Focus groups help OPRF with long-term strategic plan
Consultant Allan Alson speaks to OPRF faculty, parents and community members. The Oak Park River Forest High School Strategic Planning Steering Committee met Monday night at the school. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 19, 2013 11:43AM
OAK PARK — Oak Park may be one of the most statistically diverse communities in the nation. But just because a variety of people have made the village their home does not mean their differences are understood or supported at Oak Park River Forest High School.
That was one of the overarching themes coming out of the focus groups for the high school’s strategic planning process.
Educational equity to close the gap in achievement is likely to become one of five main areas of focus in the five-year strategic plan expected to be in place by the 2013-14 school year.
“I look at it, and I’m not surprised by any of it … It seems to be a common current that runs through this kind of school with its diversity,” said Bobbie Raymond, who represents the high school’s alumni association. She is one of about 60 members of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee.
The consultants in charge of the strategic planning process conducted focus groups with five categories of stakeholders -- students, administrators, faculty, staff and community, which included parents and social service providers. They presented their findings to the steering committee on Jan. 7.
All the groups agreed the school and community’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness. Though participants agreed the weaknesses need to be corrected, there was no consensus on how that could be achieved.
For instance, some participants expressed the opinion that tracking students according to their abilities is inevitable but that more needs to be done to move African-American students from low tracks into post-secondary education preparation.
OPRF junior Ambria Jones, a member of the steering committee, used herself as an example.
“My freshman year, I wasn’t the best student I could be,” she admitted. But by developing a close relationship with her teachers, she was able to get the support needed to excel.
“It was their willingness to help that changed my sophomore year,” she said.
Raymond, a retired social worker, said she’s not sure the playing field ever really can be leveled because of academic and social preparation that starts in the home. For instance, the higher academic achievement and earnings of parents in River Forest mean their children often have more exposure to culture and travel than students in some areas of Oak Park, she said.
Though stronger communication with Julian, Brooks and Roosevelt middle schools may help, many students enter OPRF after attending schools in Chicago or other communities, Raymond noted. As a result, the gap may be even wider, with some students reading at a third-grade level.
“It sounds good on paper, but much of it is unrealistic,” she said.
Strategic process facilitator Pat Maunsell said students participating in the focus groups were troubled by the fact that most advanced placement courses have only one, if any, African-American students.
“There were several African-American kids who talked about it as a personal issue,” she said.
Though all the focus group participants agreed that all students should meet the highest expectations, some doubted whether all students should be subjected to a college prep curriculum when they are unlikely to attend college. Instead, some said, students should be given supportive options that will prepare them for the life they actually are likely to lead. Others, however, countered that though the option to attend college should be left to the student, all students should be prepared in the event they choose to go.
“We want to be equitable but then we have policies and procedures that don’t align with that,” Maunsell said.
Focus group participants also were mixed in their opinions on how resources should be allocated to resolve the equity issue. Though all said they want to support all students, some expressed concern about resources being diverted from high-performing mainstream students.
“There’s a definite perception that supporting achievement for all means taking away from some,” Maunsell said.
For more information on the strategic planning process or meeting dates, go to www.oprfhs.org and click on the “Strategic Planning” button on the left side of the page.