'Why We Kneel': Oak Park, River Forest group seeks to address school hiring practices, community inequities

Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 07:27:20 AM. A community group organized by OPRF teacher Anthony Clark said it plans to pursue issues dedicated to the betterment of local schools.

A community group organized by and High School teacher Anthony Clark said it plans to pursue issues dedicated to the betterment of local school districts.

Clark, who is running for the Illinois 7th Congressional District seat in the 2018 election, invited community members to the "Why We Kneel" discussion to identify steps in eliminating systemic racism in local communities.

Clark's meeting comes one week before OPRF High School was to host its own community forum to address race and education. Last month, there was an uproar after an OPRF student posted a photo to Snapchat, which appeared to show that student in blackface. A caption on the photo said "Vote me for BLU president." BLU is a reference to the OPRF Black Leaders Union.

Clark had initially hoped to have his "Why We Kneel" discussion on Oct. 16 in the wake of the incident, but he postponed the community discussion after he was placed on paid administrative leave by the school after sharing a photo of the student on his Facebook page. Clark has since been reinstated by the high school.

"I felt it was important to put the event back on the calendar, especially before the high school's event next week," Clark said. "I felt it was important to host something before that event to engage and get some type of focus, so we can reach out to the community and tell them about what we discussed."

More than 20 people attended the community event Nov. 8 at L!VE Café, 163 N. Oak Park Ave., and engaged in discussions for two hours before narrowing their targets to ensuring diverse hiring practices in local schools, and seeking restorative justice programs for each district.

"I think it's easier when we have measurable goals," Clark said. "I'm a proponent of when you have a 20 percent black student body, you should have a 20 percent black teaching force. We have to be able to track it."

Several at the table wondered if the human resources departments at Oak Park District 97, River Forest District 90 and OPRF High School could implement new ways to attract minority candidates.

"My thought is they could recruit from Chicago Public Schools," Jen Wenschhof said. "Is there a policy for how they have to recruit?"

Laurie Campbell, human resources director at Oak Park District 97, said Friday the district had more than 50 teacher openings since the end of the 2016-17 school year, and used the summer to attract a more diverse candidate pool.

"Twenty percent of our new teaching staff are African-American," Campbell said. "Our human resources department partnered with our diversity council, and we connected to rework our application questions to help reveal candidates that possess a more balanced view on cultural competency. There's some things we'd like to continue to add as we review and refine our hiring process moving forward."

According to Campbell, a report on District 97 personnel is expected to be presented at the Nov. 27 school board meeting, and will contain up-to-date data on the diversity of District 97 staff.

"[This upcoming year] will be another opportunity for us to recruit and have a focus on bringing in as many high-quality candidates from all backgrounds as we can," Campbell said.

According to River Forest District 90 Superintendent Ed Condon, his district has been working with the National Equity Project and the Alma Advisory Group to develop an intentional plan to broaden its recruiting and hiring practices.

"The board of education's equity committee states, as one of its key objectives, to review and refine the district recruiting and hiring practices with the goal of improving diversity in our workforce," Condon said. "There is a large body of research indicating that all students benefit when learning from a diverse, high-quality teaching staff."

Condon said the district has also coordinated a facilitated focus group for a subset of minority employees, with the goal of improving the understanding of the benefits and challenges of working in District 90 schools.

"District 90 is committed to advancing the hiring and retention of diverse, outstanding faculty and staff," Condon said. "For District 90, this is a key component of our aspirations toward educational equity for our students, staff and school community."

Officials with OPRF High School did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the group at L!VE Café also talked about perceived inequalities in various school districts, and the "achievement gap" Oak Park faces between different races of students.

"I did very well [going to school] in Maywood," Maui Jones said. "My mom wanted me to go to OPRF, and my grades, my attendance, everything just dropped like a rock in the ocean because I didn't fit in there. I had a class where I was the only one who didn't have a graphing calculator. I was frustrated. I have my GED and went straight into the workforce. OPRF High School is not built for someone that's grown up in an African-American culture."

Clark said he sees the same inequities still plaguing the high school.

"Our students have Chromebooks," Clark said. "So many families are just scraping by to put their students in the school system. If you lose or break the Chromebook, it's $50 to replace it. There's so many students who break or lose their laptops, so they have to go without."

To address such inequities and engage in further dialogue between school administrators and the community, resident Erika Bachner suggested community meetings to address various topics, including recent test score results released by the state.

"I went to a town hall school discussion [in River Forest District 90], and they had a half-hour where they went through the assessments," Bachner said. "Is there someone in Oak Park who can request a town hall school assessment meeting to be able to ask those questions?"

The group also took time to discuss and share stories about issues facing the communities of Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

Many at the table, including resident Susanne Fairfax, worry Oak Park is becoming more and more segregated due to increasing taxes and fees, while renters are pushed toward the village's borders.

"When we first moved here, the pool and all sorts of things were part of your taxes," Fairfax said. "You can't go to the pool anymore because it costs so much on top of your taxes. When you go to that pool, it's not representative of the village with this additional cost on top of your taxes or rent. There is all this structure that makes it more and more segregated."

OPRF's forum, titled "The Intersection of Race and Education," will take place from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 14 inside the south cafeteria at the high school, 201 N. Scoville Ave.

Clark urged attendees at his discussion to attend the school's forum as well, and asked them to be prepared to ask questions of district leaders.

"We can't be polite in this fight," Clark said. "Oftentimes, it just takes showing up. I call it positive pressure to move us forward. The reason things don't change is because people don't show up."

Twitter @steveschering

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