After 'America to Me'

Documentary's subjects returned to OPRF Sunday to speak their truths

November 6th, 2018 2:46 PM

A PAINFUL HOMECOMING: OPRF teacher Jessica Stovall, far right, expressed her reservations returning to the school for a Sunday town hall about the documentary series in which she was something of a breakout star. | Photo by Paul Goyette

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By Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Staff reporter

A four-hour town hall discussion held Sunday night in the Little Theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School provided community members, and those affiliated with the Starz documentary series America to Me, an opportunity to evaluate, reassess, vent and speak their various truths about the production — the 10th and final episode of which aired on Oct. 28. 

The town hall was divided into five different panel discussions, respectively featuring parents, current and former students, educators and filmmakers — most of whom played a role in America to Me. 

The event was sponsored by the New York Times (whose national correspondent, John Eligon, moderated the first and last panels), the Oak Park-based E-Team, OPRF High School, Participant Media and the MacArthur Foundation.

The following are oral accounts given Sunday from the people who were involved in the filming. This is the first in a two-part series. These excerpts have been edited for clarity: 


Rebecca Parrish

Parrish is a documentary director, cinematographer and editor who was a segment director and cinematographer on America to Me.

For a long time our country has approached racial equity from an integration lens. We've felt like if we can integrate students in schools and share resources, then we can have equity. I think looking at the challenges that OPRF faces shows that that isn't enough. 

For me, I really started to feel like traditional structures of education that we have in this country are kind of like the miner's canary, described in the book by Lani Guinier [The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy]. 

Part of the idea in her work is that, oftentimes, people who are marginalized, people of color in particular, are like the canary in the coal mine. When miners went down to the coal mines, they'd have a canary they'd bring on their shoulder and when the canary died, the miner knew to come back up. 

And so I feel like the fundamental problem, which is a problem for all our students broadly in our education system, is this really outdated, factory model of education that is all about compliance. Learning is fun and exciting and we all have that desire, but when we built this system it became about ranking and ratings and who is the best — I think it dehumanizes all of us. 


Kevin Shaw

Shaw is a director, producer and cinematographer who was a segment director and cinematographer on America to Me.

Going into this, I didn't have any particular expectation, per se. I knew about Oak Park. I was born and raised in Chicago. I had friends in Oak Park growing up, so I'd been in this area and I kind of knew what the reputation was — the good and the bad, especially being a person of color. So when I started telling some of these stories and following the families I was attached to over the course of a year, I wasn't surprised about a lot of the things they were going through. It was just kind of like, um hmm. It was kind of disappointing. 

You feel those things, especially for me, walking down the street, even in Oak Park sometimes, you do feel like eyes are on you and you don't belong and if students were feeling like that in this school, then it's easy for me to understand where some of that disconnect was coming from. 

Jessica Stovall

Stovall — the OPRF teacher who saw more success trying to win over the vulnerable, but bright and charismatic Ke'Shawn Kumsa than she did gathering a headwind of support from administrators for a racial equity curriculum she designed — said her time at OPRF was "like being in an emotionally abusive relationship." 

About two months ago, Stovall took a leave of absence in order to pursue a PhD in Race, Inequality and Language in Education at Stanford University.

It is really painful to be back in this building. I've only been gone for seven weeks, but I didn't think [returning] would be as hard as it was.

It's great that I'm [getting the doctorate at Stanford], but I didn't leave because I wanted to get a doctorate at Stanford. I wanted to retire from this building. I spent 11 powerful, transformative years and I gave it all I've got. The reality is that when you are told you don't have the knowledge, capacity, intellect to be able to do racial equity work, when the same people who said that have never been in my classroom, never been to a professional development program I've given, never read a piece of my literature, what is informing [them] if they've never seen that?

If things had changed for the better, I absolutely would be in Room 313 tomorrow morning, greeting those kids a happy Monday, and I'm not because things have gotten so much worse and I felt like I had to leave. I will say that I took a leave of absence. I did not quit because there is a part of me that is really hopeful.

