African-centered pilot program might displace students at Oakton Elementary

Nomaan Merchant

For years children living in southeast Evanston have received their education at Oakton Elementary School, but a new proposal might force general education students to take the bus elsewhere.

Oakton, 436 Ridge Ave., is a possible site for Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s proposed pilot program installing an African-centered curriculum in kindergarten through second grade classes.

District administrators recently discussed phasing out general education at Oakton to accommodate the proposed pilot curriculum starting in September. If the change takes place, students at Oakton will choose between the pilot program or the district’s Two-Way Immersion program, which places native English and native Spanish speakers in one classroom and provides instruction in both languages.

Because both programs would remain open to all students district-wide, Oakton would become a magnet school. Parents living in Oakton’s attendance area wishing to enroll their students in general education would have to send their children to the nearest school.

For years, black students have scored lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts. In 2005, just over half of black students met state reading standards, compared to almost 94 percent of white students. Black students performed slightly better in math, with about 61 percent meeting standards, but still scored below white students.

Candace Hill, the president of Oakton’s PTA and a parent at the school for 10 years, said the continuing gap between test scores of black and white students shows “it’s pretty obvious that what we have done is not working.”

A committee created by District 65 in September 2005 to address the gap recommended the African-centered curriculum as a way of drawing the interest of black students and helping them apply concepts in class to their lives.

Students would take content classes geared towards the achievements of black artists, politicians and scientists.

But eliminating general education to make room for the pilot hurts Oakton’s environment, community members say.

Oakton principal Q.T. Carter said he opposes any model that would move general education to another school.

“It’s always been a neighborhood school,” Carter said. “Ninety percent of this population can walk to school.”

Another parent, Crystal Powell, whose two children have both attended Oakton, said the school should maintain general education so that it remains a community school.

“Every school is a community school,” Powell said. “In order to keep the school a community school, you have to have a general education strand.”

Oakton doesn’t need general education as long as a nearby school exists that offers it, Hill said, even if students must take the bus to school, provided students “have a wide variety of options.”

Administrators suggested making Oakton a strictly TWI and African-centered school so that the school doesn’t offer three different curriculums under one roof. Some Oakton parents have complained that TWI, introduced at the school two years ago, divides students.

Carter dismissed the claim as the isolated complaints of some white general education parents and said the school can handle all three strands.

“It’s the parents that have a problem,” Carter said. “It is not a concern for the kids or the teachers.”

Regardless of the curriculum, Carter said parents need to take a strong role in their children’s education for students to succeed.

“A lot of our families are very responsive in making sure that their curriculum fits their children’s needs,” Carter said. “(White children) sit in the same classroom as black kids, but there’s still that gap.”

Oakton will hold a community forum Thursday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the pilot program. The district school board will hold a special meeting to discuss the placement of TWI and the pilot program on Mar. 6.

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]