Willowbrook senior continues journey of state-level work to promote inclusion and success for all Illinois students

When Eric Veal Jr. (pictured above) had the choice to decide where he wanted to attend high school, he knew Willowbrook was the right fit.

Growing up, Veal saw firsthand the inequities with which students can be faced and the negative impacts of that adversity. He wanted to be part of a school where he could help cultivate an environment of inclusion, where all students feel they belong – and he found that home at Willowbrook.

Veal, who is now a senior at Willowbrook, has been part of District 88’s equity work since his freshman year and continues to take on leadership roles. He chairs Willowbrook’s Black Organization for Student Success (BOSS), serves as Co-President of his class and is a veteran member of the school’s Youth Equity Stewardship (YES!) program, which strives to prepare students to recognize and learn from the diversity around them.

“What drives me is my passion to make sure all students have access and the opportunity to achieve their goals,” Veal said. “Equity is not the same as equality, and equity is imperative to ensure all students can succeed. The fact that Willowbrook and District 88 provide these options makes me feel supported, and I know I’m fortunate to be able to say that.”

Veal’s advocacy work extends beyond Willowbrook, as he has served on the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Student Advisory Council (SAC) since last year and was recently named as this year’s President. This year, the 21 council members will focus on developing ways to respond to the achievement gap that has widened because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic; creating a diversity, equity and inclusion framework; ensuring the safety and emotional well-being of students; and rethinking and strengthening teacher recruitment. Veal said he’s thrilled to lead the council, and the title is extra special, as the late District 88 Superintendent Dr. Scott Helton encouraged him to apply to the group.

“Dr. Helton and the rest of the District 88 administration value allowing all students to have a voice and empower them to sit at the table,” Veal said. “My goal as President of the ISBE SAC is to help other school districts establish that as well.”

Veal also was appointed by the ISBE to sit on a task force that is developing resource materials to support the Jett Hawkins Law, which bans discrimination in schools for hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity, or hair texture. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

While those roles and accomplishments are certainly impressive, Veal is making Illinois history as well. He has been appointed to the ISBE Educational Equity Task Force and will be the first student to co-chair a legislatively mandated task force.

During his time at Willowbrook, Veal has participated in more than 22 clubs, and he also volunteers with Feed My Starving Children and the food pantry at his local church. While Veal has made many contributions to Willowbrook and beyond, highlights include:

  • Cofounding and cohosting The Brook Channel, Willowbrook’s student news channel
  • Implementing two courses into the District 88 curriculum (United States History: American Mosaic and Equity and Justice in America)
  • Increasing involvement in and awareness of Willowbrook’s Black Organization for Student Success (BOSS)
  • Helping coordinate a memorial in honor of Sandra Bland (Willowbrook alumna, class of 2005, who passed away on July 13, 2015)
  • Presenting in multiple states as part of the White Privilege Symposium
  • Participating in national calls with the Youth Equity Stewardship (YES!) program

“Veal is so involved and engaged in our district that we often joke he should have his own office,” said Dr. Jean Barbanente, District 88 Superintendent. “His passion, knowledge, insight and foresight are truly remarkable, and he has a level of maturity and empathy far beyond his years. The legacy he will leave behind will be felt for years to come.”

Veal’s future plans include double majoring in political science and secondary education, with an emphasis in social studies. He also looks to stay active with the ISBE.

“I’m blessed to have these opportunities, but it also shows there is work to be done,” Veal said. “My biggest goal is to help develop culturally competent schools and keep pushing to make a positive difference for all students in Illinois.”