Racial Equity at OPRF

One of the unique aspects of Oak Park and River Forest High School, or OPRF as it’s commonly known, is its racial diversity: 56 percent of our 3,400 students identify as white, while 44 percent identify as African-American, Hispanic, multiracial, or Asian. As a school, it is our mission to ensure that all students, regardless of race, have the resources and support they need to achieve their full potential. One of our challenges is differences in student outcomes that are predictable by race, with white students, as a group, outperforming students of color. This disparity isn’t unique to OPRF, of course; it’s experienced by schools throughout the United States. But we are intensely focused on eliminating these differences.

Racial equity is a term heard frequently at OPRF. It refers to the condition that would be achieved if students’ racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how they fare. While the current disparities often are referred to as the "achievement gap," we believe that this incorrectly puts the onus on students. Instead, we believe that the issue should be reframed as an opportunity gap, because it isn’t the students who need to be fixed. It’s the system.

We believe it is our responsibility as an institution to identify and remove unconscious biases and system-wide barriers that inhibit success for all students. To achieve racial equity we must work to address the root causes of inequities, not just their manifestation. This includes eliminating policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages that reinforce or fail to eliminate different outcomes by race. The time for talking about systemic change is over. Oak Park and River Forest High School is committed to taking actions that will create equitable opportunities for all our students to achieve their full potential.

Here is a look at some of our efforts.

Racial equity in the strategic plan. One of the six major goals in the district's 2017-2022 strategic plan is to “continuously strive to create an environment where the academic achievement and social and emotional growth of students will no longer be predictable by race, socioeconomic status, or other social factors." Among the specific strategies in this goal is to identify proven programs that reduce inequities of opportunity and enable students of color and/or low socioeconomic status to gain greater access to, and success in, college prep, honors, and AP courses.

Courageous Conversations about Race. Over the course of 2012-2017, the district’s nearly 400 faculty and administrators each participated in this year-long professional development series on racial equity. Involving personal reflection on participants’ own racial identities, the series was aimed at helping engage in and deepen interracial dialogue about race, school policies, programs, and practices, and how these affect student learning. We continue to hold shorter, intensive trainings based on this series each year, with all new employees participating. We also have an after-school series called Courageous Conversations about Race, open to all staff who want to develop their racial consciousness.

Six-year professional development plan to eliminate racial bias in classroom practices. During the 2017-2018 school year, about 40 teachers received intensive training as Collaborative Action Research for Equity (CARE) team leaders. Beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, all OPRF teachers have been assigned to small groups of faculty members. With the guidance of the CARE team leaders, these groups will spend the next five years analyzing their curriculum, teaching methods, practices, processes, and classroom relationships through a racial lens. By focusing on classroom factors that affect students most directly, the goal is to eliminate racial bias in instruction.

Individual racial equity coaching. Beginning in 2018-2019, two OPRF faculty members with an extensive background in racial equity leadership will work one-on-one with teachers to help develop healthy racial consciousness, apply racial-equity concepts in their classroom relationships and teaching practices, and promote a culture of high expectations for all students.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) development for all. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a nationally created, implemented, and assessed pre-engineering STEM curriculum. We have intentionally implemented PLTW in an equitable fashion from the start, opting to keep the courses as part of general curriculum open to all and not restricting it to the honors level. The efforts of our teachers and counselors has encouraged and supported proportionate representation, by all students. Of the students in PLTW courses, 16% are from Special Education, which is the same as the entire school, and 25-30% are African American students, also mirroring the overall school demographic.

In addition, the division head of science and technology is a key collaborator with Concordia University as part of a planning grant aimed at increasing the number of students of color in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce.

Increased access to higher level classes. As at other U.S. high schools, the students in higher-level courses at OPRF tend to be disproportionately white. This isn’t because students of color can’t succeed. Rather, too often they have not been recommended for or encouraged to take honors and AP classes. The high school is working with counselors and teachers to identify and recommend these unrecognized students for higher-level classes. To provide social and academic support, the school launched the Huskie Scholar Academy in 2017-2018.

Laptops for every student. Rolled out in 2016-2017, our 1:1 technology program provides all students with a district-owned Chromebook computer to use at school and home during their four years with us. Our goal is to make sure that every student is fully prepared for their future in a global, digital world where they will be expected to use information and technology to create, examine, explore, communicate, and collaborate. We also provided free wireless access devices for students lacking wifi at home.

Spoken Word and Black literature developer. More than a decade ago, OPRF was an innovator in creating this full-time teaching position to support poetry instruction and develop black literature units for English classes. We also have a Spoken Word poetry club. Elevating students' voices and positively acknowledging their experiences has increased student connections to school programs and culture. We also have seen more infusion of underrepresented writers in the English curriculum.

