Where is Forest Park in terms of racial integration in our five schools on the 60th anniversary year of the Supreme Court Decision, Brown vs. the [Topeka] Board of Education, which judged separate schools for blacks and whites to be inherently unequal?
Bob Cox has lived in Forest Park most of his life since he was born in 1954, the same year the Brown decision came down. His mother was from Mexico, a fairly big deal in a town in which, before World War II, a German Lutheran husband and an Italian Catholic wife would be called a mixed marriage. He remembers Garfield Elementary School being all white. “We never saw African Americans,” he recalled. In those days, Maywood was the multi-cultural village.
Around the turn of the century, immigrants were clustering in ethnic enclaves. The north side of Forest Park, for example, had three German Lutheran Churches within five blocks of each other. Clearly, education before World War II was separate in our town, less by political design and more because birds of a feather flock together.
Cox said that when African American families began trickling into Forest Park in the 1970’s, it was St. John Lutheran School which enrolled the first black students and in the 1990’s hired the first African American principal.
Dr. Jim Murray said that when he started working for Dist. 91 as a social worker in 1978, there was only one black student in the whole system but that the demographic changes resulting in the diversity we have today were about to begin. He remembered that the road to change was sometimes bumpy.
“At first the racial change was pretty smooth as the new students tried to fit into the system,” he said.
“But as more and more minorities moved in, and white students left, tensions increased,” he added. Many old-time Forest Park teachers had problems with the new students, some of whom weren’t used to the district’s discipline and academic expectations, Murray remembered.
“Also, some of these students seemed to have chips on their shoulders, as did their parents. Teachers were frustrated because what they had done successfully for many years no longer seemed to be effective.”
Noting that the demographic changes had little to do with Brown itself, Murray added, “Gradually, many of these older teachers retired and were replaced with younger teachers who did not have the same mindset and seemed better able to deal with the new student body.”
When Dr. Louis Cavallo became the Dist. 91 Superintendent in 2007, however, he noticed that although Betsy Ross and Field-Stevenson were fairly well balanced racially, Grant-White and Garfield were not. Garfield still had a similar racial composition as when Cox went to school there, and some folks in town were referring to the school on the village’s north side as ‘Grant Black.’
Those two elementary schools were separate, and, in Cavallo’s opinion, unequal.
“I have to say,” he acknowledged, “that resources were not distributed equally.”
So, three years ago, he and the school board decided to do some restructuring. Instead of each of the four elementary schools in the district housing a complete complement of classes, K through five, Garfield and Betsy Ross were designated as K-2 “grade level centers” and children in grades 3-5 went to either Grant-White or Field Stevenson.
That move meant that both schools on the north side of the village became much more diverse than they had previously been, and the change did not come without controversy. Cavallo judged much of the controversy to be in part racially based.
“There was a vocal minority,” he recalled, “that was adamantly opposed to the change. We engaged in a lot of tough conversations.”
“The kids,” he added, “never had a problem with this. They got along great, and the performance of all of the schools has gone up.”
Cavallo attributes the improvement in student performance to three factors:
1 The schools were able to focus education more easily on age groups.
2 Teachers could collaborate better by being in the same building.
3 When low-performing kids mix with high-performing kids, it raises expectations for all kids.
Cavallo credits No Child Left Behind with focusing attention on achievement disparities between racial groups.
“People started paying attention to who was left behind and why.”
The problem, he said, was that approach can lead to “handicapping” a certain group and kind of dumbing down content and expectations.
“It goes even deeper than the customizing of education around groups like blacks or whites,” he explained.
“When you dig deeper, you realize that not everyone in a group needs the same thing, so we need to customize even more,” he added.
The approach of Dist. 91, as the No Child Left Behind initiative ends therefore, is to raise expectations for all groups, while at the same time taking students where they are at in terms of performance. There is an expectation that every child should be performing at grade level. At the same time, each child’s achievement is measured at the beginning of the year, and the emphasis is on how they grow from there.
“Growth,” he emphasized, “is the primary measure.”
That approach to education, he acknowledged, makes the task of teaching a lot more difficult than it used to be.
“I’m very proud of the teachers here,” he said. “They are working very, very hard and it’s paying off. Our kids are doing better each year.”
Dr. Tiffany Brunson, Field-Stevenson’s principal, agreed.
“At Field-Stevenson we foster an atmosphere that goes beyond acceptance and tolerance. We celebrate the lives of our children through cultural competency,” she said.
“I have a philosophical commitment to exposing our students to diversity through a range of cultural experiences such as field trips to the Black Ensemble Theater or performances delivered by Urban Gateways for heritage celebrations.”
“I don’t think people in Forest Park realize how fortunate we are,” Cavallo concluded. “In the Chicagoland area separate is the norm. People get used to that and think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But not in Forest Park. Forest Park is very diverse. People live together, get along and function very well. We’ve come a long way since Brown … for the better.”