Top CPS high schools vow changes after racism charges, but problems persist

Students of color have launched Instagram pages to document concerns at selective enrollment high schools — including incidents in the first weeks of school.

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Rochelle Borden (left) and Amari Sails outside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St., on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020.

Rochelle Borden (left) and Amari Sails outside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St. Borden, who said racism at the school almost forced her to transfer, went on to graduate and is now a member of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team; Sails said a student who mocked a Black girl’s name was dealt with too lightly.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

As the academic year gets underway following a spring and summer of racial reckoning, a few of Chicago’s highly rated selective enrollment public high schools — after students called them out on Instagram — say they’re trying to create more inclusive environments.

With the backdrop of police brutality and social justice protests erupting in Chicago and around the country, students of color launched Instagram pages to highlight racism and the realities of what it’s like to be Black, Brown or Indigenous at some of the most prestigious high schools in the country, including Walter Payton College Prep, Jones College Prep and Whitney Young Magnet High School. The pages have garnered thousands of followers, with hundreds of posts submitted by students, alumni, parents and even teachers.

The posts, most anonymously submitted, range from allegations of overt racism — including claims other students openly used slurs or stereotypes — to microaggressions and biased treatment from school staff. Many describe a feeling of otherness at schools where wealthy white students are often front and center.

In response, leaders at some of the schools have launched initiatives to improve their cultures and have even tapped some of those involved with the Instagram pages to help come up with solutions.

Those efforts have already hit a hiccup at Payton, where at least one remote learning class was hijacked by anonymous callers screaming racial slurs. In another class, a student was heard using the N-word while he thought he was on mute.

Walter Payton College Prep se encuentra entre las escuelas secundarias de inscripción selectiva para las que los estudiantes debían realizar la prueba esta semana. | Archivos Sun-Times

Walter Payton College Prep, at 1034 N. Wells St.

Sun-Times file photo

Payton junior Jada Wordlaw, of Washington Park, is one of the founders of the anti-racist Instagram page at Payton. She was dismayed by the recent incidents. She said the school has a history of not taking racist incidents seriously and not punishing students harshly enough.


Walter Payton College Prep student Jada Wordlaw

“I was kind of expecting something to happen sooner or later, but definitely not in the first week,” Wordlaw said. “At a school like Payton, that prides itself on being a liberal, progressive school, over the years I’ve just been expecting less and less.”

First-year Payton Principal Melissa Resh addressed the recent incidents in an email to the Payton community last week, saying that “Google bombers” at schools across the city appear to have been given links to classrooms by their peers. She also noted Payton student accounts have been connected to incidents at other schools, and said CPS is launching an investigation into those cases.

As for the student who was heard using a racial slur in class, Resh said “the student that caused the harm is being supported with reflection, skill-building, and accountability conversations and interventions so that the individual can repair harm they have caused, learn new skills, and together, we can ensure the safety of the classroom and school community.”

It wasn’t the first time Resh sent a school-wide email to discuss racism at Payton. After the “bipoc.payton” Instagram page launched earlier in the summer, Resh emailed the school community expressing solidarity with Black and Brown students who have aired their grievances.

“It is time for us to work together toward repair and redemption. It is time to shift the culture at Payton away from an oppressive white dominant culture,” Resh wrote. “Our next step is to convene a committee focused on addressing and dismantling the systemic racism within our school that has been depicted in the stories we’re reading on Instagram (and all the stories that haven’t been shared).”

Resh declined to comment for this story. But since Resh’s email in early July, the school has formed a Targeted Universalism Steering Committee made up of teachers, staff, students and parents, according to Payton senior Shawn Hughes, a committee member. Hughes, of South Shore, said the committee is meant to “help solve some problems with Payton’s infrastructure, rules, and environment to better help protect all students and help it to not feel dismal and competitive all the time.”

The steering committee “is a work in progress, and it’s gonna take time to get what we need out of it, but it is beneficial and I see the good in it,” Hughes said in an Instagram message. “I’m very optimistic!”


Walter Payton students Brianna Warren (from left), Shawn Hughes and Jayla McKinney


New initiatives at Whitney Young

At Whitney Young, student repercussions have amounted to “slaps on the wrist,” said Amari Sails, who recently graduated from the school’s Academic Center and is now a freshman there.

Sails recalls a student who made fun of a Black girl’s name and said white people were historically superior only got a “very stern talking to.”

“The 13 Black students in my class out of the like, 130, we just had to move on knowing the administration did not really care,” Sails charged.


Whitney Young principal Joyce Kenner


Young Principal Joyce Kenner denied the incidents weren’t taken seriously but acknowledged students’ concern about how they are handled.

“Racial incidents at Whitney Young are handled expeditiously and with much thought. I have tried through the years to make sure all voices are heard,” Kenner said in an interview. “Unfortunately some students don’t feel this way. We will be putting in place several new initiatives in our school for the upcoming school year.”

Rochelle Borden, of Park Manor, who graduated from Young in June, said her experiences with racism at the school were so disheartening that when she first enrolled she considered transferring. But she is now a member of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team working to develop concrete solutions to these issues. She says she has faith Kenner is genuine in her concern.

“One of our demands is to hire more Black faculty members, which is something I’ve been working on since sophomore year, and last year we had a lot more Black and POC faculty members,” Borden said. “I was beyond proud, I actually went to Dr. Kenner’s office and thanked her.”

Jones principal concerned pages are ‘slanderous’

When the “jones.bipoc” group was launched in June, the school administration was taken aback. In an email to Jones faculty obtained by the Sun-Times, Principal Joseph Powers called some of the posts “slanderous” and said he reported the group to district officials.


Jones College Prep Principal Joseph Powers


“Students are certainly free to express themselves, and it is important for us to hear what they have to say. ... Unfortunately, a number of the postings include the names of specific Jones teachers and other staff; although the names are usually blocked out, the first initials and other context make it easy to determine who is being written about. This is unacceptable and even slanderous,” he said in the email.

Powers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. CPS spokesman James Gherardi said the district would “absolutely not” pursue any action against the Instagram pages or those behind them.

“Chicago Public Schools strives to provide a safe, welcoming learning environment where every student feels supported and valued,” Gherardi said in a statement. “The district believes in student empowerment and student voice, and while we are disheartened to hear of negative experiences, we applaud our students and former students for creating a platform for engagement with and amplification of these critical issues.”

Officials said CPS’ Office of Equity was working directly with the selective enrollment schools to foster more inclusive environments, and was encouraging principals to reach out directly to their schools communities.


Jones College Prep in the South Loop

Sun-Times Media

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