Chala Holland

Chala Holland, former assistant principal at OPRF, left while director Steve James and his crew were filming America to Me in 2015 to take a job as principal at Lake Forest High School.

Deciding to leave was very difficult. … I was feeling four years of exhaustion, as well as navigating my own emotions. Part of that, too, was knowing that it was time for me to go. I have a drive and fire inside of me, and I felt like it had reached its capacity in the building under the leadership, under the way things were going, and I felt it was time to go. I felt like a caged bird in some ways, trying to break free. 

I was an assistant principal and I wanted better for the kids here, but I also knew that I wasn't willing to compromise my passion and my gifts by staying complacent in some ways within the current structure. I needed to break free from that and feed my soul and engage in the work I believed in, in a different context, but just as meaningful.

Every day, every week, I'm in communication with people here because my relationships and my commitment to this district and school are not based on me being here; it's based on the work I believe is possible here.


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  • Barbara Joan (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 9th, 2018 2:05 PM

    What a load a crap! D97 & OPRF is entrenched in the educational industrial complex and has failed most of the students who couldn't wait to flee their jurisdiction. Nothing to see here folks, move along now.

  • Jacek Lazarczyk (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 2:35 PM

    Christopher - I truly hope this is not an illusion, rather, the overall picture is way more complicated and not all glossy as it seemed. I am behind few episodes but, so far, I found the series illuminating and not all negative. I have been impressed and humbled by the very personal effort many of the teachers have been engaged in. Also, I think it is quite a burden for the school to be on the receiving end of the problems that originated outside of its walls. It is unrealistic to expect the school to be able to make up for the effects of broken homes and poverty. My eldest son went to University of Chicago's Lab School. That school struck me as extremely diverse and integrated (my son's closest friends could be on a UN poster). One thing in common, there, was the educational level and professional status of all the families, regardless of race and nationality. That tells you something.

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 2:14 PM

    Jacek - hope all is well. Great point . Not unique for sure but what makes this story compelling is one of Oak Park 's crown jewels is the progressive brand. That makes it truly unique. This doc calls it into question and says that it is an illusion for blacks. Now, when my family moved to Oak Park in 72, OP was one of the only places we could move without fear. I recall being spit on, beaten and chased out of Berwyn as tween. Like most things, there are multiple sides to the story - many of us are just disappointed that this only provided a very limited side.

  • Jacek Lazarczyk (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:52 PM

    Nick and Christopher, I have read your comments exchange with interest. Chris, you and I know each other from Mann School's back yard (I'm the "coach"). I cannot believe that OPRFHS' issues illustrated in "AtoM" are unique to OPRF. I bet that there are a lot of high school principals out there feeling sense of relief that their schools did not come under such spot light. That is just my guess, though, as I didn't go through high school in the United States. Hoping, however, that this laundry airing will do us a lot of good.

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:21 PM

    Nick that was the same program - just new name. Asked a teacher and confirmed ..

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:20 PM

    Jason - Fair on point of view. The people I spoke with who are black don't view it as you get points for exposing bad stuff - (ie effort) - they view it as hostile toward blacks (results).

  • Nick Polido (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:20 PM

    Christopher, As a OPRF graduate in the late 70's the program you refer to was XP.....

  • Jason Cohen (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:10 PM

    I don't agree that it was a smart move for the administration to refuse to be involved. I think it's the exact opposite. By choosing not to be involved they eliminated their voice completely and came out looking pretty bad. This continues today with Rouse in my opinion who doesn't seem to be at all proactive. He should be addressing these issues head on not trying to shrink into the background. He didn't even attend the community meeting last night. Avoiding all this just makes it look like you either don't care or don't know what to do. I also don't see this as bad for OPRF. The people I know from outside the area that saw it all said the same basic thing. It takes real courage to be willing to do that. Just being open to showing these issues says something about our community that I view as positive. My main disappointment in the series was that it really never got into new ideas on how to solve these issues. I would have loved for an episode to be on other communities that have tackled these problems and had some success. I just felt a bit like we were left with little to look at moving forward. I don't need a private FB group. Happy to chat about it here. :-)

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:04 PM

    @ Drew - Ha! I was kinda hurt cause no one invited me and someone was commenting on several posts - so I just found out. Hope they don't delete me for outing them. You do know Oak PArkers will force you out the bubble for many reasons.

