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'Execution is where the rubber meets the road'

D97 focuses on implementing 'nation-leading' racial equity policy

February 19th, 2019 3:09 PM

EQUITY NOW: Top, District 97 students after speaking at a board meeting on Feb. 12. | Photos by Paul Goyette

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Gary Ford, an eighth-grader at Julian Middle School, will enter his high school years burdened by a mountain of experiences like the one he said he went through a few years ago.  

"I'm tired of differential treatment," he told members of the Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 Board of Education during a regular meeting on Feb. 12. 

"In my integrated studies class in sixth grade, a teacher let some white kids sit on their phones and play games, but when I pulled out my phone to check my grades, she told me to put it away or she was going to take it, even though she knew I was checking my grades." 

Ford was among a half-dozen current and former D97 students who shared their racially tinged testimonies at last week's meeting, where the board's focus was on tweaking the language of a draft equity policy that garnered unanimous praise from local education advocates who spoke during the meeting. 

But most of the praise that community leaders issued about the draft policy was tempered by a collective caution, best summed up in the students' stories, i.e. a strong policy without effective implementation means more of the same old experiences for Ford and seventh-grader Dallas Ellis. 

"They tell me to use my voice, but when I speak, they don't listen," Ellis said of his experience in a school environment where black people are labeled "ghetto, loud and ignorant;" where, according to other students, blacks don't often show up in history lessons except in reference to slavery or traumatic struggle; and where black students are much more likely to be punished than designated gifted and talented. 

The draft racial policy, which the board will likely approve no later than March, has been in the making for at least a year and is the result of the district's collaboration with a range of organizations and community groups, including the D97 Diversity Council (DivCo) — a collection of PTO and community leaders formed in 2017 to help improve equity, diversity and inclusion at D97 schools, and in the wider Oak Park community.

Gavin Kearney, a member of DivCo who is also running for a seat on the D97 school board in April, called the draft racial equity policy "one of the strongest in the country." 

And John Duffy, who heads the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, said the draft policy "does what key efforts of the past did not do." 

Duffy explained that past efforts, such as the Committee for Tomorrow Schools — a 1976 plan that sought to manage racial integration in Oak Park's elementary schools by creating junior high schools — did not match the current draft policy's commitment to "ongoing vigilance to identify racial inequities that persisted with school integration, despite the dominant culture's best intentions." 

Jim O'Connor, a D97 board member, said the draft policy is "really high quality work … nation-leading work." 

But many of the same people who praised the language of the draft policy, which acknowledges that student outcomes and experiences in D97 are largely predicted by race, also critiqued what could be considered a glimpse into how the district might execute its ambitious policy. 

Earlier this month, district officials released a memo outlining a range of potential recommendations that officials said might be necessary for implementing the policy. They included adding 19 full-time-equivalent staff positions, such as reading and data specialists, bringing in outside equity consultants, and introducing a variety of professional development resources for current teachers and staff members, among other measures. 

The memo did not include costs, but some community leaders said it provided easy fodder for some residents to pit the district's equity work against genuine concerns about costs to taxpayers. 

Indeed, at the Feb. 12 meeting, Oak Park activist Monica Sheehan, who said she fully supports efforts to make the district more equitable, expressed her concern that "the funding of this policy could negatively impact our community," before referencing Oak Park's "unsustainable tax burden." 

Some leaders also argued that the memo represented a top-down approach to execution that did not sufficiently include input from students, parents, teachers and Oak Park residents. 

During an interview on Feb. 8, Makeisha Flournoy, a co-founder and co-president of DivCo, recommended that district officials "transform the way they think about community engagement." 

Flournoy praised efforts by D97 Supt. Carol Kelley to incorporate a diverse array of perspectives during the drafting of the plan, but she said the district has more room to improve and urged district officials to rely more on the voices of students, staff members and even "folks who might not have kids in the district yet." 

"For implementation we're going to be watching closely," said DivCo member Andrea Kovach on Feb. 8. "We'll need to have community input to make sure it's the strongest implementation possible. The framework is there in the policy, but now we have to see it in action. These are our values in action." 

"Execution is where the rubber meets the road," said DivCo member Venus Heard Johnson.

During the Feb. 12 meeting, board member Rob Breymaier, who facilitated the night's discussion of the draft policy, said the memo was created at the direction of the board and was just a rough outline of what implementation might look like. He added that the memo's recommendations "are not set in stone." 

But some board members, such as Rupa Datta and Kecia Broy, echoed the concerns of DivCo when it came to the memo's release. 

"The memo that came along is where the disconnect is for me," said Broy, adding that "the numbers and assumptions around staffing" are "incomplete" and need more work. 

Datta said the "policy language, together with the resources memo, makes it sound like you can only have equity or try to attain equity when you have resources." Datta said that equity should be a main focus for the district at all times, regardless of how much money is in the budget.

"We talk about additional resources being needed to do something, but we might just need to do something [period]," Datta said. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com