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It’s not that Paul Noble has seen it all in his 30-plus years as an English teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School so much as he’s seen the same things over and over.
Noble, one of the educators featured in Steve James’ documentary about the academic achievement gap between black and white students at the Chicago-area school, started at OPRF in 1987, which makes him one of the longest-tenured teachers in the building. (Two of the 12 students James and his segment directors followed throughout the 2015-16 academic year, Kendale McCoy and Terrence Moore, were in Noble’s classes.) He recalls “intense” discussions about race and differences in academic outcomes were already happening when he arrived. Oak Park had only passed its fair housing ordinance in 1968, and what had been an almost completely white suburb in 1970 was only about 80 percent white two decades later. (The 1990 Census puts the percentage of black Oak Park residents at 17.7. By 2010 it was 21.7 percent.)
However, three more decades on and the achievement gap remains. Now the preferred term is “opportunity gap,” but it’s hard not to note the irony that the most significant progress the school has made on the issue is one of nomenclature.
It’s a point of frustration Noble returns to several times over the course of our conversation. And indeed, Steven Isoye, the superintendent during filming (though he, along with principal Nathaniel Rouse, refused to be interview by James et al., Isoye does appear in the doc at various public events where he was unable to prevent the crew from filming), has since moved on, replaced by Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams in December 2016. And while Noble says he has “a lot of confidence” in Pruitt-Adams, “When you’ve been here for a long time you’ve seen the cycle, and I have no reason to think the cycle is gonna be different this time.”
Ahead of the fourth episode, Noble sat down with THR to discuss his experience with equity work at the school, why the administration needs to trust teachers, and the best thing OPRF could do to effect cultural change.
So you’re the longest tenured of the teachers that participated, right?
Yeah, there’s probably only two or three teachers in the building who’ve been there longer than I have, which is crazy. I still feel like my 25-year-old self, but I’m not.
What do you recall about the environment at that time you arrived at the school as far as any discussion about race?
I think starting in about 1970 the percentage of African-American students in the building went up about 1 percent a year over the next 20 years. It started to plateau in like ’92 or ’93. So it was about the time I got there that they actually started to talk in pretty intense ways about race. I can’t remember when the term “achievement gap” was introduced — a term that now, of course, is controversial — but I want to say it was around that time. I remember serving on the first committee there to deal with what was probably then called the achievement gap. They brought in some outside people to talk to us about all kinds of things, including not making assumptions about differences when [communicating with students], which, I mean, that’s essentially what the documentary deals with: people making stereotypical assumptions about how kids want to be treated, and other people who are trying to recognize difference without imposing stereotypes.
So the term “achievement gap,” which is used in the doc, now people are pushing back against it. Now I’m hearing terms like “opportunity gap.”
“Opportunity gap” is probably a more appropriate term, the more socially acceptable term. Because “achievement gap” seems to put the onus on the achiever: They’re the one who’s not achieving. And the opportunity gap puts the onus on those providing opportunities, the people in power. So that seems to me to make sense. But the thing about the high school is that administrators come and go, but teachers stay for a long time. I’ve been there 31 years, and I don’t know what the average tenure of a teacher is, but the vast majority of teachers through the mid-’90s had been there forever, and the culture is essentially created by the people who have the most power. And in any school, the people in classrooms have the most control. But in terms of programmatic change, the problem with bringing in a new superintendent — even a new board — is it’s like a presidency: Those people tend to want to wipe the slate clean and start their own programs, make their own mark. So during the time that I’ve been there I can’t tell you the number of programs that faculty felt were successful, that were proactive, that were then dismantled because some administrator would say, “Well, the numbers on this, this year, weren’t very good.” In fact, one of the things I raise in [the documentary is] “clustering,” how they used to cluster African-American kids in honors classes so they weren’t isolated. That program was discontinued when one year an administrator came out with a study that said those kids didn’t do better. And I don’t know how thorough his study was — it didn’t seem very longitudinal to me — but all of a sudden that program, which had all kinds of anecdotal evidence from teachers about just the basic comfort level of students in their classrooms, it just got dismantled. But again, you have that same problem over and over. Programmatic changes come and go because somebody is trying to put their mark on the school, and people don’t go to the faculty and say, “Which one of these is working?” So that’s just an essential problem in any kind of organization like this, I think: that the administrators just have no institutional memory. So they’ll come in and go, “We’re gonna try this” and teachers roll their eyes and go, “We tried that 12 years ago for two years and we decided it wasn’t working so we discontinued it.”
