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Pacific Educational Group (PEG), a California-based organization, has recommended in a District Equity Assessment Report that School District 202 “engage in a program of professional learning designed to help leaders develop the will, skill, knowledge and capacity for eliminating racial educational disparities at [Evanston Township High School].”

PEG conducted its assessment at the request of the School Board and the Race and Privilege Steering Committee, formed to examine issues of racial disparity at the high school.

Questions at the heart of PEG’s assessment were “Why are black and brown children persistently and perpetually the lowest-performing student populations at Evanston Township High School?” and “What if the most devastating factor contributing to the lower achievement of African-American, Latino and American Indian children is institutionalized racism?”

“What if the most devastating factor contributing to the lower achievement of African-
American, Latino and
American Indian children is institutionalized racism?”
–PEG hypothesis

In an effort to gather information from administrators, teachers, parents and students concerning their beliefs about the causes and solutions for racial disparities in achievement, PEG met with 16 focus groups over a two-day period in January. More than 200 people participated. PEG also interviewed administrators and members of the Race and Privilege Steering Committee and reviewed various reports. PEG’s report was presented to the Board on March 23 by ETHS staff.

Only summary information was made available to the public in the report. “Participants in the focus groups were told their comments would be confidential.” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the RoundTable. “That is why their direct comments were not included in the PEG report.”

Some people at the March 23 Board meeting said the report was “long overdue” and “absolutely accurate.” Others said it was “incendiary” and “harmful to our community.”

Based on the recommendations of the equity assessment, Dr. Witherspoon said ETHS will begin a staff development project in the fall of 2009 to consider the effect that race and privilege have on student achievement in the District, with the goal of building a leadership team of 35-40 people charged with the responsibility of expanding discussion and training on the topic to the entire ETHS community.

“This is not a one-time or quick-fix kind of situation,” Dr. Witherspoon told the Board. “This is a commitment to doing some really sustained work … on how issues of race have an impact on students and their learning.”

Dr. Witherspoon said PEG would come in to help with initial staff development and training, and as “our leadership develops, we’ll decide what’s best for ETHS.” The District will spend “about $10,000” for PEG’s services, and Dr. Witherspoon said the funds are already budgeted as part of staff development.

“They come up with their conclusions,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “That doesn’t mean ultimately that they have to be ours. When we start our own deep conversations about these issues, that’s when we examine it and when we decide how valid it for us,” he added.

Disparity in student achievement along racial lines at ETHS is not a new topic, and many efforts have been put forward over the years to address the issue, with limited results. Nonetheless, David Futransky, a history teacher at ETHS and president of the Teachers Council, said, “There has never been an in-depth discussion that has gone on over a lengthy period of time about race, privilege and equity.” The Teachers’ Council first brought the initiative to the Board. The Race and Privilege Steering Committee, composed of administrators, board members, teachers and students, began to consider the influence of these factors on student achievement in early 2008.

PEG’s Findings

The PEG report commended the District for its efforts in “examining race-based achievement data and using the data to inform educational planning and program decisions” as well as implementing “various initiatives designed to improve achievement for students of color.” It also recognized the “courageous leadership of the Board, Superintendent and teacher leaders in forming the Race and Privilege Steering Committee to examine issues of racial disparity at ETHS.”

However, the report’s findings identified a number of “equity issues” that consultants said were “most compelling and have overarching importance for eliminating racial educational disparities at ETHS.” These were low expectations, segregation and isolation, access to rigorous learning, teacher quality and cultural proficiency and personalized learning environment. In addition, the report also discussed problems related to parent and community relations.

For example, the report stated that participants in every focus group “repeatedly cited low expectations for students of color.” The experience of the few black or Latino students in honors or AP classes is “difficult when they perceive that their teachers don’t think they are capable of higher level coursework,” according to the report.

Consultants noted “the level of racial segregation that was … startling.” Focus group participants spoke “matter-of-factly about ETHS as a ‘diverse and segregated’ school.”

The report also pointed out that “many ETHS adults and students spoke of the barriers to access for students of color in honors and AP classes…,” which provide rigorous learning opportunities. There were also “many comments about the divisiveness that has surrounded [the mixed-level class issue] and the perception that many white parents … do not want their children in classes with ‘those students.'” The report acknowledged that the perceptions might not be accurate, but still “contribute[d] to a learning environment that is hostile for students of color and further marginalizes them.”

Students were asked what made them feel successful at ETHS, and the report indicated that many students “mentioned a teacher who believed in them and expected them to achieve.” However, the report also cited many comments about teachers who “are not committed to all kids.”

Teachers at ETHS are not required to be “culturally proficient,” nor are there expectations for professional learning to help teachers develop cultural proficiency, according to the report. This is a necessary quality to encourage student achievement, the report said.

Students in general, but particularly students of color, talked about their desire for a more personal learning environment at ETHS, as well as more outreach on the part of teachers, the report said.

Finally, the consultants acknowledged that although the District could not directly control parents, they were concerned that “many people, from nearly every constituency group, including students, shared perceptions about an imbalance of power between white, privileged parents and the school district. Words such as ‘badger’, ‘bulldoze’ and ‘entitled’ were commonly used to describe the way these parents are perceived to engage with the school district. …,” said the report.

Board/Citizen Reaction

“I don’t like the tone of the whole thing,” said Board member Margaret Lurie. She also objected to the characterization of white parents as “badgering and bulldozing. … Everybody should want to have better education for their kids.”

“Whether they are right or wrong,” responded Board member Mary Wilkerson, “that is the way that a lot of people in the community feel. This needs saying, and then we can deal with it. …” Ms. Wilkerson also remarked that she would like to see more African-American and Hispanic parents advocating on behalf of their own children.

Board vice president Rachel Hayman reminded her fellow Board members that many different approaches have been tried in the past to address the issue of disparities in student achievement, with limited success. “Maybe it’s time to look at something else, and probably this is the subject that needs to be looked at.”

“It’s good to see in writing what many parents have been telling you guys for years and years,” said Terri Shepard, chair of the NAACP education committee. “As I was going through the report, I kept saying ‘I’ve heard people say that.'”

Seth Lichter, a Northwestern professor of mechanical engineering and parent of three District 65 students, had a different point of view. “I can state unequivocally that the conclusions in the report don’t follow from their analysis,” he said. “Maybe it’s in the Pacific Educational Group’s financial self-interest to believe that there is institutionalized racism in the high school. … There’s no reason to give this report any credence.”

Sample PEG Questions at the Forums

Below are some of the questions that representatives of the Pacific Educational Group asked members of focus groups about equity at Evanston Township High School.

• What are the racial issues facing the community?

• Why do you think there is a racial achievement gap at ETHS?

• What things have helped your student feel successful at ETHS? [question to parents]

• What things have gotten in the way of your student’s success? [question to parents]

• Why do you think brown and black students do not achieve as well at ETHS?

• What are the biggest barriers to eliminating racial achievement disparities at ETHS?

• What is the teacher’s role in eliminating racial disparities at ETHS?

PEG’s Definition of Culturally Proficient

PEG defines “”culturally proficient teachers”” as “”teachers who recognize the relationship between culture and learning, who continually reflect upon their own cultural experience and how it has shaped their assumptions and expectations for students, and who consistently use this knowledge to create learning environments that affirm and support students’ diverse learning needs will have the greatest impact on student achievement at Evanston Township High School.””