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Demands for more minority teachers at fever pitch

Local activists increase pressure on D97 and D200 to do something soon

March 6th, 2018 2:11 PM

MORE DEMANDS: State Rep. Camille Y. Lilly speaks during a Feb. 22 board meeting at OPRF on the importance of hiring more teachers of color. At left, Makesha Benson-Custard speaks before the D97 board on Feb. 22 about the same topic. | Photo by Paul Goyette

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Oak Park community members, many aligned with roughly a dozen local activist organizations, have come together in a concerted effort, amplifying their demand that public school districts in Oak Park hire more minority teachers.  

At a Feb. 22 meeting of the District 200 school board and a Feb. 27 meeting of the District 97 board, representatives from what activists are calling a Campaign for More Teachers of Color, presented a series of short-term and longer-term goals that they want board members in those districts to implement over the next two academic years. 

The campaign's short-term goals, which activists urged the districts to implement by the start of the 2018-19 school year, were presented to the two boards a few months after Oak Park Call to Action launched a petition demanding more minority hires in Oak Park. The petition has since garnered at least 600 signatures.  

Their goals include developing "ambitious" plans "during the current hiring cycle" to address racial disparities in teacher hiring, granting "immediate priority" to increasing the pool of black teachers in core subjects and implementing "viable action steps" to eliminate "any bias and barriers" that fail to align with the districts' "missions, strategic priorities and needs." 

Longer-term goals, which activists hope will be implemented by August 2019, include steps designed to retain minority teachers and train "all teachers and staff" in ridding themselves of racial bias, among other measures.  

The stakes — based on dozens of public comments made by parents, students, educators, activists and other community members during those two meetings — are high.

One speaker after another, from current grade school and high school students to fully grown former students, described Oak Park's public school districts as places where students can go from kindergarten through high school without having a single teacher of color. 

Makesha Flournoy-Benson, co-president of D97's Diversity Council, said at the Feb. 27 meeting that her 17-year-old daughter "never had a black teacher in her K-5 experience" at D97, while her son, now in college, had just one during that time period — when he was in fifth grade (the following year, the teacher retired, she said). 

By Flournoy-Benson's own admission, the chances that her second-grader, who attends Holmes, will have a black teacher are low. She estimated that her daughter "has a 1 in 15 chance of having a black primary teacher if everything remains the same" at her Oak Park elementary school. 

Cheree Moore, an OPRF graduate, recalled at the Feb. 22 meeting that there were so few black teachers at the high school during her four years there, she doesn't even have to mention popular history teacher Mark Vance by his name when reminiscing about school days with her fellow alumnae. 

"Whenever I meet other alum of OPRF, they'll say, 'Is that black teacher still there?'" Moore said. "I automatically know who they are talking about. There's no question in my mind. That's really sad." 

Flournoy-Benson and other speakers at both board meetings referenced academic studies showing that minority and low-income students are much more likely to stay and succeed in school, graduate, and attend college if they've had at least one minority teacher during elementary school.  

"Research shows that having just one black teacher in K-5 will increase the likelihood that a black boy will stay in school and graduate," Benson-Custard said. "The same black boy is 29 percent more likely to express a desire to pursue a college degree than his friend who has never been taught by a black teacher." 

Mary Bird, a member of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE), an Oak Park organization that addresses equity issues,primarily at OPRF, said during the Feb. 27 D97 board meeting that minority teachers are more likely to hold black and Latino students to higher expectations and refer them to gifted programs. 

Some speakers also described Oak Park schools as places where the small group of minority teachers who are employed are too often found in foreign language courses, such as Spanish or Japanese, and where the dearth of minority teachers has resulted in a void of cultural empathy and understanding in many classrooms. 

One OPRF student said that most of the minority teachers she sees at the high school are in foreign language classes or in the high school's motivational mentoring program, designed to offer additional academic and emotional support for students who are struggling. 

The dearth of minority teachers in core courses, such as history, math, English and science, too often translates into lower expectations, a heightened sense of alienation and, at times, an outright hostile classroom environment for minority students, many speakers said.

One Julian sixth-grader, a Latina, recalled two incidents she experienced in one week earlier this year. 

The first involved comforting an African American friend who came to her crying because he couldn't find comfort from his white teacher after being told by a white classmate that "he didn't want to sit next to him because he is black." 

The second involved watching a video shown in her Spanish class that featured "white boys wearing sombreros and shaking maracas."  

"Do you know how completely unacceptable this is? My [white] teacher was not able to see how this is problematic," she said. "Do you know how disappointing it is to have your culture made fun of in this way?" 

A number of white speakers, students and adults, emphasized that the presence of minority teachers would also benefit white students, in part by opening them up to different cultural perspectives. 

Many of the speakers — who represented roughly a dozen local activist groups, including CEEE, Suburban Unity Alliance, D97's Diversity Council, African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE) and Oak Park Call to Action, among others — lauded the progress made by both school boards within the last few years to hire more minorities.

They praised an upcoming trip to Howard University — among the country's most prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — that D97 and D200 are planning in order to recruit more minority teachers. 

They also recognized that some of their recommendations are currently under consideration by both districts and could be incorporated into a series of comprehensive measures each district is working on, such as D97's equity policy and D200's strategic plan. 

But last month, the activists encouraged the districts to ramp up the work in progress. 

"Expedited action is necessary to address the historic and continuing underrepresentation of teachers of color — which reflect exclusionary patterns and practices and possible bias and barriers," according to a joint statement released by the local groups, "whether by commission or omission." 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included an incorrect name. It is Makesha Flournoy-Benson, Makesha Benson-Custard. Wednesday Journal regrets the error. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com