  • Drew Rein (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 12:40 PM

    @ Christopher Bell. Why does the existence of an Oak Park private forum not really surprise me. Does your child have to be an honors student to be invited to the group? Just kidding...kind of.

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 12:20 PM

    @ Drew FYI. I often wondered by so few comments on these articles. The answer is there is a private facebook group with 2,000 people that has ongoing discussion and dialogue. oakparkers discussion aTM.

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 12:01 PM

    Nick - Great point. Anyone who attended OPRF (I did) know that program was for kids on the way out/stoners/ druggies (just being honest) with the other foot on banana peel. She in fact says later, I was a knucklehead. He never spoke with black alumni who attended Harvard, U of C, Stanford who went on to do wonderful things to provide a balanced view. Make Oak Park look racist and school indifferent at best and malovlent as worse.

  • Nick Polido (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 11:44 AM

    I agree that the narrative has served James as well. The fact that he never looked into the former student who spoke of her experience at OPRF H.S.where she made statements like these: "They pumped candy in you all day and we used to shoot pool and watch 'Jerry Springer,'" she says. "It was kind of like jail. It was almost prepping you." "As a junior, I had a 13-pound cyst removed from my body," Robinson recalls. "After my surgery, I still had staples in my stomach, so I went to my dean and asked for an elevator pass and his exact words to me was, 'I will give you nothing. I hope your staples come out.'"

  • Christopher Bell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 10:22 AM

    Drew - you are correct. There are several programs that have been successful in helping to close the gap that were never mentioned. There is no question the narrative has served James very well but I maintain it has caused brand damage to Oak Park that may be tough to repair without real results for students. Further, it provided no context - for example, there are 800 black students and we will cover 150 who are not. Finally, think Stovall is committed but ran into organizational inertia. We raised $50,000 in private funding to pilot the at Mann in 2009 (goal of become pilot for village) and were shut down by 97 as deemed unfair to other children.

  • Drew Rein (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 9:54 AM

    With, what appears to be a great deal of insight, Principal Rouse did not want to participate in the documentary about oak park and RIVER FOREST high school. The board overruled him. I do not think Miss Stovall suffered emotional abuse. She well utilized this opportunity to her benefit. I was and am a very big fan of Anthony Clark who I believe is sincere in his approach to help the whole community.

  • Jason Cohen (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 9:34 AM

    @Drew, I really have no idea if you are correct as this is the first I have heard of these other efforts but let's assume you are correct. Why didn't the administration agree to speak on camera then? They had many opportunities to share what they were actually working on and could have easily done it without coming across as combative. My sense of Miss Stovall's program was that it was essentially a peer review program which is certainly not foreign in the corporate world. Even if other programs were being worked why not pilot this with volunteer teachers? You might be able to criticize Miss Stovall's approach but I don't think you can say she came across as anything other than as a person sincerely trying to help. The principal and the superintendent are supposed to lead the school. The documentary certainly didn't show much leadership here.

  • Drew Rein (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 8th, 2018 7:17 AM

    Steve James really missed the mark by failing to disclose that there were two other racial equity test programs that were already having success. Miss Stovall seemed to want to leapfrog over these to get hers to the forefront. She had also just returned from a full year off where her colleagues had to fill some of the void. My student said she complained none of her colleagues welcomed her back...I wonder why? She's ambitious, good for her, and she's successfully used the documentary as a platform to further her career. I still maintain if a male teacher was texting his female student brows would be raised but apparently the "vulnerable" Ke'Shawn Kumsa could handle himself.

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