Growing diversity brings up new issues in Naperville schools
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com November 27, 2012 10:30PM
Loren Brown receives her diploma during the Naperville Central class of 2012 commencement ceremony at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Ill., on Monday, May 21, 2012. | Corey R. Minkanic~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 29, 2012 6:02AM
For all the shift Naperville is seeing in its ethnic and racial makeup, many of the kids making their way through the school hallways still don’t see a lot of faces that look like their own. Administrators acknowledge the inequities and are taking steps to address them. Meanwhile, parent groups and students are evolving in their own ways.
The city’s configuration of national roots has broadened notably, as the newest U.S. Census figures show. The 2010 polling found 35,321 residents, about 25 percent of the population, identify themselves as black, Asian or Hispanic. A decade earlier, census data had found 83 percent of the city’s residents were Caucasians whose primary language is English.
The student population has diversified to an even greater degree, bringing effects of its own — although the change hasn’t had the same impact as the diversity boom seen in some nearby cities. In areas around Aurora and Elgin, some schools in the past couple of years have had minorities shift to majorities.
Naperville School District 203 authorities recently ruled out a proposal to adjust the barometers for determination of academic success on standardized tests on the basis of students’ race, but the school system is taking other measures to ensure the playing field is as level as they can make it. The district is updating its diversity plan, and a survey slated for early 2013 will assess students’ and staff’s views of how its minority populations are treated.
At Naperville North High School, nearly one in three students is Hispanic, Asian or African American. A decade ago, three out of four students were white. At Naperville Central, white students comprised 86.5 percent of the learners in 2001, and by 2012, the majority had declined to 74.7 percent. The school’s total head count increased by 109 over the time frame, and with it the number of Hispanic students grew by 104, totaling 144, according to figures recently released by the Illinois State Board of Education.
At Waubonsie Valley High School in Indian Prairie District 204, non-Caucasian students made up nearly 44 percent of the student population last year, ISBE records show, while in 2001 the segment was less than 24 percent. Neuqua Valley High School’s minority populations saw similar gains over the period. The growth there was strongest among Asian students, rising from 9 percent to more than 17 percent as the segment of white students fell from 82 percent to less than 68 percent. The black and Hispanic populations also grew, though those increases were more modest.
Kermit Eby, a longtime member of the Naperville North’s humanities faculty, was there when the Spectrum Club began in 1991, with a generalized focus on multicultural awareness. He said a balkanization began about a decade ago that splintered Spectrum into today’s array of culture clubs, now encompassing the Indian Students Association, Muslim Students Association and other niche groups.
The three high schools in Indian Prairie District 204 also are broadening their cultural foundations. Each has extracurricular organizations for black and Asian students, and two out of three have groups for Hispanic, Indian and Muslim teens.
Notwithstanding the culture-focused entities, students yearn for a distinct identity. Even in the Spectrum Club’s early days at Naperville North, for example, segments of the club took steps to help the school community understand that not all Spanish-speaking students are cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Nor, of course, are other students of color identified with specific races.
Eby noted that a significant number of black students have come to the school from Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods over the past decade. Differences quickly surface, he said, among students visiting the school or newly relocated to the community and those who have always lived in Naperville.
“When the kids from the city talk to the kids from here, they see a real disconnect,” he said. “And they say, ‘You know, this is not a game.’”
It’s a conversation distinctly familiar to some of the African American students at North. They’re often asked by people they have just met which part of Chicago they come from.
“That’s the first thing they say,” said senior Erik Molin.
“They’ll say, ‘If you’re from the South Side, why do you talk white?’” added E’lashae Scott, also a senior.
Kesha Baker said when she and her family moved to Naperville two years ago, she noticed a certain sameness.
“I thought, ‘This is not very diverse. There’s not a lot of black people,” said the North senior, who at first took to sitting alone in the cafeteria during lunch. “I just kind of kept in my little shell.”
Friendships did develop, but Baker could easily pick out the African American kids who until recently had been city dwellers.
“They fit that old stereotype. They were sort of ignorant,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to appear ignorant.’”
Molin is usually not fazed by being a student of color; he’s pretty used to it. He and his family moved to Naperville from Ann Arbor, Mich., when he was in seventh grade. If there was ostracism, he no longer feels its sting. Most of his friends are Caucasian, he said, and he’s grown comfortable being a half black, half Hispanic kid among them.
“I’ve been deemed the whitest black person my friends know,” he said.
Diane Cook, a Naperville North mom and head of the school’s multicultural organization Parent Link, not long ago asked her youngest daughter Lyric Hairston how her senior year was going.
