wooden-Roberts can certainly hold the attention of a room.
She did so in February during a community forum in Oak Park as a candidate for superintendent at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
She did so again last Tuesday, returning to Oak Park and the high school as the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of parent group APPLE (African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education).
Roberts spoke about closing the achievement gap. Roberts, a Chicago native, mother of two and currently a principal in a West Side public school, spoke to more than 50 people, which took place at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville Ave.
Roberts speaking style is clear and crisp, and her voice carried throughout the packed faculty dining room. Speaking without a microphone, her voice sounded as if it came from a giant, though Roberts stands perhaps 5-foot-five.
During her talk, Roberts started with what she called typical misconceptions about the achievement gap. It's not only poor black kids affected by the gap, she said. Middle class blacks and even white kids from varied economic backgrounds are affected by the gap, Roberts said.
She added, though, that the gap among black children can close, citing national standardized test scores showing blacks scoring well in reading and math in school districts including Texas, Missouri and North Carolina.
To make her point, Roberts used statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and its 2004 report, "Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics".
The report charted the educational progress of students aged 9, 13, and 17 across racial and gender lines from 1971 to 2004. The report, Roberts said, showed an overall improvement in reading and math for some black children at various points between 1971 and 2004.
"People want to say, 'well, if you have minority children, you'll always have an achievement gap [and] you'll never close the achievement gap'-wrong again," Roberts said. "There are high-performing minority students. ... Don't buy the hype that this achievement gap can't close."
Roberts cited Whitney Young High School on Chicago's West Side as an example of a high-performing, mostly minority school.
Roberts was one of three candidates vying to become superintendent of District 200 earlier this year, and had strong support among many in Oak Park, including from APPLE. Her support, though, was not limited to APPLE or Oak Park's black community.
Wednesday Journal did, however, hear from two anonymous sources who raised questions about Robert's work history and credentials in the Chicago Public School system.. Roberts' supporters called the attack a smear campaign meant to discredit her, done in part because of her willingness to tackle tough issues facing the school, namely the achievement gap and how race and culture impact the gap at the high school.
Roberts, angry and impassioned at the time, defended her work and called the attack "an insult."
She also challenged those questioning her credentials to do so publicly, and wondered why no one raised similar concerns about the other two superintendent candidates. No one stepped forward publicly to speak out against Roberts, who has more than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal and superintendent.
Roberts was hired by CPS in 1998 as an intervention officer and troubleshooter for schools on probation.
Prior to that, Roberts was superintendent in Hazel Crest School District 152.5.
The questioning of her credentials later proved erroneous.
CPS officials, through reference letters and other documents provided by Roberts to Wednesday Journal, backed up Roberts' work history at CPS. Even some within Oak Park's school system, speaking on condition of anonymity, were troubled by the attack against Roberts.
Roberts is currently serving as principal of Paderewski Learning Academy on Chicago's West Side.