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Why There’s Still a Racial Achievement Gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School

Steve James discusses his new docuseries America to Me, which examines why black students tend to lag behind even in the otherwise well-off, liberal suburb.

Steve James outside Oak Park and River Forest High School   Photo: Lucy Hewett

Your children went to OPRF. Aside from personal interest, why did you think a 10-part series about the school [America to Me, premiering August 26 on Starz] would resonate nationally?

I had this idea years ago that it would be interesting to look at a place where you eliminate a lot of the usual explanations for poor academic performance on the part of kids of color: extreme poverty, underfunding of schools, neighborhoods besieged by violence. Those are real, for sure, but they’re not the whole story. I thought it was time to understand what else is going on in America that presents hurdles.

The principal and superintendent didn’t cooperate in this series. How did you get permission to film for a whole year?

It was the school board’s decision. They voted 6–1, which I think speaks to a level of frustration they had and a willingness to shake some things up.

What do you think is the solution to academic disparity?

We need to be braver about upsetting the status quo of educational approaches. People of privilege too often confuse equity with equality. Equality is about treating everyone the same. Equity asks that we tailor education to the specific needs of the individual or group. Real change may only come when people of privilege are willing to step out of their comfort zones and embrace changes that are designed to raise the performance of others who haven’t been so fortunate. As the teacher Tyrone Williams says in the series, help kids to show us how they are smart, not merely test kids to see whether they are smart.

How do you think people will react to the series?

I hope the stories of the kids will be both inspiring and illuminating on what it means to be black or biracial in this town. I don’t have any doubt that people will see that the series shows what is incredible about the school, but I also hope people will come away seeing that there are real problems to be addressed. A number of black activists have said it’s not enough for white people to not be racist; they need to be antiracist.

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