Open letter to parents of OPRF students of color

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By Joe English

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I moved into Austin, adjacent to Oak Park, in 1970. In 1971, Percy Julian took me aside. I was among a group of Austinites meeting with the West Suburban Rotary to urge support for Fair and Open Housing. 

"I thank you for being here today," Dr. Julian said. "Our nation's racial problem has been with us since the inception; it will go on long after you and I are gone. Focus on the truth. Keep it as your guide."

In 1984 Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, spoke on the West Side to urge support for those who were breaking down the barriers of Jim Crow. She warned against behaving like "crabs in a barrel." Every time a black person gets ahead, she said, smothering hands claw them back down. Sometimes the hands are black. Sometimes they do not actively participate but sit silently by and do nothing. 

When my son, Aaron, who is bi-racial, came of high-school age, I paid out-of-district tuition for him to attend OPRF. At first he had a difficult time as he was not used to being around so many white people. Soon after his enrollment, I was summoned to meet with a counselor and two of his teachers. My preconceptions could not have been more wrong. They were sincerely interested in Aaron as a person, as a young man of color. By the time he graduated, Aaron had found his bearings and went on to receive his B.A. from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

America to Me is a distorted view of what transpires at OPRF. It cherry picks for the rotten tomato. While it may have made its producers a lot of money, it makes the rest of us poorer. Is it putting its money where its mouth is by devoting a substantial portion of the millions of dollars it has made to pro-active programs and scholarships for OPRF students? After all, OPRF is the goose that laid the golden egg. To accept its portrayal of OPRF at face value is to believe that teachers, counselors, coaches, and staff conspire to mistreat students of color. It is to believe that Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent, and Nate Rouse, principal, both African American, are at best uncaring or at worst complicit.

There is a documentary to be made about the Huskies, but America to Me, focusing on less than 2% of its students of color, is not it. To the student in America to Me who bragged about not being much interested in learning, I implore you: do your part. Tend to your own garden first. Anyone who coddles you by urging otherwise does not have your best interests at heart.

OPRF is committed to working with all parents and students, including those who demand that it must do better. Its leaders are listening with open minds and open hearts. Speak out in support of Dr. Pruitt-Adams and Dr. Rouse. Do not sit silent while those who profit from controversy tear down the record of these fine people who have, by intelligence and hard work, risen to the top of their profession. We must not behave like crabs in a barrel.

Joe English is a longtime resident of the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

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Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: November 20th, 2018 10:41 PM

There is no doubt that racial and ethnic inequity pervades OPRFHS, as well as the Oak Park community at large, despite our progressive aspirations. It has pervaded Oak Park and its schools for decades. Is it worse than other high schools across America? I doubt it, except OPRFHS's diversity could itself have precipitated issues that would not be found in segregated schools. But as Mr. English and Mr. Bell point out, the America to Me documentary does virtually nothing to illuminate, much less suggest solutions, to the racial inequity. The series was promoted as an expose of the rife racism that pervades a school that purports to be progressive. That was the hook. And so that is what many viewers saw. But other than the issue of the racial disparity between the cheerleaders and the drill team, the series does nothing to demonstrate that there is systemic racism. (There surely is, but the docuseries does nothing to show it.) There are students and teachers in the series who say there is systemic racism, but they do not actually articulate what they are talking about. The series follows several likeable, if not lovable, kids who have various challenges, but does not show that any of those challenges are attributable to systemic racism at OPRFHS. Of course, there is no reason that the documentary SHOULD have demonstrated systemic racism, except that it was pre-marketed as doing so, and except that actually illuminating the problem might have suggested some remedial approaches.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: November 14th, 2018 1:12 PM

Further, as someone who know OPRF grads over last 20-30 years, as well as some that are now worth $200MM and some dead (Tim Walker and Presely White in my class, I can tell you that policy would not have changed the outcome for any of them. Adding a few black teachers, adding classes on equity and restorative justice aind gonna change squat and each situation is so varied. Tim/PResely started selling drugs - nothing school could do. Point is, if school is really serious it needs to innovate in new ways ...

Christopher Bell  

Posted: November 14th, 2018 1:04 PM

@ Steve James. While the actual facts around Pruitt may be incorrect, there are many that feel the your doc-series is unbalanced and tells a narrative that does not represent the full story. I have no fault with being a capitalist (I am one as well attending Top rated grad school IPO etc). We just ask that you would have provided context for many AA kids who are doing well, the programs that are working and told a complete story. Yes, there are children who are in the GAP, but as someone who attended OP in 80's (and is black) the same sh_t existed then but many of the issues were outside schools capability to address. Yes, some kids are protesting but many are not - as silent majority. Further, you documentary has zero solutions or innovation to address the issues. I can assure you a racial policy will not change anything - ACADEMIC. We all appreciate your effort - but the result tells very small part of the story.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: November 14th, 2018 12:53 PM

A TV show about a dozen kids is just that, a TV show about those dozen kids, which is way less than 2% of the students. It does not represent everyone, it just talks about experiences for some of the kids. Mr. English makes a valid point, based on his own family's experience. The teachers and staff looked caring, but some were treated a bit unfairly by the show and Mr. English is right to point that out too. Nothing that disagreed with the show's agenda was going to survive the editing.

Steve James  

Posted: November 14th, 2018 8:51 AM

Did Joe English actually watch America to Me? I would be the last person to say the series is above criticism, but Mr. English takes us to task for how we portray Joylynn Pruitt-Adams when she's not even in the series. Steven Isoye was the superintendent when we filmed. Mr. English says we "cherry pick for the rotten tomato" portraying "teachers, counselors, coaches and staff [who] mistreat students of color." Really? Just about every teacher, coach, and staff member we feature in the series is shown to be at the very least sympathetic to their students of color. Many are inspiring in their commitment to equity. And many feel they themselves have been mistreated by systemic racism in the school community. Mr. English says that the series focuses on "less than 2%" of OPRF's students of color. How did he arrive at that? We feature black, biracial, and white students who span the entire grade levels and academic tracking levels of the school. I'm glad that OPRF was a great high school for his son. But I suggest that Mr. English listen to the voices of students of color in the film and current students presently in the streets who are speaking up about their experiences at OPRF, and demanding change.

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