What do three high school principals, officials from various political organizations in the Chicago area and a professor at John Marshall Law School have in common?
Each of them attended a public forum on diversity in North Shore public schools and fair housing Sunday at . The forum was hosted by Winnetka-based Interfaith Housing Center, which defines its aims on its website as “educating, advocating, and organizing to uphold just and integrated communities for fair housing.”
The forum, "Inclusive Community, Inclusive Schools," fostered debate on public education and its relationship to diversity, opportunity and housing with guest speakers from Northbrook, Evanston and Skokie.
Gail Schechter, executive director for the center, opened the afternoon of discussion by highlighting her organization's staff and a recent legal settlement, concerning two Evanston landlords who were accused of systematically refusing tenants who weren't Northwestern University students. Nearly a year ago, the center tested the complaint of a NU student, who was concerned her lease forbid subletting to anyone other than students from the university, especially students with children. After filing in federal court its own complaint, based on discrimination against families with children, the center settled a “profoundly important case,” Schechter said.
“...it sends the message that Evanston can no longer perpetuate a dual-rental market,” she added. “This opens three-bedroom units near Northwestern—which is also near public transportation and shopping—to families."
For the center, equal housing rights for families is part of an even bigger picture.
Before passing the microphone to a panel of educators and administrators, Schechter responded to recent criticism in the media. No one voiced opposition during the forum.
“I have news for anyone who wants to run us out of town ... we're not going anywhere,” she said of her center, which provided a buffet of grapes, cheeses and Wisconsin apple cider, along with brochures and donation envelopes for guests to take home. “We're staying right here.”
Many from the audience applauded Schechter's remarks and later asked questions concerning student diversity in high schools, a topic of the forum that afternoon.
Multiculturalism in the halls
With a population of approximately 5,000 students — in which four out of 10 students in attendance were born outside of the U.S. and six out of 10 students speak a language other than English — Niles North High School in Skokie is no stranger to diversity.
“I feel, if we teach our kids how to talk to one another about diversity — what it means to be them and the experiences that they've felt,” said Ryan McTague, principal of the high school, “and they bring that into the classroom, they're educating my teachers [and] the administrators.”
As the center has argued, diversity in schools is largely a factor of zip code: which school district you live and pay property taxes. In a recent blog post for Patch, Schechter cites a 2009 study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. "As wonderful as some teachers and schools are," the study said, "most cannot eliminate inequalities that have their roots outside their doors and that influence events within them.”
In Niles and Evanston, the focus isn't so much on fostering a diverse student population but improving communication between the students they have.
For McTague as well as fellow forum participant Jeffrey D. Brown, Jr., principal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Laboratory Magnet School in Evanston, initiatives such as greater emphasis on multicultural literature, clubs and storytelling are a big part of the process.
“If [we were] just handing over a book and a pencil it would be easy,” McTague said. “But we are dealing with socioeconomic concerns.”
“When you have a diverse environment, it's more than just saying, 'We're diverse,'” he added. “How are you working to make sure that every student is successful?”
Breaking the Mold?
Liliana Fargo, vice president of the organization, Latinos in Skokie, argued after the forum that success depends on a comparative approach to education.
“My personal view is that not everybody has the same kinds of skills,” Fargo said, “so we have to embrace that.”
In her experience as an educator, she added, economic prosperity in an increasingly global world boils down to promoting the individual strengths of diverse cultures. Education in the U.S. doesn't embrace that view, she said.
“Nations should focus on the kind of production [in which individual cultures] are more efficient, and that will work for the well-being of everybody.”
Erin Murphy, principal of Field Middle School in Northbrook/Glenview District 31, pushed for education with one foot through the globalized door and the other grounded in leadership, communication and conflict resolution.
“When our staff is doing research on what our mission statement should be and what our district plan should be,” Murphy said, “the question always comes back to, 'What kind of world do all of us live in?'”
For her young students, that world gets smaller by the day.
“Kids are not going to stay in their hometowns anymore,” she added. “It's always apparent that as you're teaching kids, we really need to focus on this global scale.”
'Bringing It All Back Home'
So how would intergration, if necessary, affect a suburb like Winnetka?
In its 2010 census, the village showed a decrease in population but varying increases in Hispanic, African American and Asian populations.
Despite these numbers, Ann Airey, a board director for the center, argued for an observation that Winnetka is growing more “homogeneous” and that people are only sticking around for the public schools.
“...We're going to be people of around the same age, [a suburb] with school-age kids,” Airey said, “because people move here for the kids and then leave as soon as their kids are out of school.”
As they talked with people after the forum, officials from the center agreed with Airey, who cited property taxes as a factor that drives people out.
“People move in here and they squeeze their income, so that they can afford to live here,” Airey said. “We're becoming the same age, the same race and the same everything — and it's boring and uninteresting.”
Moreover, she discussed a hot topic in Winnetka's affordable housing debate: 30 coach houses that haven't been rented in the village because of an “antiquated law, which states, “after six months, you can't rent them anymore," she said.
“Why can't people rent the coach houses?” she asked, acknowledging the Winnetka Home Owners Association (WHOA), which does not support more affordable housing efforts in the village. “Even if half of them were rented, there would be 15 more affordable places for people like police and fire [officers], teachers and divorcing moms with kids to live in.”
“I don't understand how anyone could have a problem with that, but they seem to.”
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