Equity has been a major focus at Lyons Township High School this year, with the school board and administration making it a top priority. They want to reduce the gap in test scores and academic performance between Black, Latinx and white students and to make LTHS a more welcoming place for all students.

At the Nov. 15 school board meeting administrators spent nearly an hour delivering reports about the multifaceted approach the school in taking to the issue. They discussed the issues at even greater length during a four-hour long committee of the whole meeting of the school board on Nov. 8.

Jennifer Rowe, director of equity and belonging at LTHS, addresses the school board during a presentation on Nov. 15 where she laid out efforts under way to address address inequities and make the school a more inclusive place. | Courtesy LTHS

Leading the effort at LTHS this year is Jennifer Rowe, who was hired to be the first director of equity and belonging at the school. As a sign of how important the position is, Rowe reports directly to Superintendent Brian Waterman.

As measured by test scores, the achievement gap among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is wide at LTHS. White students in the Class of 2022 scored, on average, 270 points higher than their Black classmates. 

The average SAT composite score for white students in the Class of 2022 was 1,134 compared to an average score of only 864 for the 24 Black students in the Class of 2022 who took the SAT. Hispanic students had an average score of 972.

“Our African-American students were in the lowest-performing tier,” Rowe told the Landmark during a telephone interview.

Racial and ethnic disparities are also wide in Advanced Placement courses at LTHS with a much higher percentage of white and Asian students taking AP classes and scoring well on AP exams than Black and Latinx students. 

Last year 54.5 percent of white students at LTHS passed an AP Exam compared to 37.7 percent of Hispanic students and 28.6 percent of Black students.

Administrators are trying to place more Black and Latinx students into AP courses and other challenging classes. Waterman said that starts with putting freshmen into the most challenging courses possible. He said the school would look to teacher recommendations and not just test scores in determining where to place students.

“We know we can do better,” said Waterman at the Nov. 15 school board meeting.

Rowe, who had been the director of educational equity at Indian Prairie District 204, until she started at LTHS on Sept. 1, has spent her first three months on the job learning about LTHS and focusing on promoting a culture of equity and inclusion. 

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Rowe said. “People have been very thoughtful and kind.”

She has focused on teacher professional development. Rowe, who began her career as an English teacher, is leading teachers in book groups focusing on two that focus on teaching students of color: “Teaching for Black Lives” and “Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community.”

“It’s building relationships with colleagues so that they can use you as a resource,” Rowe said.

Rowe’s work reaches into all facets of the school. She works with teachers, administrators, students and community members.

“I touch on everything in this work,” Rowe said. 

LTHS has started a student equity and belonging committee in which students meet before or after school to work on ways to make all students feel welcome and build connections among them. Thus far about 25 students have participated.

“They want to create opportunities for kids to connect, have conversations and learn about each other,” Rowe said.

Twenty LTHS students participated in workshops over the summer and are continuing to be trained and encouraged during the school year to become leaders and facilitators. They will meet later this week for two days of workshops about equity and belonging. The goal is to turn these students into ambassadors who will work with other students to promote equity and belonging.

“The kids want to hear from themselves. They don’t need adults always to lead everything,” Rowe said. “We can train them to help participate and be the leaders in that work.”

Rowe has also been mentoring students. She has lunch weekly with two small groups of students at South Campus. Over lunch she works with them on academic goal setting, social and emotional support and fostering a validating and supportive space.

Rowe is trying to encourage LTHS to look to hire more teachers of color and trying to encourage more teacher candidates of color to apply to teach at LTHS. Currently Rowe said that LTHS has only two Black teachers, one Black assistant principal and one Black social worker.

“Our teaching staff does not represent the children that are coming into our school,” Rowe said.

She wants teachers of color to know that LTHS wants to hire them. 

“If people don’t think you will hire them, they never apply,” Rowe said.

On Dec. 15, LTHS will host an open house for those just entering the teaching profession and are seeking jobs. Last week Rowe and HR Director Edward Piotrowski went on a recruiting trip to Aurora University in an attempt to seek out applicants and diversify the LTHS faculty.

There’s also outreach to the wider community. On Dec. 10 from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., Rowe is hosting a family coffee event in the South Campus library. According to an invitation sent to the Landmark, the event seeks to bring stakeholders together, make connections with others in the community, share information about resources the school provides to support Black children and other underrepresented groups. Rowe will also share information about opportunities for community involvement and next steps.

Rowe is reaching out to Latinx students, who now make up 22.5 percent of all LTHS students. About 3 percent of LTHS students are Black, and about 2 percent are Asian while white students make up 69.6 percent of the student body.

Rowe said that too often the achievement gap is looked at as binary Black-white thing.

“It’s not race. It’s how we are providing the most opportunities in all places and spaces for our kids, staff and families,” Rowe said.

She said that often too much of the focus in placed on students who are not performing well instead of focusing on a school that is not serving them well.

“We have to make those changes and not focus on the student, but maybe on this institution,” Rowe said.

Most of those who work on closing the long standing and widespread achievement gap acknowledge that the causes of the achievement gap are many and not easily solved.

“There isn’t one answer,” Waterman said. “It’s complex.”