'America to Me': Meet OPRF Teacher Jess Stovall

Courtesy of Starz
Jess Stovall meets with student Ke'Shawn Kumsa in her classroom.

Stovall's English class features prominently in Starz's new Steve James docuseries that follows 12 racially diverse students through a year at an elite Chicago-area public school.

[This story contains spoilers from the Aug. 26 premiere episode of Starz's America to Me, "What's the Big Deal About Oak Park?"]

Steve James' docuseries America to Me, which premiered Sunday night on Starz, is poised to thrust a suburban Chicago high school into the center of national conversations on race and equality.

James, whose previous work — including, notably, 2011's The Interrupters and 1994's Hoop Dreams, has wrestled with these topics — chose this time to train his cameras on 12 students over the course of the 2015-16 academic year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb that borders Chicago's West Side. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Oak Park and attended OPRF.)

OPRF, the town's only public high school, is both extremely well-funded and racially diverse (the school's demographic makeup the year the doc was filmed: 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 6 percent multiracial). However, the school has struggled for decades to address the gap in educational achievement between its black and white students, a gap that, despite the efforts of its teachers, administrators and parents, has only widened in recent years.

The school's administration was against allowing James, who lives in Oak Park and whose children attended OPRF, to film in the school, but the school board voted 6-1 to allow the documentary to go forward. However, due to the administration's opposition (among other reasons), the majority of teachers opted not to participate. Among those who did agree to be filmed was English teacher Jessica Stovall, whose American Literature class includes two of the 12 students at the center of America to Me: juniors Ke'Shawn Kumsa, whom we meet in the first episode, and Diane Barrios-Smith, whose story comes into focus in the second half of the series.

Stovall, who is biracial, and grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, had never even visited Chicago before she came to work at OPRF in 2007 — her first teaching job out of college. "My perception of where I was moving to was so skewed due to some of the ignorance I had about Chicago," she recalls. "So I wish you could've seen my face when I rolled up to the school and I was like, 'It's the most beautiful place!'"

The year before James et al. came to the school to film, Stovall was living in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship. She chose New Zealand because the schools there are dealing with their own achievement gap, between the island's white and indigenous Maori students. The data she collected, and the conversations she engaged in there with students, teachers and government officials led her to develop a program called WOVEN, aimed at eliminating racial predictability in academic achievement.

In episode one, we only briefly meet Stovall and see her leading her class through some get-to-know-you exercises, but her classroom work and her struggle to get school administrators to allow her to implement or even speak with other teachers about her research both feature prominently in the series. "I had all these great ideas 'cause I was just coming back from a really transforming experience in my life, and then it was, like, a total disappointment," she says.

This year, Stovall begins another sabbatical, during which she'll be pursuing a Ph.D. in Race, Inequality and Language in Education at Stanford University. Stovall took a break from packing for the cross-country move to talk with THR about how she got involved with the series, how Trump has affected the discourse around race in the classroom, and what she hopes the doc's impact will be, both in Oak Park and nationally.

How did you get involved in the documentary? How did the fact that this documentary was trying to get made trickle down through the faculty and what were the discussions like?

I remember hearing about the idea of a documentary well before it came into fruition. I think my downstairs neighbor in Oak Park said, "Oh, you know Steve James would love to do a documentary about Oak Park." But it almost seemed like a myth that this documentary could ever be done. And then I talked with [doc producer and OPRF film and video teacher] John Condne, and he was [saying] that it was actually gonna go. And at that point, it was not at all a discussion of my involvement, it was just more that he knew that I cared about the topic. And I did actually go and speak at the school board meeting where they were taking public comment about the documentary. I wrote something for it and then advocated for the film publicly. So it was a weird year for me because I wasn't at school. So I wasn't involved in, like, lunch table conversations, so I can't give you that. But in general it was a fairly interesting split. There were people who were like, "We really care about this issue. Our actions matter more than our words. We've used a lot of words, it's time to actually get a really interesting outside perspective about what's going on in our building 'cause ultimately it helps our kids." And then there was a lot of concern about Steve James' racial consciousness and his ability to do a film about race. And there was also a lot of concern about making black kids look bad and embarrassing them through the process of making the film. So it would be making a film about race at the expense of harming black children in particular.

