Issues of race and equality have engulfed the country in a national conversation. On Wednesday, Sept. 27, the discussion came to O’Fallon — specifically, how ethnicity relates to education at O’Fallon Township High School.
Bishop Geoffrey Dudley, founder and pastor of New Life In Christ Church, sponsored a town hall meeting at this church, located at 689 Scott-Troy Road in O’Fallon, with Darcy Benway, O’Fallon Township High School District 203 superintendent, and Martha Weld, assistant superintendent.
Dudley said the idea behind the town hall was to come up with solutions by allowing people to talk out their problems.
“We are talking at each other, not with each other, as if we have different objectives in life,” he said.
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The open question-and-answer forum allowed parents of OTHS students and community members a chance to discuss the main issues around race and education with school officials.
“Education is critical to everyone’s success, especially in the African American community,” Dudley said.
Other local government officials, like Herb Roach, O’Fallon mayor, school administrative staff and school board members were also in attendance.
“We’ve talked about a lot of these issues already. So it’s not new for us, but this is good to let more people chime in on the conversation, because it’s (with) fresh eyes that we see new solutions,” said School Board member Brandt House, who is also a NLICC member.
Getting more diversity among the staff at OTHS and closing the achievement gap for minority students were the main topics of the evening. Carol Daniel, a journalist with KMOX radio and a member of the church, moderated the forum.
The achievement gap
Benway said the numbers do point to a disparity between different student groups and their test scores.
“Data tells us that gaps exists when comparing the achievement of African American students with white students, and when comparing the achievement of low-income students with non-low-income students,” Benway said. “We realize that we, as educators, do not have all the answers and information necessary to close the gap, or we would have already done so. Therefore, we are partnering with our parents and community members to collaborate on initiatives that can help students, especially for those in the at-risk populations.”
Some parents asked questions about the existence of an ACT prep program being offered to all students, which Weld said there is — the ACTion Program. Others asked about the honors programs at OTHS, and some voiced frustration with minority students not being able to participate.
“This is an area that we are very passionate and have been focused on a lot lately,” said Weld, adding the the school has changed rules for determining participation in the program. It is no longer subject to only qualification testing, she said.
JaRon Dent, a special education and driving instruction teacher and coach, is one of the 2 percent of OTHS teachers who are African American. Less that 1 percent are Hispanic and Asian, while 96 percent are white.
“There’s not many people in the classroom that look like me at O’Fallon Township High School, and that’s an issue. We all know that, but we have to continue to push our kids,” Dent said.
Al Keeler, an O’Fallon resident and father of an OTHS graduate, asked if the district is “thinking outside the box” when it comes to minority hiring, suggesting collaborating with schools that have higher minority student populations.
“Minority staffing at OTHS benefits, not just minority students but non-minority or white students as well,” Keeler said.
Benway said OTHS has been addressing the need for diversity — a process that is ongoing.
“We acknowledge the lack of diversity of teachers in our buildings, and are continuing to seek ways to attract minority applicants,” Benway said.
One route taken “to close those gaps” is meeting with local houses of worship, including the Apostolic Assembly and Belleville Mosque. Benway said the school is also “in dialogue” with United Congregations of Metro East, she said.
More conversation to come
“Tonight was just the beginning of a conversation, and we’re going to have more,” said Dudley.
House, who is one of two African American school board members and chairs district’s Achievement Gap committee, said that is exactly what is needed.
“What eased a lot of pressure from folks who were ready to come in here really tense was knowing that we’re going to have continuous dialogue, and we are going to take what we heard tonight back to our Gap Committee,” he said.
Said Benway: “We are here for you and the students — all of them. We aren’t here to make excuses. We are here to develop solutions. School leaders continue to work with parents whenever a concern is raised.”
Robyn L. Kirsch: 618-239-2690, @BND_RobynKirsch