Middle-school furor

Opinion: Editorials

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If you ever, for a minute, thought that the road to racial and educational equity was going to be on an ever upward trajectory, that profound culture change in century-old institutions would be smooth, that a middle school filled with our adolescent children would be transformed by the mere notion of restorative justice practices, well, then you've had a disillusioning week. 

The Journal's front page story last week on the frustrations and worries of a majority of the people who teach at Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools in Oak Park was pretty much a gut punch. In a survey conducted last fall by the Oak Park Teachers Association union, wide majorities of faculty said they felt expectations of student discipline had been abandoned, that teachers often felt unsafe and mostly felt unsupported by school and district administrators.

We've never seen the like of this survey. Grousing and grumbling by teachers is common, especially in the middle schools in Oak Park. It is a hard job, at a tough age, in a complex community. But when the union feels the need to conduct this first-ever survey, in part because they feel the district's own school climate surveys are unreliable, when that survey is deemed public information and handed over to the local publisher, when it is so scathing and declaratory, effectively a vote of no confidence in district leadership, then it has our rapt attention.

From the school board, newly reinforced by voters with racial equity bona fides, to a deeply backed superintendent now intensely packing more top-down staffing, training, and curriculum into equity work, change has arrived in the District 97 elementary and middle schools. Change is hard in public education. More even than the average professional, teachers do not like change. And everything is harder in a middle school. Always has been.

We are free-floating between a discipline system that may have kept the lid on but was absolutely and every day a manifestation of institutional racism. There's no sugar-coating that and there is no going back to it. But the future of discipline, the exposition of necessary expectations is, seemingly far from real. Teachers we talk to say that, for all the talk about restorative justice practices as the healing path to accountability, it doesn't yet exist on the ground, in the hallways, at the moment the punk kid swears at the teacher.

And let's talk about our dear children. Mostly they're great, but some are stinkers and those stinkers are smart enough to recognize we're operating in a void of fewer suspensions, administrators on tenterhooks and a future discipline system many teachers don't believe in and which is not, at the moment, real. They're taking advantage. And they need to be reeled in during a transition which needs to be shorter.

By the way, we're all in on hearing "student voice," but let's remember these are the voices of 13-year-olds. They have wisdom we need to hear, but at the same time they can be insecure, unkind nincompoops. We need to respond accordingly.

As said at the start, this change is necessary but it isn't easy. There is a window to get this closer to right. But windows close, too.

Reader Comments

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Paul Clark  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 10:39 AM

Whoever wrote this, it wasn't edited very well. "We are free-floating between a discipline system that may have kept the lid on but was absolutely and every day a manifestation of institutional racism." Talk about free-floating -- what is the current discipline system being compared with? Also -- "But the future of discipline, the exposition of necessary expectations is, seemingly far from real. " -- "The Exposition of Necessary Expectations" probably means something but who knows what.

Michael O'Malley  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 10:30 AM

How about a little more showing and less telling. According to this editorial Oak Park schools use a disciplinary system that is "absolutely and every day a manifestation of institutional racism." The sentence if true, in emphasis, suggests federal action is needed - if true, the schools are systematically violating the rights of minorities. But I suspect what was written isn't quite true, especially in emphasis. Something that would help all the readers who are bombarded with the allegations of racism is a little more showing. Provide examples of active institutional racism in Oak Park. Specific examples please. I mean that seriously and sincerely. The Wednesday Journal has the resources, use them. Show us.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 9:25 AM

@! George Irving Thompson: Are you familiar with the Outward Bound Programs and if so is that program a leadership building program?

George Irving Thompson from Oak Park  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 9:13 AM

This is the 3rd post in about a week where I will mention that our school leaders are responding psychologically like children rather than as adults. Obviously a reduction in discipline in our schools will not solve any problems and just make any situation that previously existed worse. So discipline, if lacking or reduced, should be restored. But just as importantly why not add character development. Our schools need more emphasis on developing leadership qualities in our students. That means providing leadership programs. One of the first items in a leadership program is that one needs to leads oneself before leading others. Why not make this a formal curriculum item for all of our school children in both the middle school and high school?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 3:21 AM

Ah, but Christine, the faceless who insist on being nameless remain meaningless which means they are worthless.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: May 21st, 2019 10:10 PM

I would like to see a name attached when an editorial is written. It doesn't matter if it was never done in the past. The rest of us are required to put our names on what we write and contribute to the paper. Let's all own our opinions, whether it is the paper's editorial or private letters to the editor or individual's comments after articles. It's time.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: May 21st, 2019 7:08 PM

I'm interested in hearing what exactly "they need to be reeled in" means, exactly. I suspect that any "reeling in" of these trouble makers will elicit expression of concern over racial unfairness, rather than what should be criticism of the parents of those kids, parents who clearly haven't bothered or been able to reel in their kids at home.

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