At the District 65 School Board’s Feb. 3 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Ellen Fogelberg laid out “what our next steps ought to be” in light of the District’s 2013 Achievement Report, which generally showed that growth in achievement has been flat for the last five years.
Ms. Fogelberg said the District would continue to focus on its current initiatives, which she said “have not had time to mature, so the full impact on achievement cannot yet be determined.” These include the Inclusion program, Response to Intervention, the writing initiative, independent reading, arts integration, and the Child Parent Center.
She organized some newer initiatives and new ideas around the “5Essentials.” Based on extensive studies of Chicago public schools, which are generally high poverty schools, researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found there are five essential components for school success: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, a student-centered learning climate and ambitious instruction.
The five elements have been talked about in education circles for many years. What the study found was that schools that measured strong in all five areas were at least 10 times more likely than schools with just one or two strengths to achieve substantial gains in reading and math. A sustained weakness in just one of these areas undermined virtually all attempts at improving student learning.
In response to a question about which areas the District should focus on, Ms. Fogelberg said, “first and foremost” the District should focus on ambitious instruction. She added that involving families “is an area we are all ready to go.” Assistant Superintendent Sue Schultz added a third area: effective leadership.
In adopting their Joint Literacy goal on Jan. 13, the District 65 and 202 School Boards decided to implement “a model of disciplinary literacy.” Ms. Fogelberg said the District is moving ahead to implement “disciplinary literacy” in the 2014-15 school year.
Disciplinary literacy is “a departure from the work we’ve done in the past,” said Ms. Fogelberg on Jan. 13. She explained that teachers previously taught students general strategies on how to read a text, whether it was a novel, a history book, or a math textbook. In disciplinary literacy, a math teacher would be expected to teach students how mathematicians read and understand math. She said a mathematician does not just use general strategies, but uses specific strategies, which are different than an historian would use.
Scott Bramle, department chair for English and Reading at ETHS, explained, “Teachers are not just dispensing content and they’re not just dispensing skills relative to their content area, but they’re teaching critical thinking skills in relation to their world – how a mathematician, or an historian, or an engineer would engage in discourse in the greater world.
In essence, when students are taking a math course, they are expected to get inside the head of a mathematician and read, write, and think like a mathematician. When they take a history course, they are expected to get inside the head of a historian, and read, write and think like a historian. And the same applies when they are taking a science, a literature or another course.
Ms. Fogelberg said, in this model, students progress through three stages of literacy development: basic, intermediate, and disciplinary. Disciplinary literacy is generally used in middle school and high school. It is intended to better prepare students to take rigorous high school and college courses across many disciplines.
Another suggested way to improve instruction is to increase the number of instructional coaches who can work with teachers to improve their instructional techniques in the classroom. In the last few years, the District cut back on the number of instructional coaches during the budgeting process. “Oftentimes the most effective professional development that we can provide is to have somebody working with a teacher in their classroom, either doing a demonstration lesson and then asking the teacher to apply the lesson, or coaching the teacher as they are presenting the material,” said Ms. Fogelberg.
In the 2012-13 school year, District 65 initiated a plan to move from a system of strong central control to a “distributive leadership” model. As part of this shift, instructional leadership teams were established at the schools in an effort to give them more autonomy in addressing the needs of their students. “I think the schools feel very strongly that is a great support for them,” said Ms. Fogelberg. “It really allows them to take a look at their own results and, together as a staff, design supports and interventions that address the needs of their particular schools.”
The distributive leadership model, of course, heightens the need that principals be effective leaders. Ms. Fogelberg said the District is planning to offer a three- to five-day summer institute for principals to increase their capacity as instructional leaders. Other ideas include giving teachers more leadership positions by, for example, combining classroom teaching with administrative leadership.
Board member Richard Rykhus said, “For the past couple of years, it has been a goal of the Board to have the superintendent focus on really developing effective leaders. I think there’s a lot of research too that shows how important that is for everything that happens at a school. In particular, as I looked at some of the work being done here, I wondered about coaching and mentoring to help our leaders be more effective. Just like you’ve got coaching and mentoring on the teacher side of it, coaching and mentoring your leaders is really critical and I’m throwing that on the table.”
Ms. Schultz said this year the District is providing mentors for new principals and new assistant principals.
Barb Hiller, who had extensive experience coaching principals before becoming chief administrative officer for District 65, said the coaching is done in a confidential manner, and the coaches work with the principals or assistant principals to help them think about how to achieve the District’s or the school’s goals.
“Part of the coaching that really pays off is the ability to help people think through and make good decisions,” said Ms. Hiller. She added that the District was starting to use “group coaching” this year with the new assistant principals. “I think it’s a strong program,” she said.
In terms of involving families, Ms. Fogelberg referred to the Cradle to Career initiative that was unveiled in December, and the community school pilot at Chute Middle School that was approved by the Board in September. She said each of these initiatives has great potential.
The vision of the Cradle to Career initiative is that by the age of 23, “all Evanston youth will be leading productive lives.” It is anticipated that Districts 65 and 202 will partner with as many as 30 community organizations to achieve this goal using a collective impact model.
The Joint Literacy goal adopted by the District 65 and 202 School Boards on Jan. 13 fits within the Cradle to Career initiative. The Boards have committed to partner with each other to ensure that all students are proficient and college and career ready by the time they graduate from Evanston Township High School. The have also committed to partner with community organizations, particularly early childhood providers, to achieve the goal.
In the community school pilot, District 65, the Youth Organization Umbrella and McGaw YMCA have agreed to partner with each other and other interested organizations to bring resources into Chute to address the needs of students and their families in a holistic manner, with the ultimate goal of improving student achievement. Engaging parents is a critical part of the pilot.
“I think this is a real area of opportunity for us,” said Mr. Rykhus. “If you look at the initiatives that are listed there, these are all relatively new and so obviously we need lots of time for those to play out. But I think it’s an area that we as a District haven’t focused as much on at a District level.
“I think some people may view involved parents as parents who go to PTA meetings or show up at the school in some way physically,” Mr. Rykhus continued. “In reality, I think a lot of research shows that we need to help parents to really help their children learn and know how to do that. So I think these initiatives will really help address that. I think that’s really an exciting area where we’re seeing a shift in our focus.”
The District is also considering ways to strengthen it summer school program, the Two-Way Immersion. See accompanying stories.