Oswego East High School offers glimpse of multiracial future

On her first day at Oswego East High School this year, the butterflies in Kevelyn Valvas’ stomach felt more like raptors.

The 15-year-old sophomore was in a new town and her fellow students didn’t look much like her mostly Hispanic classmates in West Chicago.

In the far west of exurbia, rapidly diversifying neighborhoods created a student body that is just over half white, 22 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and 6 percent Asian, resembling the nation’s racial mosaic.

It promised to be quite an adjustment for Valvas. But at lunch that first day, a few white girls invited her to sit with them. That ended the awkwardness, and since then she has befriended kids of all races.

“We look at each other without looking at differences,” Valvas said. “We just look at each other like people.”

A Tribune analysis has found that Chicago is the nation’s most segregated major city, and its suburbs and exurbs often have reflected similar racial divisions. But if the election of Barack Obama as president heralds a new future for American race relations, the best preview might come in a place such as Oswego East, a sprawling campus bordered by cornfields.

Over the last decade, the construction of thousands of moderately priced homes in the area has altered the complexion of a community that had been nearly all white. Change has come so fast and so thoroughly that old antipathies have had little chance to take root.

“It seems to me when everyone’s new, it may develop differently than when one group is starting to supplant another,” said demographer Ken Johnson, who has examined racial diversity in Chicago’s exurbs. “It may well make it easier for new groups to intertwine.”

Easier, but still not problem-free: Some Oswego East students say racial antagonism still surfaces occasionally, and others say the campus’ diversity has provoked some locals to disparage it as a “ghetto school.”

First-year Principal Jeff Craig said his students have taken that attitude as a challenge to create new perceptions.

“Our kids take that on their shoulders and say, ‘We want to make a change,’ ” he said. “It actually gives me a little security that this is our future.”

The 2,000 students at Oswego East, which opened four years ago, come from the booming fringes of towns such as Plainfield, Aurora, Montgomery and Naperville, as well as part of the village of Oswego. Village President and seventh-generation resident Brian LeClercq, 41, said the demographic changes over just the last eight years have been striking. The former rural outpost has more than doubled in population, from 13,000 to nearly 29,000, with hundreds of new black, Hispanic and Asian residents moving in.

One is Jennifer Walker. A teacher of Mexican and Polish descent, she and her biracial husband moved from Chicago’s Humboldt Park to Oswego two years ago, largely because they wanted a safer neighborhood for their young son.

Walker taught at Clemente High School on the West Side, where tension between Mexican, Puerto Rican and black students sometimes boiled over into fights. She hasn’t seen anything like that at Oswego East, she said.

“When it comes to kids getting along, it’s more relaxed,” she said. “You’re not in the hustle and bustle of the city. Subdivisions are not as segregated here. In the city, you’re taught to stick with your own.”

Junior David Cohen, 16, a student of Jewish and Mexican descent who arrived four years ago from the south suburb of Lynwood, said “a pride thing” was behind racially motivated disputes in his old middle school. His current classmates don’t have the same hang-ups, he said, pointing to his three comrades on a school bowling team: black, Hispanic and Filipino. They call themselves “the United Nations.”

That doesn’t mean Oswego East has been a never-ending chorus of “Kumbaya.”

Cohen and others spoke of a band of classmates two years ago who cut their hair skinhead style and menaced others with nasty looks, hallway shoves and racist epithets. Those kids have become less visible, but Obama’s victory brought out some conflict.

“I heard your basic racial remarks: ‘Why do we have to have a black president?’ ” said junior Ryan Cochrane, 16, who is black.

There also is a racial gap in the school’s test scores. Whites are just meeting state standards, but blacks and Hispanics are well below, a disparity that has put the school on academic early warning status. If the low scores continue, students would be allowed to transfer to Oswego High, a higher-scoring, less-diverse school.

Craig points to progress, such as recent improvement in the percentage of blacks meeting math and reading standards. He said that is evidence all students can respond to high expectations and the right incentives (juniors with passing scores receive free parking spaces and prom tickets, and exemptions from final exams).

The district is trying to recruit more blacks and Hispanics to diversify its nearly all-white faculty and administration, and has contracted with a diversity trainer to examine how it can better work with an increasingly multiracial student body. The trainer, Bea Young of Chicago’s Kaleidoscope Group, said one way is for educators to become aware of sometimes-unconscious biases that can affect what happens in the classroom.

“When we can have discussions directly about our racial views, about how students are interacting with us and each other, we can increase our expectations for those students,” she said. “And there’s already some research that shows the teachers’ expectations have great influence on how we will close that racial gap.”

Some newcomers say the school is giving their children a valuable education in human relations.

Anita Evans, 48, moved from Chicago’s South Side to a Montgomery duplex two years ago to keep her daughter, Janelle Exson, away from violence. She was initially concerned about the relatively small percentage of black students at Oswego East. But as Janelle made a racially varied band of friends who shared her love of reading, Evans came to see the diversity as a lifelong advantage for her daughter.

“What I like about it is that it’s what the world is,” Evans said. “Go to all-black schools, even though you’ll have different teachers and professors, it’s different from being in a different group. That’s [the experience] I wanted her to have.”


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