“And she said, ‘I hate it. I’ve always hated it,’” Cook said.
Lyric, Cook said, at one point related a conversation she’d had with a teacher and a white girl. The teacher was talking directly to the white girl and didn’t seem aware that Lyric was there, so she walked away — which just made things worse.
Cook said her oldest daughter, Ariel Hairston, once told her, “Ma, I don’t think they expect us to do well, so they don’t pay attention to us.”
With two North graduates among her three older kids, Cook knows something of what it’s like to be noticeably different from most of the other people in the building.
“I think it’s a feeling of not belonging, a feeling of, ‘Yes, you’re here because we allow it,’” Cook said. “I feel it starts on opening day, or at orientation. They don’t feel that they’re welcome.”
For a lot of minority students, it would help to have more people in the front of the classroom who know what it’s like to be a black or Hispanic or Asian student.
In “Voices,” a book published earlier this year by the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, black and Hispanic students shared their perspectives on the consistent differences between their average standardized test scores and those of their Asian and Caucasian classmates. The teens polled said a more diverse faculty would encourage greater academic success among students of color. Officials say fewer than five percent of the teachers in the county are black or Hispanic. Co-author Lourdes Ferrer said a three-year initiative is working to increase that number, but said drawing minority teachers to DuPage is “their greatest challenge.”
Indian Prairie District 204 Superintendent Kathy Birkett said the eventual aim is to equalize the proportions of African American and Hispanic teachers with the respective segments of students in the district.
“It’s a lofty goal,” Birkett said.
Stephen Garlington, the book’s other author, said he and Ferrer concluded it’s a worthwhile one.
“I think one of the biggest issues for schools to look at is inclusion,” he said. “If you walk through school and you don’t see teachers and counselors and administrators who are of the same ethnicity ... it kind of rings hollow.”
Changing that might be easier said than done. At a meeting with minority students, Popp asked for a show of hands of those who plan to study education in college, however, just one hand went up.
“I said, ‘Time out. How are we going to make that happen? How are we going to provide more teachers who look like you if you’re not going to take that step?’” he said.
Although funding for new hires has been tight, district representatives go to hiring fairs, he said, seeking out promising minority prospects.
Communication can be a hurdle as well. Sandra Charles, who is in her 10th year as a leader of District 204’s Parent Diversity Advisory Council, said a highly effective program in place at Neuqua Valley High School should be replicated in the other schools. Parents and Teachers Helping Students, or PATHS, was created to help students whose primary language isn’t English.
“It’s a very well-thought-out program to effect change in a positive way,” she said, though she noted that each campus would need to adapt the initiative to meet its specific needs. “There are some basic ways that we can define diversity, but diversity might look different from school to school.”
Individual schools also find their own ways to assimilate their changing populations. The PTA at Georgetown Elementary School, near the border between Aurora and south Naperville, saw turnout for its meetings rise after the group began conducting them in both English and Spanish.
Equalizing the education community involves more than seeking out a more diverse teaching crew.
“There are two things we need to do: One is the teachers need to examine their own culture and learn about the cultures of the students who come into their classrooms,” said Mayra Daniel, associate professor and bilingual coordinator in the department of literacy education at Northern Illinois University. Those teachers need to view “the knowledge (students) bring to these schools as positive rather than negative,” she said.
Daniel also stressed engaging students in ways that are not “superficial.” That means not just reading a book with a token Asian character, she suggested as an example, but incorporating a book about the Yangtze River in China into the class study of rivers, in addition the mighty Mississippi that flanks Illinois’ western border.
Also, local high schools need to do a better job of letting students know about opportunities concerning higher education.
“I’ve always looked (at colleges) myself,” said Neuqua Valley junior Alyssa Alanillo, wandering East Aurora High Schhol’s Hispanic College Fair last month with a bag stuffed full of pamphlets. “My parents don’t know a lot about it.”
And schools need to take ownership of all students in their school buildings, including those still working on their English skills, she said.
“Our schools are no longer monolingual, monocultural entities,” she said. “We want to wipe out this idea that in order to succeed in the U.S., you have to melt into this pot. We are a diverse nation that is becoming more diverse every day ... a salad bowl where all the little pieces contribute to creating a greater flavor.”
Eradicating the melting-pot mentality requires a diverse team of parents, administrators, teachers and students, ready to embrace the new face of the community. Indian Prairie administrator Popp notes that it’s the new reality.
“The thing that stays the same in this district is that it’s always changing,” he said.