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On Aug. 18, School District 65 administrators presented to members of the School Board a three-year plan containing three goals and numerous strategies to improve academic achievement, improve the District’s facilities, and maintain financial solvency. The plan brings together in one document many of the strategies the District has implemented in the past few years to improve student achievement.

“A major, major focus of these goals” is an “assertive push for in-classroom supports, rather than pull-out supports” for struggling students. — Dr. Hardy Murphy, Superintendent

The plan continues an effort to consolidate as much learning as possible into the general education classroom. In the early 2000s, the District began to shift from using pull-out programs for struggling readers to using the regular classroom as the primary place to meet the needs of those students. In the last few years the District has emphasized the need to educate students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to the maximum extent possible in the general classroom. At the same time, the District plans to challenge advanced students in the general classroom.

Many of the strategies proposed are geared to assist teachers to instruct a diverse group of students in the general education classroom. Many of the strategies have been recommended in the District’s Differentiation and Enrichment Plan, its Response to Intervention (Rti) Plan, its Technology Plan, the District and School Improvement Plans, and have been in place or are in the process of being implemented.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy told members of the Board, “What you’ll see here is an extension of goals and efforts that have been part of our continuous process of school and District improvement over the past several years.” He said the goals focus on “what is important” as determined by “an analysis of what the Board is saying, what the public is looking for, what the data is saying that we should concentrate on, and, as educational professionals, what we think are the absolutely most important things to concentrate our energy and time upon.”

The administration proposed the three-year plan about a month before the District’s Strategic Planning Committee was scheduled to finalize a draft of a five-year strategic plan for the District. Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable the proposed three-year plan should be looked at as a draft to initiate discussion, and that it could be adjusted to reflect priorities of the District.

Focus on Push-In Supports

Dr. Murphy emphasized that a key part of the plan was to push supports for struggling students into the general education classroom. He said “a major, major focus of these goals” is an “assertive push for in-classroom supports, rather than pull-out supports” for struggling students.

“We want to do less pull-out and more push-in,” he said. “We want to try to create interventions that are more effectively delivered in the general education classroom, rather than pulling students out and separating them from their peers.

“The most powerful concept in this plan for transforming student achievement and services to children in our District can be found on the pages … where it says that the measurement indicator is to reduce the number of students, K-8, for pull-out interventions, both those with and without IEPs,” he added.

“That is transformational. We’re saying we’re going to serve students in classrooms because we know the further away they are from the regular classroom, the more likely they are to fail.

“These are powerful concepts,” he continued. “It means students will come to school and be taught in classrooms with their peers.”

Many of the strategies listed in the proposed plan are geared toward assisting teachers to meet the needs of struggling students in the general education classroom. Under the plan, Ellen Fogelberg, director of literacy, said the District will use its testing and assessment system to determine “if students are not where we want them to be” academically and “what is preventing them from being there.” The District will design interventions for struggling students and then use assessments “to determine if the interventions are having the desired effect.” If not, the interventions will be adjusted to meet the needs of a student.

Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz said the District will provide differentiated professional development for teachers “to appropriately adapt the curriculum and modify instruction for students with IEPs and at-risk students in their classrooms,” and “to assist special education teachers to increase their ability to deliver content-area instruction.” She said the District will also train teachers to effectively monitor whether interventions are working for students.

To assist teachers to differentiate instruction, Ms. Fogelberg said the District is developing “structured lesson plans” that reflect classroom interventions specific to student groups and acquiring a more complete array of programmatic materials specifically designed to teach students significantly below grade level.

A key strategy Dr. Murphy mentioned is to increase the use of co-teachers in the classroom. He said it was important to increase the number of classrooms where co-teaching was used and the amount of time they are used. He said, “[Co-teaching] means providing services in the classroom so we can differentiate [instruction] in those classrooms, so we can individualize in those classrooms, so that we can create in-classroom supports to the degree we don’t have them now.”

Another strategy is to provide interventions for struggling students either before or after school. “We’re talking about using extended-day as part of the Rti process so we would be implementing interventions during extended day to ensure students would be receiving the full benefit from classroom instruction,” said Ms. Schultz. “So they’re not missing classroom instruction, we’re using extended-day to provide any interventions that students may need as a way of double-dosing them, of giving them a second dose of instruction in their needed area.”

Advanced Learners/Enrichment

The plan contemplates that each school will “create an array of academic co-curricular and extra-curricular enrichment activities (e.g., literacy, math, engineering, technology, science, summer camps, virtual learning opportunities, competitions, etc.).” Ms. Shultz said this would be done at the school rather than the District level.

Dr. Murphy said, “We’re talking about enrichment activities for all students to make every child’s instructional experience a more robust, challenging and enjoyable experience, and we’re talking about using [enrichment] for in-school as well as out-of-school activities.”

Ms. Shultz said, “This provides a very exciting opportunity to look at what we can do with technology and how we can develop activities that are related to the curriculum and activities that are of interest to students that are outside the curriculum so that we can provide enrichment to our students.”

One strategy Dr. Murphy referred to was training teachers to effectively use technology in instructing students. “We think it [technology] offers all kinds of potential. We know that we have to train our teachers so that, as I like to say, ‘every child can become a search engine,’ and we can reach out of our classrooms to the world and beyond.”

Paul Brinson, chief information officer, said high schools and colleges throughout the country have been using virtual learning as an educational tool. He said he is working with Jason Ewing, instructional technology coordinator, to develop an after-school “virtual magnet school,” where students from different schools would be able to come together on the Internet and share ideas and carry on discussions. As an example, he said students could learn about robotics and design software to operate a robot. He said the District plans to have a pilot project up and running in January and is working diligently toward offering a virtual magnet school next fall.

