'America to Me': Meet OPRF Principal Nate Rouse

Rouse was against allowing Steve James to film his docuseries about race and education at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago, but he's ready to take advantage of the national spotlight.
Courtesy of Nathaniel L. Rouse
OPRF principal Nate Rouse (white shirt) and Hinsdale Central principal Bill Walsh (right of Rouse) participate in a discussion group after a screening 'America to Me' at OPRF.

In early 2015, before the Oak Park and River Forest High School board was scheduled to vote on allowing Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) to film America to Me — his docuseries examining the gap in academic achievement between black and white students that has persisted for decades at the diverse, affluent school in Chicago's west suburbs — the assistant superintendent of curriculum read a statement from the administration laying out all the reasons why they were against it.

According to Nate Rouse, now in his 11th year as principal at OPRF, the reasons ranged from the pragmatic — Would the presence of cameras be disruptive? Would the students be impacted negatively? — to the personal: Was James, who is white, be the best person to capture and interpret the experiences of the predominantly black students whom cameras would follow through an entire academic year at the school?

The board, according to now-president Jackie Moore, sided with the "voices in the community that were saying, 'We don't have anything to hide,' and, 'If we're a model, let's continue to be a model and work to figure this out,'" and voted 6-1 in favor.

Rouse and then-superintendent Steven Isoye do appear several times throughout the series' 10 episodes, but only at events and in places where, due to the board vote, James and his segment directors — Kevin Shaw, Bing Liu and Rebecca Parrish — could not be barred from filming. Despite repeated requests, according to James, neither agreed to sit down and answer questions on camera. 

And while Rouse notes that he and other administrators met with James and his team on a weekly basis during filming, and pushes back on James' contention that he at one point agreed to be interviewed, but then backed out once he was informed of the topics he'd be asked about — "That's just not true" — his and other administrators' turning down the chance to speak for themselves winds up reinforcing the image that emerges in the documentary of a school leadership that is generally comfortable with the status quo, and is perhaps too concerned with possible blowback from a predominantly white community that can view allocating resources to marginalized groups as zero-sum. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF.) 

Since the series premiere in August, Rouse has been more forthcoming. He's joined Twitter, sat down with CBS This Morning to discuss the doc and written a piece for the OPRF student newspaper explaining his decision not to participate. He does seem rankled by some of the feedback he's received, and it's clear he feels that he and the school's racial equity leadership were portrayed in an unfairly negative light. But he also lends credence to another image that emerges in America to Me: a community that, despite pride in their progressive reputation, is full of the "white moderates" that MLK warned about.

Ahead of the series finale, Rouse sat down with THR to talk about his issues with James, his experience as the black principal of a majority white school and how OPRF hopes to set an example now that it's been thrust into the national spotlight — one he would rather have avoided.

After seeing Steve and his team's proposal, what made you decide, "OK, this is not something that I am in support of and here's why,"?

The administration felt that we needed more time to investigate what this really meant. We were concerned about the lack of racial consciousness of Steve James, and the potential unintended negative impact on our students. We [also] just thought it was happening too fast; we wanted more of a researched approach. We didn't really feel that the idea of just shadowing students, and African-American students in particular, was going to do anything but exacerbate a problem that the country already has. That [racial disparities in academic achievement] doesn't make us unique. What makes us unique is the stuff we're doing to address the systemic barriers for our students of color. Our commitment to this work isn't something that necessarily comes out through watching the documentary.

You didn't want to be interviewed, but presumably there's other people in the equity leadership that could have said, "Put me on camera. Come see the equity work we're doing." But the people involved in the equity work chose not to be involved as well.

When America to Me was approved, I obviously knew as the principal that I would be in public spaces when the cameras would be rolling. That comes with the territory. However, that isn’t the same for faculty and staff that chose not to be interviewed or filmed. The individuals that were connected with our racial equity work were in alignment with the statement read to the board the evening of the vote. If we had a concern about his lack of racial consciousness and the unintended consequences of our students, then why wouldn’t they? But here is where it gets interesting. To your point, I said to Steve James all the time, "Watch me work." So, I think this is episode three, he literally shows us and me — I thought I looked good in this one — attending the 7th National Summit for Courageous Conversations About Race offered by Pacific Educational Group in Baltimore. The team from the school agreed to do an interview talking about the conference, our lived experiences with race and lessons learned to take back to our school. He chose for whatever reasons not to use any of that footage. So when I continue to hear him talk about how resistant we were and how we refused to give interviews, yet when there were opportunities to show us talking about the actual work that I think really sets us apart from other schools that have these similar issues, it was a lost opportunity. And so that was one of the pieces for me that affirmed my initial concerns about Mr. James in that, "What is your story that you're trying to tell?" Because this is his story. It's not the story of the school because he's already said that he can make it be what he wants it to be.

What do you think was the story that he was trying to tell?

