Evanston Township High School will engage in a comprehensive assessment of causes of and solutions for racial educational disparities in addition to the many other activities and events scheduled during its 125th anniversary year.

According to a proposal approved last October, the District has contracted with Pacific Educational Group (PEG), a California-based consulting firm, to conduct a needs assessment at a cost of $10,000.

The assessment itself will consist of a series of focus groups and interviews “from a cross section of District stakeholders – administrators, teachers and support staff, parents, community members and students. … PEG will also review various District and school data,” according to the proposal.

Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon said several organizations in Evanston, such as the Evanston/North Shore YWCA and the McGaw YMCA are “doing the same thing, working on a community conversation on the same topic. All the people we were talking to suggested that we begin with a needs assessment before we actually develop a plan about how we might proceed with that kind of conversation and discussion within ETHS.”

“I hope that it will allow all of us to have some type of epiphany regarding how we conduct ourselves with people who are different than we are … to have an ‘aha’ kind of moment,” Board president Martha Burns told the RoundTable.

The on-site assessment will take place on Jan. 13 and 14, after which PEG “will provide the District with a summary of findings, emerging themes, common threads and top recommendations for eliminating racial disparities and improving achievement for all students. The report will include an assessment of the District’s readiness to engage in systemic equity transformation and recommendations regarding next steps,” according to the proposal.

The effort was initiated last spring when ETHS Teachers’ Council president David Futransky suggested at a School Board meeting that the school begin a conversation about race and privilege and the effects they have on student achievement.

The recommendation was made in the context of the discussion about changes to the Freshman Humanities program, which emphasized an expansion of mixed-level classes to provide more opportunity for minority students to do honors-level work.

As a result of Mr. Futransky’s suggestion, a committee on race and privilege was formed, composed of administrators, teachers, Board members and students. Mr. Futransky is the chair of the committee. Ms. Burns and Margaret Lurie are the Board representatives on the committee; Dr. Witherspoon, Assistant Superintendents Laura Cooper and Marilyn Madden are the administrators. Teachers include history teachers Chala Holland, Makota Ogura, fine arts teacher Tyrone Nelson, biology teacher Sheila Skweres and mathematics department chair Eugenia Brelias. Student representatives have changed since last school year.

“A lot of people at ETHS are looking forward to having this kind of discussion,” Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable. “This will give us a chance to look at how we can initiate some productive ideas around this issue of how race and privilege affect student achievement so that we can collaboratively make ETHS a place for all students.”

Mr. Futransky told the RoundTable that the committee had found several companies who do this kind of work but had selected PEG because “they had a strong framework” and “a strong background working with educational groups.”

Dr. Witherspoon said that PEG has worked with some Minority Student Achievement Network districts, including “Chapel Hill [N.C.] and [Arlington] Virginia.”

Both Dr. Witherspoon and Mr. Futransky said PEG would do the needs assessment, but that the District is not committed to hire them to do any follow-up work. However, Dr. Witherspoon said PEG “would certainly be one group competing to work with us and that they would have a proposal of what they would propose as the next steps for ETHS.”

In addition, Dr. Witherspoon and Mr. Futransky both said that, although the District had engaged in short-term workshops on similar topics before, this time the effort would be longer-term.

“We will have sustained conversations over a period of time,” said Dr. Witherspoon. Mr. Futransky said that the effort could take “several years.”

Several committee members attended a fall workshop conducted by PEG in New Orleans titled “The Summit for Courageous Conversation: Achieving Racial Equity and Excellence in Education.”

“We were very impressed with what we saw,” Mr. Futransky told the RoundTable. Ms. Burns said “their experience was transforming.”

“These are difficult conversations,” said Mr. Futransky. “PEG calls them ‘courageous conversations.’ The District has the courage to do this. … Now is a good time.”