Education | Interviews

Don’t Call It Activism

Troy LaRaviere on racial realities and the responsibilities of a school

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Lakeview’s Blaine Elementary School, has made a name for himself as the CPS employee who speaks out. Heavily critical of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, standardized testing, charter schools, and much more, LaRaviere was formally reprimanded by the Board of Education in August. He has overseen significant academic growth at Blaine, however, winning the mayor’s principal merit pay award for three consecutive years. LaRaviere, the son of a mother from the North Side and a father from the South Side, grew up with his four siblings and single mother all over the South Side. He has taught in a wide variety of schools both in Champaign and Chicago, and currently resides in Beverly. The Weekly spoke to LaRaviere recently about his childhood, his job, and his activism.

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I’m from Chicago. I went to Chicago Public Schools—four of them. Altgeld, Sherman, Carter, and Mollison were the elementary schools, and then there was Dunbar High School. My mother is white and my father is black. She was born and raised on the North Side. Five of us kids. After she became pregnant with my oldest brother, Michael, she was told she had to leave the North Side and couldn’t bring the kid in the house. So she left with pretty much no high school education and had to make a life for herself. She moved to South Side, was homeless for a while, had me and my other brothers and sisters. She was the only white person for miles but it was a pretty much basic life of an impoverished single family household in the slums on the South Side. I moved all over. We were in Englewood, Back of the Yards, Washington Park, Bronzeville. I ended up going to the vocational high school, a trade school; that’s what Dunbar was for, kids who decided college was not their path.

My mother would send us to our grandparents’ house in a working class area of Auburn Gresham, now West Englewood, every weekend and all summer long, and that’s where I met a girl who would later become my girlfriend, who went to Whitney Young. She was completely my opposite: I was one of five in a single-parent household, she was an only child with two parents. She was going to college from the day she was born. We both graduated in ’87 and she went off to [the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] and I went off to the US Navy. And I got out and she kept trying to convince me to go to college.

My time in the Navy was pretty powerful in terms of me making the decision to speak up [against the Emanuel administration]. I was out there risking my life thousands of miles away for the freedoms we tell our kids they have in eighth grade constitution class. There was no way I was going to be out there and then relinquish those freedoms to an elected official and his board of education—no way in hell that would happen. I was going to make America be America, make Chicago as if it was America, make CPS operate as if it’s a part of America or force it to say, “No, we’re not.”

Eventually I applied to college and was accepted to U of I and I remember being quite petrified that I was there. And [my girlfriend] gave me a book she was reading for a class: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Barack Obama talks about that effect that book had on him in Dreams from My Father and it had a similar effect on me, just the constant trying to become a better human. And after I read it, I bought two books—I’ve never forgotten this. I went and bought a book called They Stole It But You Must Return It, which is a book about black history and culture, and this other book called How to Get Straight A’s. And those three books shaped the next three decades of my life. I remember reading that Straight A’s book from cover to cover, taking detailed notes. I took it seriously because I was petrified. I was suffering from “stereotype threat”: as a member of a marginalized group that is stereotyped not to perform well in a certain type of activity, you will shy away from it. And as an African-American at the U of I, where a majority of students classify themselves as white, I had internalized it.

But I had my girlfriend and the books. And I’ll never forget my first semester: straight A’s, and the same the second and third semesters, and I thought, “I almost didn’t come here,” you know. I thought about my life. What was it about my experience growing up in America, in Illinois, on the South Side, that led to that false assessment of myself? I realized I don’t want to make the same mistake society does and blame everything on schools. But those were the parts of my life I had most control over, and I decided to change my major and do teaching and decided no student like me would come through my classroom and leave it without a sense of who they are and what they could accomplish. I was lucky that I had someone else there to push me and I would be that for others.

My first year teaching was typical. I struggled and I realized that teaching was a science. You don’t get into teaching and survive on motivation alone. I went back to the U of I after the first year to get a master’s and did my second year of teaching six years after my first, then did a PhD program. I’ve worked in majority Latino schools, black schools, and all of them have been pretty much high quality, mostly on the West Side and South Side.

When Blaine Elementary School called about hiring me, one of my references called me and said they asked him some interesting questions. One was “If we bring him in as our principal, how would you recommend we introduce him to our community,” —essentially to all these people defined as white. The person who was my reference felt like that was kind of insulting, but I wasn’t insulted by it. I know where I live, and I think too often we like to act like we don’t live in a place that has, you know, 300 years of slavery and segregation and red lining and “separate but equal.” We have to stop acting shocked every time we see the product of that culture—you know, we live in America, you’re gonna have that. It’s a part of who we became. You can’t get upset every time; it’s one of the things you know you’re gonna encounter, you just use them as opportunities to deconstruct that.

