One of the unique aspects of Oak Park and River Forest High School, or OPRFHS as it’s commonly known, is its racial diversity: 56 percent of our 3,400 students identify as white, while 20 percent identify as African-American, 12 percent as Hispanic, 9 percent as multiracial, and 3 percent as 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 African-American, Hispanic, and multiracial students. 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 OPRFHS. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. CCB recommendations include recruiting and retaining diverse staff, researching the root causes of and addressing the racial disparities in student tardiness, and implementing restorative justice practices.
The district hired its inaugural executive director of equity and student success for the start of the 2019-2020 school year. Charged with overseeing implementation of the district's new racial equity policy, the executive director of equity and student success developed specific procedures and metrics in 12 different areas that support the policy.
The priorities of the district’s strategic plan include increasing access to rigorous curriculum and eliminating race, socioeconomic status, and other social factors as predictors of student success. Beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, District 200 changed to a single curriculum that provides access to honors-level work for freshman English, science, history, and world language courses. This was an effort to change to institutional barriers that prevent students of color from reaching higher levels of achievement.
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.
In December 2018, the Board approved the most comprehensive facilities project in 50 years. During focus groups in the conceptual design phase, a key finding was that students, and particularly students of color, need a space where they feel welcome, safe, and free to gather, study, and collaborate. As a result, a key part of Project 1 was the student commons.
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. The district's strategic plan calls for increasing representation of minority teachers to 35% of the overall faculty by July 2024.
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.
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.
Launched in 1996 by Dr. Joseph Dulin, a principal in Ann Arbor, Mich., Public Schools, NAAPID is a national call to action to get parents, particularly those of children of African descent, more involved in their children's educational lives. Each year we host a complimentary dinner, open to all, that features delicious food and student performances.
Led by student members of SAFE (Students Advocating for Equity), the district is developing Equity and Youth Action, a pilot curriculum that, in the students' words, "fosters open discussion on uncomfortable topics and goes deeper than just the slavery/oppression topics in class." The pilot class will run during the second semester of this school year.
Of the four major priorities in the district's 2017-2022 strategic plan, Priority 1 is Racial Equity, to “eliminate race, socioeconomic status, and other social factors as predictors of students' academic achievement and social emotional growth."
Students of color are disproportionately represented in the discipline system. Using a restorative approach to discipline helps schools move away from strictly punitive consequences and focus on mediation, damage repair, and community-building in order to improve school culture and student outcomes. During the 2018-2019 school year, 25 faculty, staff, and administrators worked with consultant Umoja in a year-long "community of practice" training to deepen their skills and practices. Building on this work, some members of the group are being trained as advanced practitioners who will coach colleagues.
Responding to student input that the dress code and its enforcement treated students differently by gender and race, the principal worked with a team of students to revamp the code for the 2018-2019 school year. The dress code now 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.”
More than a decade ago, OPRFHS 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.
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.
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.