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Connections: There's Always Hope

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Hope is also the fuel that has driven Oak Park, Ill., in its 30-year effort to integrate successfully its affluent neighborhoods and schools (page 32). As black families began to migrate from Chicago to the suburbs in the 1960s, the residents of solidly white Oak Park set an extraordinary example for the nation by working to assure the peaceful assimilation of their new neighbors. Town officials, real-estate agents, community organizations, and individuals collaborated to avoid the block-by-block influx of blacks that inevitably led to white flight elsewhere. One professor says: "People in other places defined themselves as threatened and got the hell out; people in Oak Park got together and prepared for change.''

One of the most critical changes, Oak Parkeans knew, would be in the schools. Any slippage in quality or safety would be attributed to the increasing numbers of minority students and would prompt families to move. There are recent signs that such slippage has begun. Minority enrollment in Oak Park's high school has increased steadily and at a faster rate than the community's population--so has academic and social segregation, which has led to problems and tensions between the races. Black student achievement is lagging--partly because too many African-American youngsters reject academics and partly because the school doesn't demand enough of them. Even middle-class black families are concerned that many black students are confusing professed academic indifference and inappropriate behavior with black cultural expression. One prominent community leader notes that too many African-American kids are getting away with a "ghetto mentality.''

Educators and residents in Oak Park knew 30 years ago that the odds were against them--just as the Trenton families know it now. Racism has been too deeply ingrained for too long in this society to yield easily. But they were determined then, and they are not giving up now. They have worked too hard, and they still have hope.

Pray that they succeed and that everyone learns from them, for as Frederick Douglass prophesied at the onset of the Civil War, "The destiny of the black American...is the destiny of America.''

--Ronald A. Wolk

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