I was wondering whether now with Dr. Jackie Moore (who is featured in the doc) at the head of the school board, and new superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, have you seen any movement? Dr. Moore seemed to be a big advocate of the documentary and [Jess Stovall’s program, Woven]. The consensus seems to be, not yet. I don’t know if you want to comment on current administration.
Here’s the thing. I will say that under Steve Isoye the administration was as weak as any time in my 30 years. Not just him. Most of them. Poor leadership, lots of incompetence in certain offices, repeated mistakes being made, failures of communication, failures of hierarchy, people shifting blame. And while I think Dr. Pruitt-Adams is thoughtful and has the interests of students at heart, I think she essentially came here out of a huge district in St. Louis and again I think it was just — there’s a culture shock when you come here. It’s a pretty intense place, and so just now is she feeling like, “All right, I’m gonna take control.” And so again it’s that repetitive cycle. Now we’re in that place where she’s gonna step up and say, “Here’s what we’re gonna do,” and that program is either gonna work or not work, and because she is close to retirement, who knows how long she’ll be here, and then we’ll be back to ground zero. I have a lot of confidence in her. I think she has been competent in a lot of respects. But when you’ve been here for a long time you’ve seen the cycle, and I have no reason to think the cycle is gonna be different this time. You’d have to be a superintendent here for a long time to carry through some really effective programs to be studied longitudinally if you want to solve a persistent problem. I know people dismiss this issue by saying everyone has it: “Oak Park is not the only school that has these problems.” But if we’re going to tackle it, we have to tackle it long-term. We have to stop abandoning programs that may not have immediate results. We have to trust — I would say trust teachers — if the initial evidence is anecdotal and not data.
Can you recall a time in your history where the administration was really strong on this issue, or a time where you were the most hopeful?
This is ironic, but I’m gonna say it was most hopeful at the beginning, because people, while they were kinda clueless and had rudimentary racial sensitivities and awareness, there was so much earnestness at the time, so much eagerness. And the first few times we butted up against difficulty or a sense of failure either in circumstance or among people, it was just like, “OK, well we just gotta try another tack.” And we’d try another tack. But the problem is, over time, when you get that cyclical rotation of a new superintendent, a period of negotiation, awakening to the culture — which is, essentially, a stall period — and then programmatic things thrust out and tested over too short a period of time, and then retracted, and new things thrown out — everyone focused on activity rather than serious, thoughtful, long-term change — well, activity tends to pass for effort.
Right. The George Costanza approach.
And that recurring cycle tends to lend itself to frustration among the long-term people there. And so your faculty members who aren’t particularly racially conscious kinda roll their eyes now ’cause they’re like, “We’ve been doing this forever and it’s always the same and everybody’s got a new plan and none of it works!” So those people are dismissive. And people who are really engaged and active and have their heads and hearts in the right place become exasperated because programs they thought were effective and working well are dismissed. So no matter which end of the spectrum you’re on, you become exasperated. But it doesn’t mean you quit. There are lots of people in the building who are really invested in this — I know the rhetoric is that if you didn’t agree to be on camera that you had something to hide. I don’t actually support that —
Is that what you’re hearing? About teachers?