Did you see the complaints coming from critics of the film in a sincere way or was it more the administration that was against it for other reasons bringing up these concerns, like, crocodile tears, using black kids as their argument?

What I just recounted was the general teacher discussion. And I think there was some fear with having an administration that openly denounces the prospect of a film, there was some fear about, will there be consequences if you are part of a project like this. And we never got any sort of concrete thing from the school stating that we would not have consequences as a result of being in the film. So when we were involved as teachers, there was a lot of faith that we had to really say that these stories are really important and being a part of this is really important.

I was struck by how much about the school after 20 years is the same, but in my time we absolutely had nothing like the discussions about race and equity that you have in your classes, and I wish that we had. When you came into the school and decided to have these discussions with your students, how was it received at first by students, parents and administrators?

Well I think one of the things that makes Oak Park really fascinating is that it really prizes itself on autonomy and teachers. For example, in some schools, teachers have to turn in their lesson plans or even get lesson plans approved — there is none of that at Oak Park. As far as how does an administration react to these sorts of conversations that happen in the classroom, the reality is that they don't know that these were happening. The first time they saw it was probably the first time that you saw it! So unless you get a parental complaint, there really is no need for them to know what you're teaching in the class or how you're teaching in the class. Parents have always been really trusting of me and really supportive. But I do think, especially in this last year, there have been some societal shifts. For example, I've taught Native Son for several years now and have always been open about its content and encouraged parents to read it along with their students and have received really positive reactions from both students as well as parents both white and black who read it with their children. And then this year came along, virtually every book with a black author has been challenged. There is a parent group that gave a list of suggested required reading, and I don't remember if there was a person of color, author of color or even a character of color on the list, except for in Huck Finn maybe. And so it's definitely a different climate at Oak Park right now.

What do you attribute the change to? Obviously the political climate is more contentious. Donald Trump was on the radar when you guys were filming and all that. But now …

I think for the first time we've had really powerful leadership endorse really troubling thoughts about race and equity and vocalize those and start to normalize those. So when you’re hearing all over the news that, basically, black and brown voices are not acceptable in American society, and then your child comes across a book that features a black character, those two things don't seem congruent. Like I said, it was just one parent and it was horrible, but still I think it's a sign of a change that I had never seen before. And I think it's mostly just the gall of how awful — the blunt racism in those emails.

Oh, so you got emails from someone about Native Son, and it was the first time that you had —

Yes. I think it's the first overtly racial email. Whereas like as teachers, for example, I only teach college preparatory, the middle track, and so I'll get a white parent that will say that they decided to move their child up to the higher track because of the behavior of the students in class. And we know what students they're talking about. So I do think that the climate is changing. But I also feel like what I really like about the documentary is that it's easy for the average American to point at the overt racist stuff and say, "That's not right," but it's really difficult to discuss and really think about implicit bias and the institutionalized racism and some of these more subversive things that we know have been here all along, otherwise we wouldn’t have the more boisterous climate that we have right now. So I like that if this were clearly, like, people walking around and saying all this really crazy racist stuff you'd be like, "Oh gosh, it's terrible [at Oak Park]!" But the problem is you have a bunch of really well-meaning people who are trying really, really hard, and even with those good intentions aren't necessarily making the impact that they want to be making. And probably are sometimes ignorant to that. And so this really allows people to get at some of those more deep-seated biases.

What do you think the impact of this documentary is going to be in the community and nationally? And what do you hope it's going to be?

I definitely think that it's going to start conversations. I really think that because it's so driven by student voice and you just fall in love with them and really root for them and want them to be OK, and I just think that vantage point of having really important conversations around these students that you have grown to care about is going to be really influential. These are not numbers; it's not flashing all these statistics across the screen. It's real people and their real lives. And what I hope is that that is not enough for people just to have those conversations. I genuinely want people to take action. I want people to examine what's going on in their communities, recognizing that the film is just a microcosm of the United States and that they sort of see themselves and their communities reflected in what Oak Park is dealing with. And that they're gonna start figuring out what they can do to make change, really examining who has agency in those communities and who does not, who maybe needs to have agency to be able to help make change and really, like, where are we spending our money and our time and our breath on and does that measure what we say that our beliefs are? And I just really want people to start putting pressure on their communities to do better, as well as in their states and federal governments to do better. So that's kind of what I'm hopeful for.

America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.