At its March 14 meeting, the District 65 School Board discussed engaging in “Courageous Conversations” about race and diversity, to be led by Pacific Education Group (PEG), a California based organization, that says it believes systemic racism is the most devastating factor contributing to the diminished capacity of all children – especially black and brown children – to achieve at the highest levels.

Some Board members suggested that the “conversation” be expanded to include Latinos and sexism, as well as other factors that contribute to the achievement gap between white and minority students. At the urging of Board president Keith Terry, the District will seek a proposal from PEG, and vote on the proposal at a subsequent meeting, possibly as early as next week.

Mr. Terry opened the discussion saying the idea came up a year ago at a joint meeting between the District 65 and 202 School Boards. At that meeting, members of the District 202 School Board reported they were engaging in courageous conversations with guidance from PEG. A number of District 65 Board members said at the time they thought it was something District 65 should do.

Courageous Conversations is a framework developed by PEG “to address racial matters and deinstitutionalize racism in education.” The framework “enables leaders to dialogue with others about race in an authentic way that leads to collaborative problem solving and solutions,” says PEG.

PEG prepared an equity assessment report for Evanston Township High School in March 2009 and has guided ETHS School Board members, administrators, and teachers through Courageous Conversations in 2009 and 2010. PEG has trained 320 people at ETHS in its “Beyond Diversity” seminar, and is scheduled to offer the seminar to community members in May.

PEG’s Premise and Program

PEG emphasizes the importance of providing students with college-level skills so they can obtain a decent job in today’s world. This places heightened importance “to teach all children at high levels,” and a heightened importance to “narrow the existing achievement gaps between students of color and their white counterparts,” says PEG.

“We need to honestly use the data we now have, and also have an honest conversation – a courageous conversation some would say – about our individual subgroups, and their individual struggles within our standards-based context,” says PEG. “We must not simply consider where a gap exists, but look at the root causes of why the gap exists and lay out clear goals around what it’s going to take to narrow the gap and we will set clear benchmarks for success – benchmarks with which we will hold ourselves accountable for results.”

PEG says “Causes of the achievement gap are complex and include school, community, and societal factors.” It states, though, “At Pacific Educational Group, we believe that systemic racism is the most devastating factor contributing to the diminished capacity of all children – especially black and brown children – to achieve at the highest levels, and it leads to the fracturing of communities that nurture them.”

PEG says courageous conversations should be used to uncover “institutionalized biases” and they should be used to consider “whether, institutionally, low expectations or other factors are holding specific groups of children back.”

PEG’s Framework

PEG framework begins with preparing a “comprehensive Equity Assessment Report” that “includes recommendations for engaging in Courageous Conversations about Race and further development of a District-wide/Systemic Equity Transformation Plan.”

The process then includes developing equity leadership at the District level, at the school level, among teachers at each school, among community members, and among students. 

PEG provides a two-day seminar, “Beyond Diversity,” which it says is the foundation for all equity leadership development.

School leaders “must regularly engage in thoughtful exploration of institutionalized racism and its impact on student learning, and provide professional development opportunities that support school staff to develop the will, skill, knowledge, and capacity to achieve district-wide equity transformation.”

Board Discussion

At the March 14 meeting, all the Board members supported having conversations about race. Several thought, however, the conversation should be expanded to include sexism, to include Latinos and other cultures, and to include other factors that cause the achievement gap beyond institutional racism. Several thought the Board should seek proposals from organizations in addition to PEG.

Jerome Summers supported moving ahead with PEG. He said, “In Evanston we really don’t have conversations about race. We kind of tap around it. It’s a worthy conversation.”

Kim Weaver said, “I’m interested in the conversation.” While saying she did not know if the District would need to use PEG, she added, “I do think that District 202 got a lot out of working with PEG. I think everyone on [the District 202] Board got a lot out of it.” She suggested the conversations be broadened to include sexism.

Katie Bailey said she supported having productive conversations about race dating back to the time of the joint meeting with District 202. She suggested, though, the Board step back and decide what it wanted to accomplish before deciding what group to go with. She said she thought it would be worthwhile to get proposals from two or three groups “to understand our options.”

Bonnie Lockhart said, “The issue is being able to have a courageous conversation. It’s not just about the Board having the conversation, it’s about key people in District 65 being included in the conversations and using the conversation to eliminate racism and to change the stereotypes people have about race.”

Tracy Quattrocki supported having the conversations about race. She suggested that the conversations include Latinos and supported exploring the gender gap in test scores, saying these were also important conversations to have.

Andy Pigozzi said he thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor, but asked if this was the right time to do it, in light of financial and other issues facing the District.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “One could deduce from our results that we could be more successful in addressing ‘institutional racism’ that’s the result of ingrained practices and beliefs. Tapping into these issues is a risky business. What I’ve heard everyone say is they want it to be broader than race.”

Suggesting that PEG’s framework may not be flexible enough to include other issues, he said “They [PEG] have made it very clear that their business is racial and equity. … PEG is focused very narrowly on the issue of racism.”

Ms. Quattrocki said the Board should define its objectives. If the Board wanted to discuss race, she thought PEG would be the best vehicle. If the Board wanted to talk about the achievement gap, she said most researchers say it is due to multiple factors, in which case the Board may want to broaden its discussion. While saying both are legitimate objectives, she suggested the Board should define what it wants to accomplish and then seek proposals from several organizations.

Both Mr. Terry and Summers quickly said the goal is to address the achievement gap. Mr. Summers said PEG would address the achievement gap by “basically eliminating the policies, practices and expectations that diminish the achievement of minority students.”

Mr. Terry pushed to move ahead with PEG, saying PEG has a defined program, that they know the community through their work with ETHS, and that if the Board wants to address additional issues beyond the focus that PEG brings to the table, it could continue to do so.

After discussion, the concensus was to have Dr. Murphy ask PEG if it could expand the conversations to include Latinos and gender gaps, and ask for estimates of the time requirements and the cost. The Board will vote on PEG’s proposal at a subsequent meeting. If a proposal is in hand, Mr. Terry said the Board may be asked to vote on it next Monday.