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Dr. Jackie Moore is ready to get going.
In 2015, the Oak Park and River Forest High School board secretary (she has since been re-elected to a second four-year term and now serves as board president) and her colleagues voted 6-1, over the objections of the principal and superintendent, to give Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) permission to film his docuseries America to Me — which follows 12 students through an academic year at the diverse, affluent Chicago-area high school as a means to examine the gap in academic achievement between black and white students that has persisted for decades.
Moore, who has lived in Oak Park for 23 years, and whose four children all went to OPRF, decided to run for a board seat after serving on various committees and watching families “get lost” trying to navigate the school’s bureaucracy. “[I had] my own challenges at times with navigating the system, and I felt like, ‘If I’m having this hard of a time advocating for my children, what must it be like for someone that doesn’t know what questions to ask?'” she says.
In the documentary, Moore — who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and whose work focuses on helping families navigate issues surrounding their children’s development and academic performance — emerges as a supporter of English teacher Jessica Stovall’s attempts to get her teacher-feedback program, WOVEN, off the ground at OPRF. Stovall presented the system — aimed at eliminating racial predictability in academic achievement, and which she developed during a year spent in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship (schools on the island nation are dealing with their own achievement gap, between the island’s white and indigenous Maori students) — to the board during the 2015-16 school year America to Me was filming, and Moore was immediately impressed. “I’m kind of looking around the room like, did everybody just hear what I heard?” she says. “This is the kind of work that we want to do. It’s data-driven, it’s evidence-based, it is by someone that is committed to our students and to our school. Let’s go!” But despite Moore’s support, and despite Stovall having gotten approval to pilot WOVEN at another Chicago school, magnet Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, OPRF never approved it. (Stovall has since left Oak Park and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Race, Inequality and Language in Education at Stanford University.)
In addition to her professional practice and her work on the board, Moore is the co-founder of Oak Park-based nonprofit E-Team, whose initiatives include student mentoring and tutoring, workshops on how to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences, and forums on implicit bias and restorative justice.
Last week Moore sat down with THR to discuss to board’s decision to overrule administrators, the community reactions to the doc, and what she thinks OPRF needs to do to eliminate the disparities in racial achievement.
Can you talk about the origins of this project from the perspective of the school board? What’s the story behind the vote to allow Steve and his crew to film at the school?
So [when it first] came to the board for the presentation by Steve, there were a lot of questions about what his plan was and how he was looking at issues of equity. And I was fairly vocal on this point, that if his goal was to look solely at the achievement gap, that was not something that sat right with us because we were looking at disparities in achievement and discipline and even extracurriculars, but not from the purview of placing that onus on our students of color. And he did his homework and talked with a lot of people in the community, even looked through old reports to get a sense of what we were talking about, and reformulated in a way that was compelling because it did speak to his desire to talk about things that we had talked about as a board that, in such a resource-rich community, why do we have inequities in achievement and access to resources? And so the board, during the meeting [we planned to vote on whether to allow Steve to film in the school], we had public comments. And of course there was a large contingent of people that came out to support it, and [another] to say it’s a horrible idea. And there was a statement read by our assistant superintendent of curriculum at the time [saying the administration was] against the documentary. But 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” — that was the position we took.
One of your first times on camera you had this quote: “If you’re feeling as though you can’t be honest or you’re afraid to say what you’re feeling because there’s a camera there and you’re talking about race, what camera’s in your head when you’re going through your day?” That struck me. I recall watching alone in my living room nodding vigorously to myself. The one thing I wanted to ask about is in the context of the episode, it seemed like that was directed at the administrators who’d refused to participate, as opposed to a general observation.
Well, it’s both. It did have to do with some of the concerns that were expressed by the administration that had to do with the fear of, “What if something happens, then [we look] horrible?” And I did hear from some individuals that, you know, not wanting to say the wrong thing or say something that could be misconstrued. And these were predominantly white people, both within the building and in the community. And I think that was one of the issues. I think Steve was more surprised than I was that he was having such a hard time recruiting white families. And it is that concern. It’s like, “I don’t want my kid to be in a situation where they say something and then it’s taken out of context and then they are viewed as being racist.” And so for me it was, in a community that talks about championing equity and diversity, we’re the people that have to be able to talk about this, and it’s not an issue that is only for people of color. And it can’t be a passive process for white people in our community — it has to be something that you’re willing to engage on. If we are saying “We’re doing this work” and yet we continue to have issues where our students of color talk about not feeling welcome in certain classes or that the school isn’t for them, or we have teachers of color that have the same feelings at times, or we have teachers that feel like there are things they want to try but if it’s not within a certain scope then there’s caution. It’s like, we can’t live, we can’t run a school with fear as our guide.
What you said about teachers of color feeling they have to be cautious, which, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Jessica Stovall and WOVEN. How it appears is that she just sort of ran up against a stereotypical bureaucratic morass where she wasn’t one of the people authorized to be doing equity work and that was that. I was curious for your perspective on what happened.
