By Nona Tepper
On Jan. 10, the Forest Park District 91 board of education approved an equity imperative, charging the district with recognizing racial identity, eliminating its academic achievement gap, diversifying its hiring practices and more. "It's about mindfulness, really taking into account where that other person, child is coming from," said board member Shannon Wood.
Every decision the board makes will now be looked at through the "lens of equity," which means thought will be given to how actions could impact D91's most marginalized students. Any new curriculum or materials adopted will have to be studied by the publisher for bias. Hiring practices will be overhauled. All staff — new and old, teachers to bus drivers — will undergo equity training.
"It's essential that it's everyone," Superintendent Louis Cavallo said. "This isn't the district, or the board from upon high you know, saying 'You're a racist, stop it.' That's not ever going to work. Everyone has to have a deep understanding of this so that they can look in the mirror first and identify their own bias, especially when you're talking hundreds of people, and that's where we are."
He added: "We have an election coming up, anyone elected to the board that doesn't believe this is not going to be a good fit. This is something very important."
Come April, Cavallo said the board has already "at least verbally committed" to sending new members to an equity training institute, so they can be brought up to speed on what the district has long understood—that race is the greatest predictor of students' academic outcomes in the district.
Before the state transitioned to Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), Cavallo said D91 had performed well on the then-state-mandated test, improving every year. But then the Illinois State Board of Education adopted PARCC, and D91 students' scores dropped, like most districts in the state. The one constant was an achievement gap continued to exist between students of color and white learners. In the school years that followed, less than half of D91 students also said they believed they were always treated with respect at school, according to the Illinois 5Essentials survey. As a way to combat the achievement gap and drive inclusivity, the district sought help in November 2017 from the National Equity Project, a national leadership organization focused on correcting biases and academic gaps between majority and minority students.
"When you're always striving to continuously improve, but you don't see improvement in one area, then you realize this is something we have to address," Cavallo said.
In February 2018, the board approved a $40,000 contract with the National Equity Project, and board members and D91 administrators have since received training from the group. "This is not the Starbucks approach, where one afternoon we're going to close the stores and train people and everything's fixed," Cavallo said. "That's not how it works. It's tailored to our needs." The National Equity Project homed in on D91's Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) learning intervention system, along with its Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) disciplinary framework, asking staff this year to analyze these systems for bias.
"How many students are we identifying for special ed that are of color? How many students are suspended, our disciplinary rates, what do those look like?" Cavallo said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to refer kids to the office just because they're of color, but we want to make sure that we are not being biased when we do that."
The group also worked with the administration and board to identify and address their own biases. Wood remembers being asked to focus on "active listening" by pairing up with another board member, listening to them discuss a prompt and focusing solely on what is being said, not interrupting.
"Even if I identify with something, I don't jump in," Wood said. "I'm respectful and I let that person speak. If I'm not trying to think of my response I can actually listen 100 percent to what that speaker is saying and then the same respect is given back to the other partner. It can be uncomfortable, sometimes you want to jump in and have the conversation."
Cavallo said some scenarios presented discussed white privilege. "When were you given privilege just because you were white? Or if you're not white, or if you're referring to someone that's not white, when were they not given the same privilege that you were?" He remembers showing the board a picture of a group of students dressed up for a Thanksgiving pageant, with kids dressed as young Native Americans and pilgrims, and asking the group to reflect on how that picture could be perceived by different groups.
"If I'm a Native American and I'm looking at the little white boy dressed as an Indian, how does that make me feel?'" Cavallo said. "How were Native Americans really treated, and having white children dress as Native Americans, how far away from blackface is that really? Those are the kind of discussions that as a school and as a community we need to have."