By Bob Skolnik
A new group has formed this summer to pressure Lyons Township High School to take strong steps to reduce the achievement gap in academic performance between white students and Black and Hispanic students at LTHS.
The group, called Belonging & Equity at LT, also wants to end racism at the high school, which serves the south half of Brookfield.
In response to a groundswell of pressure and concern about race and equity that seemed to accelerate after the killing of George Floyd this summer in Minneapolis, the LTHS District 204 Board of Education held a special meeting July 27 devoted to the issues of race and equity.
About 20 people attended the meeting in person and nearly 100 more watched the meeting online.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, eight people commented, mostly critically, about how LTHS treats minority students, saying students of color at LTHS often are viewed with low expectations and placed in lower-level classes than white students with similar grades and test scores.
Taikira Nix, of LaGrange, the mother of a 2020 graduate and a rising sophomore, told the school board that her recent graduate's self-esteem suffered at LTHS when the former Park Junior High honors student was placed in regular college prep classes. She said her daughter was told by some teachers that she should apply to attend the College of DuPage, a community college.
"I had to force my daughter, who was once a sunflower, to go away to college because someone here at LT continued to put in her face that she was not good enough to go to a four-year university," Nix said.
Her daughter will be attending the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall.
That story brought back memories for Michael Thomas, a Black LaGrange Park resident who is a member of the LaGrange-Brookfield Elementary School District 102 Board of Education.
Thomas, who graduated from LTHS in 1985, told the Landmark in a subsequent interview that when he was a senior at LTHS, a counselor told him he should apply to College of DuPage.
"I was told the same thing by counselors back in '85, to go to COD," Thomas told the Landmark. "I was not going to accept that. I eventually applied to about 10 universities and got into about seven universities, graduated from the University of Iowa and then went and graduated from University of Chicago Booth School of Business."
Thomas now works as a customer and marketing manager for Dart Container Corporation, where he manages the Solo Cup account at Walmart and Target. He has been involved in a district-sponsored effort to reduce racial disparities in District 102 called CEMA, which stands for Community Equity and Minority Achievement.
The achievement gap is wide at LTHS. Black students, who account for only 3.5 percent of LTHS' enrollment, badly trail their white classmates in test scores.
On the 2019 SAT, which was required of all public high school juniors in Illinois, only 13 percent of Black students at LTHS met state standards in English Language Arts and none apparently exceeded standards in ELA compared to 69 percent of white students and 45 percent of Hispanic students. About 20 percent of LTHS students are Hispanic. Forty-three percent of Black students were ranked in the lowest of the four classifications in ELA.
In math only 23 percent of Black students met expectations and apparently none exceeded expectations, while 73 percent of white students and 31 percent of Hispanic students met or exceeded expectations in math.
LTHS officials said that they have been working since 2014 to reduce achievement gaps and have reduced the levels of classes to three from five to try to boost equity.
"We are not satisfied where we and we do want to reduce these differences between different cohorts of students," said District 208 school board President Tom Cushing.
Thomas in his public comment told the school board they needed to focus on race.
"It is very alarming and scary that LTHS does not consider race/ethnicity prominently in its achievement gap work and only focuses on socioeconomic factors," Thomas said. "While socioeconomic factors should be considered, race/ethnicity should be part of your strategies to close the gap. There are many minority students who are not on free/reduced lunch that are being affected by the achievement gap at LT and are being overlooked."
Board member George Dougherty asked whether administrators should consider abolishing levels or tracking in its classes. LTHS now offers three levels of classes: college prep, accelerated and Honors/AP.
"We're trying to give more of an opportunity for students to come together," said Scott Eggerding, the director of curriculum and instruction at LTHS.
Eggerding said he doesn't think eliminating all levels of classes is the right approach.
"It's something that we've thought about a great deal," Eggerding said. "I don't think we're going to get the result we want if we just abandon levels."
LTHS Superintendent Tim Kilrea acknowledged that minority students are underrepresented in advanced classes.
"We have not had equal numbers at the higher course levels," Kilrea said.
Cushing said school board members are reading a book about promoting equity, "Belonging through a Culture of Dignity: The Keys to a Successful Equity Implementation" by Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple, and plan to have a retreat with Cobb when he can travel. Right now Cobb doesn't want to leave Colorado because of quarantine requirements for those who travel out of state.
Kilrea and board members thanked those at the meeting for speaking up and said that they are committed to addressing issues of race of equity.
"We know we have work to do," Cushing said.
He said that the meeting was just the beginning of discussions on the subject.
"This is an initial conversation tonight. This is not a one-time-only conversation about equity at LT," Cushing said. "Everyone on this board is passionate about this topic."