I think the administrators are different, frankly. I get why teachers want to protect themselves — they’re worried they could slip up once and ruin their reputation on national television. I’m sure the principal [Nathaniel Rouse] was worried about the same, but I feel like he had a responsibility to step up. And even if he had to take his time with the questions, or get them ahead of time — which I think Steve [James] agreed to do in one of his offers — he just abdicated. The problem is that people who lead the race work in the building have just dismissed the whole project as run by a racially dys-conscious white guy, and they’re like, “Why would we trust him? Why are we putting our kids on the spot? This is just gonna aggravate our race problem.” And so they had this line of rhetoric that he, that the white man, Steve James, is not to be trusted. “So of course I didn’t agree to be interviewed” — that’s Nate’s logic. But Nate did have stuff to hide. He has instituted little programmatic change in his tenure there and is never in classrooms. Now he’s feeling defensive, but he just hasn’t done all he could. So the school is basically talking out of both sides of its mouth, saying [publicly], “This [series] has been great for the school.” But behind closed doors they’re like, “Steve James has opened the wound and things are worse now, and people don’t really understand all the work we’ve been doing, and this work is hard …”
When I talked to Jess she was saying that the climate for English teachers now has gotten a little bit more contentious.
That has not been my experience, that there’s more Trump-inspired racial discord from parents. I feel like it’s hard for me to say because, again, I’m a white male and I’ve been there forever, so people probably challenge me less than they challenge other people. There’s always been some spotty conservatism in the village. Like, that cannot surprise you. When the high school adapted its anti-discrimination policy to include gays 30 years ago, there were 1,500 people in the auditorium talking about the dangers of homosexuality and how David was gonna be going to prom with James, and did we really want a school like that? So there has always been that strain in the village, no matter what anybody says. “The People’s Republic of Oak Park” may be eight out of 10 houses on the block, but the two fuckin’ houses on the block that go the other direction are hard-core.
So now that we’re through a few episodes, what type of feedback have you been receiving?
Most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive, but I think you realize that once you’ve put yourself into the public square, you’re just open to whatever. Right after the first two episodes aired here in town, I got an angry email from a former student I had for a very short period of time at the beginning of the semester a couple years ago, who was late six out of the first eight classes, and she was like, “I can’t believe you have the nerve to put yourself forward as someone who cares about students of color; it’s just a lie.” It goes to show you that, one, not every kid has the experience that Kendale had in my class. And you just have to recognize you can’t be the best teacher for every kid. And two, I would say it’s been positive, but I can’t take all that to heart. I don’t feel like any kinda hero, ’cause there were things they shot in my room where I was like, “That didn’t go very well. I hope they don’t put that in the documentary!” I feel like in some ways I get lionized by the documentary. And I feel like I’m a good teacher, but not every day, or with every kid …
What effect do you hope the documentary will have?
What I really think the district needs to do is recognize that an institution like this is basically teachers, and that’s no offense to anybody else, but it’s teachers and counselors and security and social workers and people that are gonna be there for 30 years. ‘Cause every time you hire someone and tenure them, that person is gonna have contact with, I don’t know, between 3,000 and 5,000 kids over the course of their career. So hiring really matters. And I think the district needs to put more money and more energy into recruitment, and not just what we do now where we take the applications we get — and we get a ton of them because it’s a good school — and go, “Well, we’ve got all these applications, there must be somebody good in there!” I think the school should pay somebody to do recruitment, even if that’s not de rigueur in high schools. That person should travel to all the best education programs in the country, and they should be talking to professors, saying, “Who is the best person of color you have right now? Who are the white people who you think really care about equity?” and sit down with those people and talk to them about Oak Park and tell ’em to come. Because the best thing you can do to change the culture at Oak Park, to make it the school we all want, is to have more people in front of kids who actually care about these issues and don’t just pay lip service to them. And the district has plenty of money in the bank. They could pay somebody to do this full-time. It should be a person of color. And if the person is not great in the first two years they should hire somebody else until they get someone that’s super-reliable in bringing the right people into the building. Like I said, those administrators and school boards come and go. But you tenure a teacher in that school and you have just changed that culture for the next 30 years by 1 percent, or half a percent. And for every 10 teachers you hire, it’s 5 percent — so you have to be serious about it. And I think in a way, you can see that in the documentary. ‘Cause the success stories are individuals working with individuals.
America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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