TV series highlights alumna Stovall's struggle for equity at Chicago-area school

Alumni Spotlight: ‘Badger Fanatic’ Jessica Stovall

TV series highlights Stovall’s struggle for equity at Chicago-area school

By Nick Heynen, Division of Diversity, Equity and educational Achievement

For a self-described shy person, Jessica Stovall is making some big waves these days.

The 34-year old “Badger fanatic” and graduate of the UW– Madison School of Education spent the past 11 years teaching at the Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) in the suburbs of Chicago.

She’s been showered with accolades, including Illinois’ Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction and the Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Award, which allowed her to spend several months in New Zealand researching the country’s efforts to address the achievement gap between Maori and non-Maori students.

StovallThis past summer, she made the leap to the small screen as a subject in the documentary series “America to Me” by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself”). The 10-espisode series, which premiered Aug. 26 on STARZ and ran through Oct. 21, followed students, teachers and administrators over the course of a year as they grapple with racial and educational inequities.

Stovall made time to chat prior to the launch of the series, and just before she packed her belongings into her 2009 Pontiac to drive across the country in August with her mother to Stanford University, where she started working toward her Ph.D. this fall.

Q: How did you get involved with this documentary?

A: I had been working at OPRF since I graduated from UW– Madison in 2007 (in secondary education). When the school board approved the documentary, Steve James and the rest of the filmmakers started interviewing faculty, students, community members and parents, and I started to explore getting involved. They initially said it was just going to be for a week or two and that with a few teachers they may stay longer. Then they ended up staying for the full year. So I didn’t know what exactly I was signing up for. What it wound up being is a year in the life of one American public high school, but I think that people will find that it really is a microcosm for what is going on in schools across the U.S.

Q: What did you take away from the experience?

A: It’s a special experience to be vulnerable on screen. When you’re a woman of color on predominantly white campuses like UW–Madison or Northwestern or at OPRF, which has a predominantly white teaching staff, you can feel like you are alone; like your experiences are unique to you. Being in the documentary helped me see how my experiences are not unique. Hearing from people who watched it who say they saw themselves in me has been really powerful and energizing. It’s been a good touchstone for me as I think about my future research into supporting teachers of color in classrooms at predominantly white institutions.

Q: What do you think are some steps we can take as a society to help close the racial achievement gap in the U.S.?

A: We need to start having real conversations about race and how race has impacted our lived experiences and outcomes. When all those studies came out showing that young girls were not going into STEM fields, institutions put a lot of energy and attention into the problem and have made amazing gains since then. Now imagine if we did that for issues of race. 

Jessica Stovall on STARZ

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