Guest blog post by Linda T. Francis, director of Success of All Youth.
Oak Park, Ill., is an aspirational community, touted by residents as a diverse and progressive place where all people can live and thrive together. But despite efforts to promote Oak Park’s legacy of integration, ongoing discrepancies in student achievement tell another story: Our community has overlooked, even ignored, the importance of equity.
Students across Oak Park occupy the same streets and schools, but they don’t all have access to the same opportunities. These challenges reflect a failing of our systems and adults, not our children. If we are to be a community that is inclusive of differences in race, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, income, culture, sexual orientation, ability and family structure, then our systems — which were not developed to accommodate these differences — must change. And change is hard.
In response to research and our own data, Success of All Youth is tackling the systemic racism and biases that have long kept so many black and brown students from reaching their full potential. Here are some examples of what we’ve learned in our journey to become a community in which every kid thrives:
- Set out specific policies, procedures and leadership focused on equity, and keep equity at the forefront. We found that simply putting goals in strategic plans was not cutting it. Instead, we set a stronger stance for equity across the community. District boards of education approved formal equity policies, like those adopted by District 97 and District 200, and hired equity directors, like District 97’s Carrie Kamm and District 200’s LeVar J. Ammons. Equity will be a focus in all school decisions, from capital improvements to curriculum. Accountability and monitoring practices are being put in place in school districts, and efforts are underway to do the same in village government.
- Lift up youth and parent voice. It’s crucial to develop solutions with those closest to the challenges. We strengthened youth voice through affinity groups, social justice groups and participation in decision-making committees. The community has also supported the development of a student-created and -led racial equity course, developed by Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE). To hear from and work with parents, we gathered affinity and advocacy groups and include parent participation in making decisions.
- Start a practice of consistent communication. Because change is not always met with open arms, ongoing communication is important in working to include the whole community. Clear communication can address misunderstandings and fear. Success of All Youth uses strategies like creating community committees, conducting surveys, hosting forums, partnering with the local paper and using social media.
- Provide training to help the community tackle this work. We’ve established ongoing training for our staff, teachers, students, police officers and community members. Opportunities include offerings from Courageous ConversationTM and Umoja, along with other professional development focused on race and trauma-informed practices, in addition to training and reflection for the community.
This work is a marathon, not a sprint, and it has come with numerous stops, starts and bumps along the way. The right leadership is crucial. We’ve also learned that to make systemic change that can withstand the challenges to come, we have to take an approach that outlives the current administrations, boards and even community members.
Supporting every child to reach their potential is not just about teaching and learning within the walls of schools. Academic achievement depends on a holistic community approach that addresses the social, emotional and health needs of children and youth and works to address the failings of systems and adults. Success of All Youth is proud to support this work in Oak Park and River Forest as we work toward our vision of a community where every kid has opportunities to thrive.
Linda T. Francis is the director of Success of All Youth, community partners working together to ensure every child in Oak Park and River Forest, Ill., is empowered to reach their full potential. Success of All Youth is a member of the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network.