My first real encounter or meeting Jess was at an Instruction Committee meeting where she was presenting her sabbatical. And my background as a developmental psychologist that has done primarily action-based research was, I was thrilled. Here was exactly the kind of case study exemplifying why the school [allows] sabbaticals. Someone wrote a compelling application, the sabbatical was approved, they were away for a year, they came back, and now they were ready to put the learning that had gone on while they were away in practice at the school. So I think it was even in the documentary where she says [after she presents WOVEN to the board], “I’m trying to get this program off the ground. Any help that anyone can give me or suggest how I do that … ” and then [I’m] kind of looking around the room like, did everybody just hear what I heard? This is the kind of work that we want to do. It’s data-driven, it’s evidence-based, it is by someone that is committed to our students and to our school. Let’s go! And I think that was one of my first real encounters with what a bureaucracy our school can be. And we had a board committee that was working on those things, and it was frustrating because it did come up against issues of, “Well, it has to go through this process,” “This is not how this works” and then it would be, “OK, we’re gonna do it,” and then it was “… later.” I felt like kind of this lone wolf in a lot of ways. It’s like, “Well, maybe no one else is as interested in seeing this happen.” And now granted, that was three years ago — different board configuration, different administration — but that was the feeling. And I still can’t tell you that I have a clear understanding of [what happened]. (Laughs.) There are times when system change is hard, and the comfort of the known is what people are willing to move with, and I felt that was what was going on three years ago: that it was not about change if it was not going through the accepted approach process and channels. And that goes back to the “caution” piece. Yes, change does take time, but we have to start. And if we’re living in a culture that is so cautious that it doesn’t want to upset anybody or makes it feel as though every single thing has to be considered and reconsidered, we’re never gonna get to change. And when I made the statement about “What kind of camera are you carrying around in your head?” — I’m bringing this full circle — it was about courage. The courage of, if we are under the conviction that the racial equity work that we need to do includes things like restorative practices, includes looking at our minority hiring, looking at implicit bias and having training and discussions about race that are more encompassing of our community — not just our teachers but all of our community — that there are gonna be those that resist. So we have to be ready.
You mentioned minority hiring, which is something I’ve heard stressed by a lot of people — like how OPRF talks about it every year but then, there’s even a part in the doc I think where the camera slowly pans over a bunch of headshots of new teachers and they’re overwhelmingly white — and how there’s data that show what kind of an effect it can have on students of color where there’s a more diverse faculty. What role does the board play in that?
If you look at any national statistics, at every level there is a paucity of black teachers — particularly at the high-school level. And for our community, it’s like, wait a minute. Don’t tell me this isn’t a destination place, because our retention rate is 97 percent or something like that. So it was a board goal last year to increase minority hiring, and we charged the superintendent and her administration, “What are gonna be the procedures that look at bias in interviewing?” I have this New York Times comic, and it’s a line of white men sitting at a table and in front of them is a woman being interviewed, and the quote was something like, “So tell us what you think you’d bring to our organization.” (Laughs.) And that’s what it is. If you are compelled to look and say, “Oh, this person went to Notre Dame, I went to Notre Dame!” and without even realizing it you’re already picking affinity and not necessarily who may be the best person for the job. So there has been a lot of training around those issues. And I wanted to back up to one thing that you were saying about the hiring minority teachers and the need for that for our students of color: It’s for all our students. All of our students need to see teachers of color as role models, as people who are experts, as confidants, as people that are shepherding their education.
I’m going over the teachers I had and I don’t think I had a single teacher who was a minority in any of my classes at OPRF. It’s the first time I’m realizing that.
Yeah. For a lot of people it’s not until college that they have an instructor of color. The recruitment part is huge but it’s also the retention part. Because another part of our policy is doing exit interviews. And when we have teachers leave — why? What happened? And sometimes it’ll be things like “My partner is relocating” or “I have decided to go into a different field.” And a lot of times it’s “This was not a good fit for me and here’s why.” And if those reasons include feeling the same way some of our students have talked about feeling — that it’s not a welcoming environment, I didn’t feel like I was part of a team, I didn’t feel that my leadership skills were being honed, that I wasn’t being mentored — all of those things are important for our teachers as well. We want them to have that same feeling of “This is your school.”
At the beginning I was asking people “What impact do you hope the doc will have on the community?” But now we’re at nine episodes out of 10. So I guess I’ll ask, what type of response have you been seeing in the community to what’s rolled out so far?
It’s been interesting because one of the things that I am working hard to ensure from a board perspective — but also just as a member of this community — is that the momentum and the energy that has happened around this documentary [is maintained]. And the conversations that I’m hearing are different. [From] former students I’ve heard, “I haven’t heard or seen anything that surprised me,” or they have brought up [their] similar experiences that they see [reflected] with certain individuals in the documentary. And then there’s another group that is just, “This is not Oak Park,” you know? “Where are the high-achieving black students? Where are the white students that are representative of my family?” Things like that. And their absence is actually a point of discussion because there are reasons — the same reason that it was hard to find white families, it was hard to find black families that fit the mold of middle-income or higher-middle-income, two-parent families with kids taking all AP and honors willing to participate. And of course they exist at our school, but there are reasons that they chose not to participate as well. We have to talk about that. But the other piece is the fear. I think it comes back to how our town is going to be represented and not wanting it to be vilified as this racist place when we’ve worked so hard to talk about issues of equity. And the thing that I always come back to when people say, “Well, that’s not the experience that my child is having” or “My experience was great,” I always say, “Well that’s what we want for all our kids,” that they have a great experience — however that is defined for them. And it is going to be different for each individual. So can we bond over that as a goal, as opposed to trying to say that it’s not fair to show these students because they don’t represent Oak Park? Of course they do; they live here. And they’re the voices that we rarely get to hear.
This is the sixth 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 and teacher/head wrestling coach Paul Collins. Click here for an interview with director Steve James.
America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
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