It looked like your typical back-to-school cookout.
At a local park in west suburban Naperville over the weekend, barbecue was piled on paper plates and kids ran around playing tag.
But there was more going than appeared on the surface.
The cookout was hosted by volunteer parent group called S.U.C.C.E.S.S, School Using Coordinated Community Efforts to Strengthen Students. The group’s mission is to build community for parents and students of color in school district 203, where black students make up just 5% of the student population and Hispanic students make up about 10%.
“We want to form a community that is not afraid to speak about the diversity issues but is partnering with the district to help to improve those issues,” said S.U.C.C.E.S.S co-founder Khalid Smith.
The group formed a few years ago at Naperville North High School. Black parents came together to call on administrators to do something about a wide achievement gap. The gap still exists and now the school district is taking a closer look at achievement data to see what can be done.
About a quarter of black 11th graders met standards on the SAT in 2018 compared to more than 70% of white students meeting standards.
Co-founder Pamela Dandridge said new for this year, the group will look at how racism and implicit bias can affect learning and what schools can do to fix it.
“You have a teacher looking through a lens,” she said during the cookout. “That image that that teacher has with that student can define that student because they look back at that teacher and say ‘that’s how they see me.’”
Dandridge said the S.U.C.C.E.S.S group offers things like tutoring and parental education, including a session on teen vaping. But more importantly, it’s a voice for parents who may not feel comfortable bringing up concerns.
District administrators said as a group, S.U.C.C.E.S.S hasn’t been shy.
“The parent leaders of success have been very willing to offer input and provide advice,” said Bob Ross, chief human resources officer with the district.
Ross and Dandridge go back several years. Ross was once the principal for the middle school Dandridge’s children attended. Despite uncomfortable moments, parents said the district has listened to them. Parents wanted an equity officer to do things like encourage more diverse hiring, look at how the district treats employees of color and handles issues with students and parents of color. Last year, the district hired one.
“That was a concrete step,” Ross said. “I think it was noticed. I think it was appreciated by a lot of people. “I’m here to say that I like where we’re headed, but we still have an awful lot of work to do.”
Dandridge said S.U.C.C.E.S.S will be working with the equity officer by offering their own experiences and having discussions about diverse hiring. She said while there is a lot of work ahead, what they’ve accomplished so far speaks to the strength of the parents.
“It’s a community,” she said. “It’s now pretty much a family.”