But when they voted to hire me they welcomed me in, all saying “We’re looking forward to seeing you,” “So good to see you,” just one person after another in an audience mostly with people defined as white. Fifty years ago my mother had to leave the North Side because of the color of one of her sons and now another one of her sons was being brought back into the North Side with one of the most important responsibilities you can give to a person—authority over schools—and I thought about her and how proud she would have been and that made it very meaningful. My results were unparalleled. One of the things I was proud about was growth and we were one of only four schools to make improvements in three of four categories and one stat after another like that. I have done more as principal of Blaine than I could have ever done had I remained working on the West or South Side. But I knew there was some reason for me to be there—we were able to use the cultural capital and financial capital and organize the capital here at Blaine to positively affect schools.

When we start talking about CPS and worse and better [schools], there has to be an entire shift in terms of what we think of as a good school. I believe in evidence-based education practice. I would love to say that I came to Blaine with all these wonderful innovative practices. I came in and did what the evidence and research says you do. When these international surveys come out a politician says, “Look how horrible [the US is] doing; we’re like twentieth [in education],” one of the things they never do is look at countries above us and say, “What does that evidence say they are doing?” Well, one thing is that none of the ones at the top track their students as early and systematically as we do, within or between schools. Tracking means one group gets an advanced curriculum, another doesn’t, and when you have a curriculum like that, you automatically ensure that you have an achievement gap, particularly when most [students who are] getting the more advanced curriculum are relatively homogeneous in terms of social background.

But there’s a lot that has to happen to change it because we have this belief system that’s been cultivated. We live in a country that has a history of beliefs about race and class that spread into a system with tracking. You know, at Blaine we’re not taking advanced curriculums away from those who traditionally got it. We’re expanding other students’ access to it to the point where over ninety percent of our kids have access to an advanced curriculum and as a result their performance increases, at least as measured by tests. I think that something similar and deliberate needs to happen at a district level. You have to take into account the false cultural beliefs that people have and understand that just because they’re false doesn’t mean you ignore them because those false beliefs are going to affect behavior whether you yourself have them or not.

The data shows that CPS is in the middle, fiftieth percentile—those are the students we get. So the failing system is a false narrative. It’s that people in the communities they come from are already behind. How can a kid three years behind on day one be the fault of that school? Teachers are still giving kids the chance to grow—under tremendously adverse circumstances. The problem is that they come to us so far behind and we don’t have a process and support structures in place for that.

That’s where the mayor comes in. You know, he doesn’t like to look at himself. He represents a group of interests like banks who have access to the purse strings that he has on CPS and City Hall so that when they design education policy it has very little to do with evidence, my holy grail. They come in with economic theories based on no evidence that allow businesses to profit and that’s what this mayor is about. Emanuel represents companies that want to profit off our school system. And if he goes they’ll put someone else up to represent their interests, so it’s not just a Rahm Emanuel thing.

I think the word “activist” marginalizes people. I’m a principal and part of my job is to influence policy that impacts my students. I don’t consider myself an activist, but a good principal who is living up to my responsibilities.
Wherever I’ve gone I’ve seen parents who love their children and want the best for them and advocate the best they know how. And what I’ve seen is, in the school I am at now, the resources that they’re able to bring to children’s education not only in school but before they ever arrive are quite different.

I remember my third year teaching I got a kid in trouble and the mother happened to be at school and she was just irate at me. I remember looking at her daughter’s percentile rank on ISAT [Illinois Standards Achievement Test]. It was thirteen and I looked at that woman and said “Ma’am, do you know what your daughter’s reading scores are?” That ended the conversation and she walked away.

It was a real gut-shaking moment for me and I got extremely serious about thinking of a program for her that would take that thirteenth to something far higher, and I remember going home and spending my entire Thanksgiving break pouring over books and novels and reading programs, feeling like I hadn’t challenged my kids enough. As much as I said I believed, if I really did I would be doing more, so I put together a reading program for her and decided to do it for every kid in the classroom. That classroom grew so much that year with kids going from forty-second to ninety-second percentile—and I’ll never forget—she went from thirteen to fifty. Still, the difference I could’ve made would’ve been much larger if they had gotten what they needed in that developmental stage before school ever begins.