It's hard for me to say. One of the things that's frustrating for me as I look at who was actually selected and what they represent and what they don't represent, you don't have families that were born here, that are black, that went through our entire school system. The families that you see are what I call "transient families." And I don't say that in a demeaning way, I just mean that they transferred here, like, in ninth grade, and so the experiences that they have are very different from kids that have grown up here. The black family that has a black mom, a black dad, who grew up in Oak Park, who went through K-through-eighth schools and then came to [OPRF], that's absent. What you see is people who either have a mom at home or dad at home, or have been adopted, or there is something there that is just not a traditional nuclear family, if you will. And for black families in the community and for alumni that I have talked to, that's one of the bones of contentions that they have. Now, these are the lived experiences of the students [in the series], and these lived experiences are painful. Some of the experiences and the things that are happening to students and staff of color are wrong. I am not saying that those should be dismissed, but what I am saying is that that's not the entire representation of the African-American experience for students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. It just isn't.

The admin's reasons for being against the doc were a mix of practical and the stuff about Steve personally. He's pointed to the fact that the team that made the doc was multiracial, and it was a collaborative effort. Did that allay your fears at all? Would you have been more in favor had you been approached by a black documentarian, or would the pragmatic concerns still have won out?

The notion of Mr. James pointing out that he hired multiracial staff and it was a collaborative effort reminds me of the people that thought that our country was post-racial when President Obama was in office. It’s still America, and it was still Mr. James’ story. That’s not meant to be disrespectful to the people of color that worked on the project, either. I just know they didn’t have the final editing rights of Mr. James. Would I have been more comfortable with a black filmmaker who shared the lived experiences of race in education, that understands the complexities of being black in America through their own struggles? Absolutely. But let’s be honest, would they have even been given a chance to pitch the idea? Would AtM have been so eagerly purchased by Starz? I unfortunately think not.

Is there anything in the doc that was shocking to you?

Watching this, I have context right? I know the below-the-line story. So I can’t say that there is anything that was shocking, but one of the things that has been difficult for me is to try to provide context to things that people are reacting to, yet at the same time not seem that I am just defending or deflecting. I mean, the Hinsdale Central piece in episode four comes to mind. As luck would have it, episode four aired the week we were playing this year. Both communities were up in arms about the perception of the schools not acknowledging the issues and not addressing them. I can tell you that early in my tenure, it was my first away game at Hinsdale Central, football players were reporting they were being called racial slurs on the field. It got so bad I had to go get their principal and athletic director at the time and have them walk with me to the lead official, and my words were, "Either this shit stops or I'm pulling my team." And they're like, "What do you mean?" I'm like, "You know exactly what I’m talking about. So if this doesn’t change we're getting in the buses and we're going home." Now I didn't come home and then tell everybody the story because that's just not what you do. You work that out with the other school. And so to [watch that segment] and then for there to be this assumption or assertion that we've not done anything, that there have been no conversations? It's tough. In fact, their new principal, Bill Walsh, has been outstanding when we have had to talk about these issues. My first conversation with him was regarding a similar issue at a freshman football game. To that end, Mr. Walsh was kind enough to be my guest at the screening of episode four at the high school. He not only asked to join me, he asked to speak to the OPRF community about the strides they are making to evolve in areas of race and gender equity. And people then criticized me because they felt that he should have [made] an apology to our community — which, that wasn't what he was there to do.

One thing that struck me about the documentary is you would have employees from various parts of the school who seemed almost relieved that someone was finally letting them speak about the issues they've had regarding race. The black security guard speaking about how white parents speak to him, and how he feels like he has to smile even when he doesn't want to. The black cafeteria workers talking about being passed over for promotions, not being trusted to man the registers. There were sections of the school that were speaking to these harmful racial dynamics that have been going on for years. How do you feel watching those scenes?

It hurts. It’s painful to be a black leader in a school where black and brown staff openly discuss not feeling safe or welcome. But unfortunately, my reality mirrors theirs when I think about the illusion of power in my role as the principal. Everyone thinks that because I’m the principal I can just make people do what they are supposed to and when I make a decision it stands. That isn’t my reality. Again, I’m the black principal of a high-performing, predominately white public high school with resources. What do you think happens when those resources begin to shift toward equal opportunities and access and opportunities for marginalized students? What do you think happens when decisions are made that impact everyone, but are made to benefit those that are marginalized? From an organizational standpoint, our racial equity work is supposed to be about transforming our school culture to one that is racially and social-emotionally safe where all people feel and can be themselves and have their experiences validated. I need to find a way to make sure our racial equity work includes our support staff and provides opportunities for them to be heard and validated as well.

I wanted to ask about the basketball game [in episode five, tensions built up during a basketball game between OPRF and rival Fenwick at Chicago's UIC Pavilion, and it spills out into the streets afterward]. What happened there?