Hip Hop Club. This activity was introduced in 2013 to allow students to express their wide variety of talents through musical and dance expression. Hip Hop was born within the African American and Latino communities as a vehicle of creativity, and the club helps minority students in particular to get involved and feel more ownership in the school. More recently the club expanded into Rhymes, Beats & Life, an activity at the Oak Park Public Library to work with an even wider range of tweens and teens. 

Motivational Mentors. This lunch-time mentoring program helps students navigate the demands of life, both inside and outside of school, to foster positive life choices and outcomes.

Revised student dress code. Responding to student input that the dress code and its enforcement treated students differently by gender and race, Principal Nathaniel Rouse worked with a team of students to revamp the code for the 2018-2019 school year. The new dress code avoids any reference to gender-specific clothing and states that the code will be enforced “consistently and in a manner that does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group.” All faculty and staff are being trained to use student- and body-positive language to explain the code and address violations.

Black Professionals Day. Although open to all students, this annual half-day conference focuses on career experiences for African American students by providing an opportunity to hear from and converse with African American representatives of various professions.  The goal is to provide post-secondary options, pathways, and connections for our students, especially those who are African American.  This year we had more than 150 students who participated.  

Outreach coordinator. Established nearly a decade ago, this position provides support for and encourages the engagement of parents, particularly those of underachieving students, via one-to-one outreach and a program of educational workshops.

Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). OPRF is a founding and active member of MSAN, a national coalition of multiracial school districts that have come together to understand and eliminate opportunity gaps that persist in their schools. Administrators and faculty participate in MSAN conferences each year, and we also have a student MSAN group that focuses on issues of racial inequity from a student perspective. 

Additional Pupil Support Services (PSS) team. To enhance the level of counseling and social work services and provide equitable access to those services for more students, the Board approved hiring five full-time employees to staff an additional full PSS team in 2015-2016. The extra staffing has meant that each student has no less than two contacts per year with a member of their PSS team.

Culture, Climate, and Behavior Committee (CCB). In 2016, the Board appointed CCB, which comprises Board members, administrators, staff, students, parents, and representatives from our two feeder elementary districts. The charge to CCB was to recommend ways to eliminate disproportionate discipline for students of color and create a welcoming environment for all students. The CCB recommendations for 2018-2019 include recruiting and retaining diverse staff, researching the root causes of and addressing the racial disparities in student tardiness, and implementing restorative justice practices.

Improved hiring practices. The demographics of our teaching staff, which is about 80 percent white, do not reflect the demographics of our students, who are 44 percent young people of color. For 2018-2019, the district has hired a new director of human resources, whose doctoral work focuses on equity and inclusion. A key goal for the coming year is to improve recruitment and retention of teachers of color so that students have more role models and mentors who understand their racial experiences.

District equity transformation plan. In 2012, the district established a District Equity Leadership Team (DELT), composed of administrators and faculty members. DELT’s charge was to guide the work of exploring the impact of institutionalized racism on student learning, create a vision for eliminating racial achievement disparities, and work to dismantle the barriers to academic success for all students. During the 2018-2019 school year DELT is working on a Racial Equity Transformation Plan that dovetails with the strategic plan, with key initiatives, performance targets, timelines, and metrics to determine progress.

Tri-Equity Board Committee. The high school has two elementary feeder districts, River Forest School District 90 and Oak Park Elementary School District 97. In spring 2017, the boards of Districts 90, 97, and 200 held a joint community forum to share the work each district is doing around equity. An outcome of the meeting was that the three boards voted in favor of creating the Tri-Equity Board Committee, with representatives from each board, to better coordinate efforts among the districts. The committee’s recommendations to the districts for 2018-2019 include inventorying current equity initiatives, hosting a joint town hall on equity as a path to excellence, and determining whether to partner on professional development for the three districts’ staffs.

Imagine OPRF long-term facilities master planning. Our community-based committee Imagine OPRF has spent a year in deep research and planning for how to update our vintage building, where the most recent large construction was done 50 years ago. The group found that many students of color don’t feel welcome in a variety of spaces. Recommendations for a plan will be made to the Board in fall 2018. We anticipate that an essential aspect of the plan will be to create common areas where all students feel welcome, safe, and free to gather, study, and collaborate.

our work to promote racial equity 

Scroll through the text at left for further details on these efforts.

  • Racial equity in the strategic plan

  • Courageous Conversations about Race

  • Six-year professional development plan to eliminate racial bias in classroom practices

  • Individual racial equity coaching

  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) development for all

  • Increased access to higher level classes

  • Laptops for every student

  • Spoken Word and Black literature developer

  • Hip Hop Club

  • Motivational Mentors

  • Revised student dress code

  • Black Professionals Day

  • Outreach coordinator

  • Additional Pupil Support Services (PSS) team

  • Culture, Climate, and Behavior Committee (CCB)

  • Improved hiring practices
  • District equity transformation plan
  • Tri-Equity Board Committee
  • Imagine OPRF long-term facilities master planning