“LTLT members discussed the treatment of the security guards by staff and students. The security guards are overtly disrespected by students of all backgrounds and ignored by the teachers.”
By Elise Franchino
Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT) hosted a series of screenings and discussions on America to Me, a 10-part docu-series that follows a year in the life of students, teachers, and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago. The series deals with issues of race and privilege within a well-resourced, racially diverse public high school. This blog post is a recap of the episode and conversation among LTLT members.
Episode 2 opens with Ke’Shawn and his American Literature teacher, Jessica, engaged in a dialogue about his grades. Attune to his behaviors without being judgemental, Jessica comments, “Because he’s outgoing, he distracts the class in a way I wish he wouldn’t.” She knows he is smart and cares about him, which we can tell she’s conveyed to Ke’Shawn by his quick concession to check in with her every morning before study hall. Jessica tearfully explains that one of her students was recently killed by gang violence and she has a lingering guilt that she or the school could have done more. She’s committed to preventing another one of her kids from facing a similar fate.
“I also went to this high school and it was terror town,” says Ke’Shawn’s mother Danielle. “The things I saw here cannot be erased.” She describes how African American and lower achieving students were removed from the general education curriculum and instead labeled OC for “off campus.” Danielle says they joked that OC stood for “out of control,” in reference to the room where they would spend most days watching Jerry Springer and playing pool. We follow her through the fourth floor corridor; it’s the first time she’s been back. Shortly after having surgery her junior year, Danielle returned to Oak Park and Forest River (OPRF) High School. With staples still in her stomach that prevented her from climbing stairs, she requested a pass for the elevator. The principal denied her, leaving her no option but to take the elevator without approval to attend her class on the fourth floor. When the elevator doors opened, a security guard was waiting to detain her. Danielle was immediately expelled and never returned to school.
We hear from several teachers this episode, as they unify to protect the Read 180 program, aimed at remediating student’s literacy weaknesses. Reading teacher, Kristin, explains that many students in the program are two or more grade levels below target, some only at a second or third grade level. Students in the program may have learning disabilities, trauma, neurological disorders, or attendance issues. Emily and Paul, reading specialists, demonstrate the importance of building relationships with students. They teach their students a growth mindset, so they end every “can’t” statement with “yet.” In this episode we see teacher activism, as the OPFR reading team unifies to protect the Read 180 program from auditing. The teachers question why a program that serves primarily minority students and is the only reading remediation program available would be examined for potential elimination. School Board Member Steven expresses that the program is costly and wonders aloud what they are actually getting for their money. The audit fails, and at least for now, the Read 180 program is protected and funded.
Another program aimed at serving and empowering students of color is the Spoken Word Club. The program was founded in 1999 by Peter Kahn, who saw some Black students at risk of not finishing high school “come alive” during spoken word poetry. Charles, a junior, songwriter, and poet, says that the club allows introverted students to come out of their shells and acknowledges that Mr. Kahn is one of the most positive, influential male role models in his life. Chanti, a junior, explores her gender binary identity through eloquent and power spoken word pieces. While her father encourages her soccer participation, Chanti struggles with feelings of isolation on an all-girls team against the desire to belong. According to Charles, “At this school, you won’t survive if you don’t have something.”
One of the clearest examples of racial inequities is presented through the lens of the security guards. In the cafeteria, wrestling teammates Kendale and Gabe are singing showtunes while friends drum along on the table. A security guard asks them to stop the banging immediately. Predictably, the inoffensive singing and drumming continues, which ends in the security guard calling for backup and the students abandoning the cafeteria. The security guards, most of them African American, express frustration at their treatment within the school community. Anise Mollette, affectionately called Miss Mollette or Auntie, stops a White student in the hallway to ask if he has a pass. He ignores her entirely. According to Miss Mollette, some White students and families feel as though they have certain privileges, often saying, “I pay your salary.” The discrepancies in respect extend to the staff as well. Roberto Tucker says 87% of the Caucasian staff don’t speak to or acknowledge him and that at OPFR, “it feels like I stepped into 1962.”
We close with the big homecoming dance, a gentle reminder of the teenage perspective through which the docu-series is filmed. Our protagonists don their dress pants and dresses and bustle with excited nerves. None is more nervous than freshman Grant, who victoriously accomplishes his goal of dancing with a girl. Kendale abstained the homecoming dance to maintain his 5:00 am workout. He’s determined to cut 195 to earn a place on the varsity team. He jogs into the sunrise and reminds viewers, “It’s all about how hard you’re willing to push yourself.”
In many ways, the experiences of the teenagers at OPRF are universal. We all have our first crushes, heartbreaks, awkward dances, pivotal auditions, athletic and academic triumphs and failures. High school is the focal point of our world and our social center. While the OPFR lead characters grapple with the same struggles and insecurities we’ve all faced, they handle issues of race and discrimination as well. America to Me expertly weaves a cultural examination of race with the realities of daily high school experiences.
LTLT members discussed the treatment of the security guards by staff and students. The security guards are overtly disrespected by students of all backgrounds and ignored by the teachers. Support staff such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, recess monitors, custodial staff, and security officers are usually more diverse in ethnicity than the teaching staff, and often live in the community. The spaces within the building set up for each of these distinct occupations rarely allows for quality dialogue between the hierarchy of staff.
At OPFR, racism transcends through the hierarchy and structures. The tracking issue cannot be overstated, and LTLT members noted that it widens the achievement gap the school has maintained for at least twelve years. The manner in which discipline is enforced differs along students’ racial lines, from the White teenager ignoring Miss Mollette to the Black teens being castigated for singing the alphabet while dropping a beat. Jessica passionately presents a curriculum she designed to combat cultural prejudice to the school board is dismissed by all but one member, the only other African American woman. We lamented that Chala Holland, the insightful, caring, African American assistant principal, found the school climate so intolerable that she chose to move on. When asked what she’d like her successor to know, Chala declares, “Our kids, our faculty and staff, anyone that walks in this building, deserves a space where they can bring all of who they are authentically.”