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Anti-Racism at Oak Park Elementary School District 97

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Oak Park Elementary School District 97, located in the upper-middle-class Oak Park suburb of Chicago, instituted a new equity policy. The goal was to eliminate disparities arising from “institutional racism and white supremacy in our schools.” Since then, the district has made a number of major changes in pursuit of this ambitious goal.

 

Oak Park has revised its entire elementary curriculum in accordance with the Learning for Justice (LFJ) “Social Justice Standards,” and required teachers to take their own “anti-bias” training using LFJ’s “Professional Development” modules. During the 2020-2021 school year, Oak Park’s “instructional coach team” also participated in a “culturally responsive teaching” (CRT) community. The community emphasized CRT expert Zaretta Hammond’s “Ready for Rigor” framework, which teaches participants to “recognize your brain’s triggers around race and culture” and “recognize the cultural archetypes of individualism and collectivism.” 

 

In the spring of 2021, Oak Park school officials held a number of “Parent University Sessions” to give parents a better idea of the district’s equity-related initiatives. One of these sessions was a two hour course on the importance of “whiteness as a social construct.” It was led by DEI consultant Rashida Graham Washington, who apprised parents of their need to “neutralize whiteness,” particularly as it relates to “data and research.” (This session was submitted as an “incident” on FAIR Transparency).

 

At a later session, held on May 21st, Oak Park school officials provided a more targeted overview of the district’s new anti-racist curriculum.

 

The goal of the curriculum, as the officials described it in the session, is “to develop students who are able to identify injustices and act in a way that promotes justice and equity.” To that end, teachers at Oak Park have implemented lessons on Identity and Diversity “during the morning meetings and throughout the day,” with plans for the 2021-2022 school year to introduce lessons on the other two “anti-bias domains” in the LFJ curriculum: “Justice” and “Action.” The lessons are supplemented by additional social justice books, including anti-racist guru Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not my Idea: A Book About Whiteness, a children’s book that emphasizes the importance of skin color in how people “see the world” and encourages white children to face the painful truth about “your own people, your own family.”

 

The Oak Park officials sought to inform parents of how the social justice lessons were already showing observable signs of success, and not just in relation to race/racism. For instance, as an example of “Student learning as a result of ongoing work to dismantle gender stereotypes,” the session presenters highlight an Oak Park kindergarten teacher who had the class write about his non-binary animal puppet using they/them pronouns.

 

One of the officials clarifies (presumably for the parents who feel that the curriculum is too incremental) that “developmentally, we know that they can be activists, but we must build their capacity for seeing injustice first.” She goes on to assure attendees that graduating elementary school students will “continue their journey at the middle school, through the IB program which is activist centered.” Last year, Oak Park middle schools created new “Affinity Spaces for African-American and LatinX students.” Several middle school departments also updated and replaced curriculum with materials from divisive sources including Facing History and Ourselves,1619 Project, and the Zinn Education Project. Meanwhile, all Oak Park middle school students were required to read Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and the school collaborated with the Oak Park Public Library and “E-Team” to “facilitate parent/community literature circles around the book.” By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, “Social justice standards from Learning for Justice will be incorporated into all core content units of study at the middle school.”

 

During the session’s Q&A portion, an Oak Park parent asks whether this totalizing focus on race might actually make children more racist. One of the presenters responds – after prefacing that to frame this as a question is itself an example of white privilege – by saying that these conversations are “essential” because racism is “in the air we breathe, it’s in the water we drink, it’s truly all around us.”

Video Clips from "D97 Parent University - K-5 Social Justice Lessons: Building a Foundation for Inclusive & Anti-Racist Work in District 97"
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Oak Park Official lists the common emotions felt by white people during conversations about race, and the different common emotions felt by people of color.

 

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Oak Park Official explains how the Learning for Justice curriculum is introduced “during morning meetings and throughout the day.”

 

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Oak Park Official tells parents that before kids can become activists, they must “build their capacity for seeing injustice first.”

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Oak Park Official claims that “all schools are rooted in white supremacy.”