OPRF and Fenwick are rivals that I would say are very similar to Green Bay and Chicago: When their fans get together, you're gonna have an experience. And so we had worked with the students who are part of our Huskie Spirit Council to really promote positive decision-making and sportsmanship prior to the game. So clearly what you saw was none of those things. (Laughs.) And what's funny is how pissed we get when we hear Fenwick call us second-class citizens. For one time we're considered the have-nots, and it's fascinating how we play into that. I say all that to say that there's chanting going back and forth, it doesn't help that we lost, there were more of our kids than theirs, they just got really rowdy, right? Meanwhile, a student that was "over-served" needed to go to a local hospital, and that took away one of the two deans we had at the game, so we were administratively at a disadvantage when it came to crowd control. It was just clearly not our finest moment. So now the question is, "Why the hell then did you go up to the Leadership and Launch kids?" That's pretty simple. We were going into that space because some of those students we knew were part of the Spirit Council that was working with us. I mean we saw them banging on the doors, we saw them with their middle fingers up, we knew who those kids were. We wanted to hold the kids accountable and figure out what we were going to be able to do because the message that I got from the Chicago Police Department was basically, "You guys need to keep your butts out west and don’t ever come back to Chicago again." So a question from my perspective to consider is this: How does race play into the characterization of the black principal when he holds white students accountable for their actions for their behavior? How did those students respond? How did the teacher respond?

Do you feel if that had been a group of predominantly African-American OPRF students, the disciplinary actions would have been more severe? Do you feel pressure coming from the dominant culture, the white parents, to treat these situations differently?

Absolutely. I am confident had this been a bunch of students of color, the police and pavilion staff would have been less patient in their efforts to maintain order. Are there double standards in how discipline is viewed from the dominant culture in my community? Yes. I can give you an example. Going back to the spring or 2012, we had an incident [at a dance] where there was a party bus. So what happens is about nine o'clock we see about 20 to 30 [white] students beeline out of the dance. And those dances are held at the school. So we go to the party bus and the driver basically tells the dean, "I'm not driving anywhere until you search this bus." Well [the dean] goes on the bus and he finds bottles of alcohol. So [students are] leaving the dance, getting on a party bus in front of the school, and there is alcohol. So we issued disciplinary consequences. Parents were furious, including some members of the board at the time. Our consequences were deemed too punitive, and the end result was a revamping of our code of conduct that moved every disciplinary consequence to the lowest threshold the following year. I can’t help wonder if we would have been considered harsh if the students on the party bus were black. We then began an exploration of the concern for students that had to identify that they had been suspended from school and how that potentially impacts college opportunities. Really?

Getting more into the disparities in discipline between black and white students, having been there as long as you have, what's your sense, what's the source of this issue?

Systemic disparities, lack of relationships, unintended biases. You could say intended or unintended biases. And when you have a system that is not keenly aware of the permeance of racial disparities, when the system has nothing in place to challenge those racial disparities, the system will do what it was intended to do.

It would seem to me there could be interventions in this system after the fact, if you recognize the systemic issues that are causing the disparities?

We have spent too much time trying to fix the kids versus fixing the system. So ways we are trying to fix the system relative to discipline is attempting to change our overall climate and culture, having more conversations and implementation of restorative justice practices in an effort to become less punitive. We are in the process of recommending a racial equity policy that forces our system to identify race as a systemic inhibitor and find ways that we can address that by eliminating the patterns and themes that we see in our discipline system. So can we then have conversations collectively about changing the mindsets of the adults where we focus more on relationship-building with students versus what they’re doing wrong, on the type of learning communities being set up by teachers. Students learn more when there is context or when they are connected to what they are learning. There have been too many years where the educational experience is not connected for students of color because they don't see themselves or their culture in the curriculum. So what happens if teachers are required to have culturally relevant pedagogy? What happens when you're making sure that the demographics of your class are represented and are spoken to as you teach so that you can draw those students into those lessons? Engagement and success!

What do you think the effects of this documentary are going to be on the community or, if you want to take it to the national conversation, and what do you hope that the effects of the documentary will be?

We have declared that this is a turning point for us. If change does not come from this, I believe that we have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. We have been struggling for decades to deal with racial equity and our disparities. So we didn't just start this or start making recommendations because we have a documentary coming out. But what the docuseries has done is really put us in the national spotlight. And our goal is for our ongoing work on racial equity to actually serve as a national model. I think that our students are demanding racial equity. I mean, this is why we need to do it. They deserve it.

Have you noticed an increased voice from the students as this has started to roll out?

Sure. Well even before that. I mean I go back to the Black Lives Matter assembly [discussed in the first episode]. Why did I have a Black Lives Matter assembly? Because kids asked me to do it. And so they are advocating for racial equity, they are advocating for changes. Increased student voice resulted in a pretty drastic change in our dress code to eliminate gender bias and body shaming for the '18-'19 school year. Student voice demanded a deeper look into our policies and procedures that support gender equality, and the results are stronger protections for our non-gender-conforming students. Last year, students held three successful walkouts to protest school shootings and gun violence. So for me the urgency that I feel is coming from them.

This is the seventh in a series of interviews with educators featured in America to Me. THR previously spoke with teachers Jessica Stovall, Anthony Clark, Paul Noble, Aaron Podolner, teacher/head wrestling coach Paul Collins, and school board president Jackie Moore. Click here for an interview with director Steve James.