While not expressly stated in the proposed plan, Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable the District also plans to implement the recommendation of the Differentiation and Enrichment Study Committee, DESC, to use differentiated instruction to challenge advanced learners in the classroom. He said the District would provide professional development to assist teachers to do this, using the Tomlinson Model of Differentiated Instruction that was recommended by DESC.

Suzanne Farrand, math and gifted coordinator, also said the District planned to explore the feasibility of using the Renzulli-Schoolwide Enrichment Model, a research-based model, which focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement. This was another recommendation of DESC.

Pre-K Programs

The three-year plan also proposes to “strengthen and expand the District’s Pre-K programs for at-risk students.” Ms. Shultz said, “We’re working to ensure that we’re serving all students, all at-risk students, in the District 65 attendance area, and we’re looking at strengthening that program.”

This year the District anticipates that it will serve about 350 children in its Head Start and Pre-K at Risk programs, and that it may serve an additional 40 children if it receives a grant to establish a second Pre-School for All classroom. In addition, the District anticipates it will serve about 75 families, with children ages birth to 3 years old, through its family center. One goal of these programs is to prepare children so they are ready to learn.

“[Co-teaching] means providing services in the classroom so we can differentiate [instruction] in those classrooms, so we can individualize in those classrooms, so that we can create in-classroom supports to the degree we don’t have them now.” — Dr. Murphy

Board member Keith Terry said, “One could argue that there’s an achievement gap, but one could argue there’s a preparation gap. So if it’s really a preparation gap, let us take that into account.”

Jerome Summers, who has strongly supported strengthening early childhood programs during his tenure on the Board, said preparing children so they are ready to learn by kindergarten or first grade would help those children succeed in school and also reduce the need for interventions later on.

Additional Strategies to Improve Achievement

The proposed plan identifies a number of additional strategies to improve student achievement:

  • Principals: The District will implement a professional development program for principals; student progress will be part of the evaluation system for principals, Ms. Shultz said.

  • Teacher Recruiting: The District will attempt to recruit teachers with dual certification, such as in general education and special education or general education and reading, said Darlene von Behren, director of human resources. She added the District will attempt to assist principals to find the very best teachers from a pool of 900 applications received each year.
  • TWI: The District plans to “strengthen the bilingual education program to accelerate English-language acquisition.” Currently the Two-Way-Immersion,TWI, program phases in English learning for native Spanish-speakers over a five- or six-year period. Ms. Shultz said the TWI program is “out of sync” with the state’s accountability system which now requires all third-graders to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, ISAT, in English. To respond to this development, Ms. Shultz said, “As skills of native Spanish speakers increase, they will be given more literacy instruction in English to accelerate their English acquisition.” She emphasized, however, that the District would “maintain the integrity of the TWI program.”
  • Parents: Another strategy is to “create more effective parent-school partnerships.” Dr. Murphy said, “We all know it’s important for us to establish more effective partnerships with parents.” Referring to the Johns Hopkins Family Improvement Program implemented a year or two ago, he said, “We think the program still offers us enough promise to where if we embrace it with gusto, our schools can reach out to parents in ways that we haven’t reached out to them before, and parents will find our institutions warm and receptive and won’t see us as an organization they have to think twice about negotiating.”
  • Board Reaction/Next Steps

    The Board’s reaction was generally favorable. Mr. Terry said, “I think that what you presented to us is pretty doggone good…For the first time, to me, it’s something that looks into the future and it allows us to reach for something versus react to something.”

    Mr. Summers said, “There are a lot of forward-thinking things in here, and I applaud that.”

    Mary Rita Luecke said, “In a sense this is what I was looking for. You have been analyzing here what I think the District needs, and overall, I think this is pretty reflective of what most of us think the District needs.” She added, though, she did not want the TWI program to lose the concept of educating Spanish-speaking student in their native language, and she did not want students needing special education services to be deprived of those services. She also said the plan needed to state that the District will have high expectations for high-achieving students.

    Several Board members questioned how the three-year plan would interplay with the five-year strategic plan currently being prepared by a District committee composed of administrators, principals, teachers and parents. While saying the three-year was an “excellent first step,” Bonnie Lockhart said, “I think this discussion could be a bit premature, because we just spent a whole summer talking about a five-year strategic plan; and I just would hate for all the work that was done and all the sacrifices that people made to come out to all those meetings to be put on a back burner because of the plan we’re going to adopt right now or that we’re considering adopting.”

    Dr. Murphy said, “There isn’t anything in here that is not covered by the strategic plan. I can also say to you that everything in the strategic plan is not covered by these goals…If you asked us what are the absolute most important things for us to focus on to improve the District, they would be these things.”

    Ms. Erickson asked the administration to spell out how the proposed three-year plan would be implemented on a year-by-year basis and to summarize how it matches up with the draft five-year strategic plan. The Board is scheduled to consider the proposed three-year plan at its Sept. 22 meeting.

    In the interim, the District’s strategic planning committee is scheduled to meet on Sept. 13 to continue discussing a draft strategic plan for the District. After a draft strategic plan is prepared, the committee will hold public forums to obtain input from administrators, teachers and parents. Under a planning calendar approved by the Board on Aug. 18, the Board is scheduled to vote on the strategic plan on Oct. 20.

    Larry Gavin

    Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...