When I was in Champaign there was a kid… people basically called him my son and I did everything for him. They were about to expel him. I spent that entire year putting my heart and soul into him in particular—when school was out I’d go running and put him in my bike. I’d take him out to dinner with my wife, take him and his family out. You know, his mother had issues, father not around, brother headed to jail, and you can do all you want in the school. But I’ll never forget—I dropped him off at his house and his door was wide open so I walked into the house and there was no one there. It just gave me the strong belief that what I’m able to do in school doesn’t matter. When he goes home that’s a far greater influence on him than I will ever be, and if I wanted to be an influence I had to be there for him. I moved to Chicago the next year, got a job as a middle school teacher. He was still in Champaign, and a few years later he was in jail. It gave me a sense that our politicians and policymakers put way too much emphasis on schools and blame schools for their failure to enact policies that change people’s livelihoods and day-to-day conditions outside the school. That’s one of the reasons I feel that it’s necessary for me to speak up about larger policy issues that affect what my kids are able to do—things that I can’t address directly as teacher or principal but can articulate my understanding of to the public to influence policy.

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Correction, January 18, 2015: Because of a error in transcription, an earlier version of this article quoted the interviewee as using the phrase “stereotype fright”; the phrase used was “stereotype threat.”

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Thoughts on “Don’t Call It Activism”

  1. Thank you to SONIA SCHLESINGER and the South Side Weekly for their interest in our schools and the ideas and experiences I’ve brought into my work in CPS. This article is based on an extensive telephone interview and–with just a few minor exceptions–it is an accurate depiction of the points I made during the conversation. I won’t got through nitpicking the entire article, but there is one point that I feel the need to be clear on.

    The section that quotes me as saying, “You can’t get upset” at prejudice is missing just a little context. I don’t have the benefit of having the transcript but I’ve made this point before and the idea I normally try to get across is that we can’t get upset “EVERY TIME” someone demonstrates a predictable racial prejudice. Sometimes people are just acting out of ignorance and other times their intentions are malicious. People should certainly be upset when people act out of malice. For example, when Donald Trump opens his mouth to spew his hatred, he is intentionally fomenting distrust to divide people and bring one group to his side at the expense of another group. Their should be a strong and hostile response to the poison prejudices he injects into the American political dialogue. However, when people’s prejudices are based simply on the fact that they have fallen victim to the stereotypes that have been present and continuously cultivated in their culture for their entire lifetimes, you still have to address them affirmatively, but I don’t see any practical reason to respond to them as if they’re evil or malicious people. That only cuts people off from hearing your truth.

    Thanks again to Sonia and the Weekly for their interest in our schools, and for their interest in the experiences that have shaped how I approach my work.

  2. There are a few places that are missing a word or two that changes the meaning of what I was communicating. Most are minor but there’s one I feel the need to clarify. The section that quotes me as saying, “You can’t get upset” is a little out of context. I don’t have the benefit of having the transcript but I’ve made this point before and the point I normally make is that we can’t get upset “EVERY TIME” someone demonstrates a predictable racial prejudice. Sometimes people are just acting out of ignorance and other times their intentions are malicious. People should certainly be upset when people act out of malice. For example, when Donald Trump opens his mouth to spew his hatred, he is intentionally fomenting distrust to divide people and bring one group to his side at the expense of another group. Their should be a strong and hostile response to the poison he injects into the American political dialogue. However, when people’s prejudices are based simply on the fact that they have fallen victim to the stereotypes that have been present and continuously cultivated in their culture their entire lifetimes, you still have to address them affirmatively, but I don’t see any practical reason to respond to them as if they’re evil or malicious people. That only cuts people off from hearing your truth.
    Thank you to Sonia Schlesinger and the South Side Weekly for their interest in our schools and in the experiences I bring to my work .

  3. Wonderful insight into your psyche, but no surprise to me. Continue your journey and be kind enough to allow those who care to share your experiences and viewpoint!

    Clarice

  4. You continue to impress me with your wisdom about and commitment to children. You understand so well that a key element in stopping the destructive effects of brain dead bureaucrats is to focus on building strength and power one child, one class, one school at a time. Fighting dysfunctional bureaucracies is soul draining so make sure you have people around you who will nurture and support you. Hang in. Our future depends upon people like you, of whom we have too few.
    Joel
    (Rachel’s Dad)

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