This piece was also published in the Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal.
When you were 13 years old, did you know what career you wanted to have? Could you predict all of your adult interests and passions? Did you know how your current life would look? Most 13-year-olds do not have this knowledge because our human brains don’t develop those capacities until later in life.
And so, it is entirely unfair that in Oak Park we currently have a system where eighth-grade students must decide before they enter high school whether they will take Honors classes during their freshman year. And unfortunately, once a student starts a high school track, it is very difficult for them to switch. So the current system results in 8th graders making decisions that will affect them throughout high school and quite possibly after their high school careers have ended.
The current system also privileges those students who start with advantages — who are white, who are wealthy, who have parents or guardians who attended college. This is because those parents are more likely to have access to resources to prepare their children to jump into the current Honors curriculum as freshmen. Black students and other students of color, who do not feel welcomed by the school system, are less likely to participate when that decision must be made before starting high school.
The transition from 8th to 9th grade is a huge one, and all freshmen deserve an opportunity to develop their understanding of themselves as high schoolers and an inkling of their adult interests and passions before making a decision about their high school paths.
Oak Park River Forest High School’s (OPRF) restructuring plan is a thoroughly-planned, well-developed structure that will allow students that opportunity while ensuring that all students learn an Honors-level curriculum. Students who are certain that they would have taken a dedicated Honors class will still learn that same material. Students who are less certain or who think they may not have taken Honors will receive support so that they learn this material as well. And since there will be no tracking of freshmen, all students will benefit from learning together with a greater mix of peers, developing the social and relational understanding that will benefit them, our community, and our broader democratic society.
Once students receive this support and have this experience as freshmen, they will still have access to Honors and Advanced Placement classes in the higher grade levels. The restructuring plan does not take opportunities from anyone. Instead, it gives opportunities to more people.
Unfortunately, not all of the candidates for the District 200 School Board election on April 6th see it that way. Fred Arkin, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Elias Ortega, Kebreab Henry, and Tom Cofsky have all expressed support for the district’s freshman restructuring. But David Schrodt has stated his desire to suspend this plan and stop this progress. Mr. Schrodt describes the restructuring plan as “mixing people up and throwing them together,” but nothing could be further from the truth. OPRF has been considering how to address its educational inequities for decades and has been working on the restructuring plan for the past 4 years. Staff members have done their research, and the research clearly demonstrates that tracking students has no discernable benefit for students at any level. Instead, providing all students with a rigorous curriculum and the support they need to learn that curriculum is what makes the difference. That is what creates the opportunities our students need.
“The land of opportunity” — that is one of the essential mottos of this nation. Let’s ensure that Oak Park continues to be a community of opportunity by allowing students to experience freshman year without being tracked. Let’s vote for the school board candidates who support OPRF’s restructuring plan — Arkin, Mohanraj, Henry, Ortega, and Cofsky — and against the candidate — Schrodt — who wants to stop opportunity in its tracks.
And once the election is over, let’s support the school board and OPRF staff to implement the freshman restructuring plan to provide our students with the opportunities they deserve.
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