A principal speaks. Then silence…by Dan Haley of the Wednesday Journal

The challenge of being a black principal in today’s racial and political climate
September 5, 2016
Our Schools Need Social Justice Warriors, Not Status-Quo Embracers
January 5, 2017

When the principal of an Oak Park middle school writes an essay as blunt and passionate — on topics as key as the gap and discipline — and faces down the challenges of leading while black in diverse Oak Park, well, you’d expect a reaction.

At least some reaction.

But LeeAndra Khan, the second-year principal at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, has had no reaction to her July piece in Catalyst Chicago, the respected journal of school reform for Chicago. Not from fellow principals, school board members, administrators, teachers. Not a huzzah or a harangue.

And the silence suggests to me wary caution. Whether innate caution from a range of bureaucrats or directed caution from on high, I’m unclear. But in a town that struts and boasts over its diversity, which now includes the powerful word “equity” in every educational goal, I see more proof of timidity. More proof that we can talk plenty but that action makes us skittish.

Along with Michael Romain, our education reporter, I sat down on Friday afternoon with Ms. Khan in her light-filled, cinder block office at Brooks. I’ll lift her self-description from the Catalyst piece: “Unapologetically black, with dreadlocks, full lips, a full figure, a proud resident of a black community, with a son named Ausar Kemet Khan.” And, I’d add, as I said to her, pretty much unlike any school principal I’ve ever met.

She is funny, outspoken, self-reflective, and impatient.

Khan talks about guilt over race that both blacks and whites feel, though for different reasons. She talks about black parents who won’t push teachers and principals to advance their kids, about white parents who will advocate all day long. She talks about summer school classes filled with black boys and a discipline pipeline tilted toward black males.

Khan, who was a civil engineer in her first decade of work, then a math teacher and a principal in the Chicago Public School system, talks about finding Brooks students tracked by ability for math and other classes. Last year, just eight black kids out of 200 total at Brooks were in the top math sections.

This school year, determined to have “all the classes look representative of the school,” Khan went to the testing data. Instead of a firm cut-off at the 85thpercentile, Khan said she looked for students from the 77th percentile on up, who had straight A’s, and moved them into the top math tier.

An intervention, an experiment in attacking the gap, in this case six kids at a time. Time will tell if these young people take hold, but it is hard not to applaud the effort.

Last March, Khan held a staff meeting to talk about discipline and race at Brooks. She thought she had prepared the ground well but acknowledges now that maybe there is more she could have done. Khan knows that talking about race and bias makes most everybody uncomfortable. So she urged her colleagues to “lean into discomfort” as they talked about why suspensions and other discipline were so often meted out to black students.

That meeting did not go well and resulted, she said, in seven hand-delivered letters from staff to the school board saying that their principal was racist. That led to a one-on-one session with Supt. Carol Kelley, also a black woman in her first year at District 97. Asked what the tenor of that meeting had been, Khan said the superintendent offered coaching on better ways to approach hard topics.

We can all work toward better ways to approach hard topics. And race is about the hardest we face. But why does the coaching, the strategic planning, the election of equity-focused school board members in Oak Park typically result in so little discernible action? Why does bold action on entrenched problems scare us so? 

The years are going by. Oak Park’s talking points are getting old. Incremental change is all excuses. The silence is deafening.

Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Published Originally by Dan Haley, Editor and Publisher of the Wednesday Journal at OakPark.com