Officials with Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 recently outlined some of their plans to recruit more minority teachers after a petition drive created last month by Oak Park Call to Action gained some traction among community members.
Citing data released in the Illinois Report Card, Oak Park Call to Action, a local activist group, demanded that both districts increase the number of non-white teachers they hire. As of Feb. 12, the petition had garnered 392 signatures — eight away from its goal.
According to the report card, which measures the annual performance of school districts based on data those districts give to the Illinois State Board of Education, non-white students comprise 45 percent and 47 percent of the student bodies at D97 and OPRF, respectively. Nonwhite teachers at D97 and OPRF are only 19 percent and 21 percent of the teaching population at each district, respectively.
"Not only that, but many of the non-white teaching staff are put in support, rather than primary, teaching positions," the Oak Park Call to Action petition reads. "This puts our students and our community at a disadvantage."
When reached by email last week about the petition, Karin Sullivan, D200's communications director, explained that the district was aware of the petition and had implemented measures to address the lack of minority representation.
"Having a teaching staff that better reflects the demographics of our student population is an area of focus for us," Sullivan stated, adding that last year, the district added language to the postings it publishes on its website and other places for open employment positions.
The term "equal employment opportunities" has been added, in addition to the following sentence: "OPRF's goal is to increase its representation of people of color."
Sullivan said that D200 officials have also been in contact with officials at Howard University, one of the country's most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to explore possible ways to recruit more minority teachers.
"Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Greg Johnson and Principal Nate Rouse recently visited Howard University to meet with the dean of its college of education to discuss actively recruiting more minority candidates for teaching positions," Sullivan said.
"As a result, D200 and D97 are partnering to send representatives to the college's job fair at the end of March," she added. "D200 administrators are reaching out to other HBCU colleges of education as well to see how we can engage in similar recruiting efforts."
During an interview on Feb. 12, Laurie Campbell, D97's assistant superintendent for human resources, said that she's working to finalize the details of the trip to Howard and exploring ways the district can pay for it.
But Campbell and other D97 officials stressed that they were also looking at other, more substantive, ways to address the need for more minority hires.
In particular, Campbell said that the district increased the percentage of black teachers from the 2016-17 to the 2017-18 school years by 1 percent.
Last year, roughly 30 teachers retired, "which gave us the opportunity to be more aggressive with reaching out to more minority candidates." She said that 12 (or 20 percent) of the 59 new teachers hired in D97 were African American.
"This year, we only have a few retirees, so we won't be able to move the bar as much," Campbell said. "You can only move things along as new people come into the system."
Campbell said that last year the district implemented some changes to its hiring process in consultation with the D97 Diversity Council.
The council includes leaders from each D97 PTO, school teachers and members of Excellence With Equity in Education (E-Team) — a grassroots coalition of community members who are focused on providing resources and support systems for children in Oak Park and River Forest.
"We met with them several times last year to talk about the actual application and looked at ways to change the application in order to screen for people with high levels of cultural competency," Campbell said.
She said that each candidate was asked to post a 60-second video responding to the following question: What techniques, ideas and resources would you use to improve minority achievement? District officials also sent interview teams questions related to cultural competency to ask the candidates.
District 97 Supt. Carol Kelley said that last year she and Campbell visited Evanston Township High School District 202, which the superintendent said has been effective at attracting high quality minority teachers.
Kelley said that Evanston officials told them that, even more than job fairs and advertising, the most important factor in filling the need for minority teachers is providing them with an atmosphere they want to work in.
"[It's about] having a culture where excellent teachers, particularly those of color, feel comfortable," Kelley said.
Carrie Kamm, D97's director of equity, said that the district has worked with the National Equity Project — an Oakland-based organization that offers leadership development training for schools to help them identify opportunity gaps "to improve learning and education outcomes for all students," according to the website.
Kamm said that, so far, the organization has facilitated three sessions with district employees designed to encourage deep dialogues and examinations about race and equity.
One session, she said, "delved into the history of Oak Park and also the history of education," Kamm said. "It's not like we just ended up here, poof, out of nowhere. There are some structural, historical pieces that have really shaped and informed where we are today in terms of public education."
Kamm and other D97 officials, however, said that they recognize they're up against some seemingly intractable structural challenges — namely a national teacher shortage that cuts across demographics.
According to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, "teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35 [percent] reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009."
But shortage or no shortage, the urgency to hire teachers of color remains, according to Oak Park Call to Action's petition.
"The research is clear that students of color benefit academically and emotionally from teachers of color," the petition reads. "Hiring more teachers of color also benefits our whole community — if all our students are performing at their best, then we can truly claim that our schools are among the best in the country."
Correction: This article incorrectly conflated Diversity Council with DivCo. They are two separate entities. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.
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