On March 19, the Evanston branch of the NAACP held a forum for School Board candidates to air their views on a variety of issues, including establishing a school in the Fifth Ward, the benefits of using the Pacific Education Group (PEG) at Evanston Township High School to discuss race, how to address the achievement gap, whether the School Boards should jointly meet more often in light of the common core standards’ goal of college and career readiness, how to address projected deficits, and the impact of rising property taxes on residents.

The forum, the last one before the April 5 election, lasted two hours. Each of the nine candidates was given only two minutes to answer each question. 

In an effort to reflect the nuances in the candidates’ views and their approach to addressing important issues, this article provides the candidates’ response to a few questions, rather than an edited summary to many questions. This article provides the District 65 candidates’ response to questions concerning a proposed new school in the Fifth Ward and the achievement gap. The article provides District 202 candidates’ response to questions concerning PEG and the achievement gap.

The candidates’ view on the importance of preparing students for college and career readiness, on how to address the budget, and on numerous other issues have been reported in previous issues of the RoundTable, and are available in the “Election” section of this paper.

District 65 Candidates:  

Question: Do you support building a new school in the Fifth Ward? 

Keith Terry: “The short answer is, absolutely. I think that the Board should definitely investigate this for a number of reasons. I think it’s fairly clear in the data that neighborhood schools have an impact on student achievement. If the Board is very interested in closing the achievement gap, then this is one area we should definitely investigate.” He added, “If you look at student achievement, it is true that African American kids, minority kids, have not necessarily an achievement issue but a readiness issue, and so I would argue that there are things that we can do in the Fifth Ward or the central core school that are complementary to what we have in place now. I absolutely say we investigate this.”

Mr. Terry added, though, “We should be careful to make sure the Board and the City can afford to do this. Fiscal responsibility is absolutely critical.”

J.B. Rees: “I also support building a school in the Fifth Ward. Looking at the history of it, it is in one word kind of heartbreaking. I can understand why in the late ’60s that the integration movement to integrate the Evanston schools was a big idea, an important idea. But now 40 years later the idea of having a neighborhood school back in the Fifth Ward, I think the time has come.”

While saying that a Fifth Ward school would likely be predominantly African American, he said, “Kids come back together in middle school and at the high school.  … The trade-off we might make in integration on this issue, I think it’s more important to have this neighborhood school.” He said he would go a step further, saying, “I’d like to see a KIPP school in there. The track record for KIPP schools is phenomenal.”

Mr. Rees said the “biggest hurdle” was the cost and the pressure on property taxes.

Richard Rykhus: “I am supportive of the idea of neighborhood schools and every neighborhood having their schools.” He said there was an “issue of equity that has been going on for decades that we need to address.” The issue is that students in the Fifth Ward are sent to seven elementary schools, while the average for other wards is three schools. “It’s a very, very serious issue we have to address.” He added that the District needed to address its space capacity issues for the long-term.

Mr. Rykhus advocates looking at “every single solution. What is most important is when we’re done with this process we actually have a solution that works for kids. We have to make sure the community understands that we have looked in depth with equal rigor at all possible solutions that could address the problem.”

“There might be an assumption that neighborhood schools are better for achievement, but the data doesn’t actually show that, so I think we have to be very careful when we look at the solution to make sure that is going to address equity, capacity and achievement.”

Eileen Budde: “I too support neighborhood schools. I think there is social capital that is built when you know your neighbors, and that happens largely through the children knowing each other and the parents’ getting to know each other.”

“A crucial question I am hoping to find out the answer to by following the proceedings of the New School-Referendum Committee – I’m hoping to hear what families in the Fifth Ward want. I don’t think I’ve heard that yet, so I’m holding my decision on what I think should happen until I hear what those families want for their children. The tax burden that would be increased would be increased on them as well as on the rest of the District if we did build a new school. …”

 “One governance option has been a charter school option.” Citing research by Diane Ravitch, an education historian, Ms. Budde said, “Districts that are in desperate shape can benefit from charter schools, but I don’t get the sense that our District needs a charter school, and I don’t think we can conclude that it is going to necessarily be better than our standard model that we would use.” 

“I too am in favor of looking at all reasonable options, and I’m very eager to hear what the committee finds out in the next few months.”

Katie Bailey: “What stands out to me is that kids on one street corner can go to five or six different schools, and if you don’t think that impacts a community, you just need to go to a community where everybody is walking. I think it impacts the families, it impacts the community, and I think it impacts achievement – maybe not right at that point in time, but I wonder about later on. I think we need to look at achievement – not just how they’re doing now but how they’re doing at high school graduation rates.”

 “I wouldn’t have stepped forward to chair [the New School-Referendum Committee] if I didn’t think we needed to look at [establishing a new school].”  She said the committee would be looking at the feasibility of building a new school, the space demands, student achievement, community interest and support. “I think it’s really important that we do our due diligence and we do it right. We really need to address what’s been happening in this community over the last 30 years.”

Question: What instructional initiatives would you advocate for to address the achievement gap? 

Katie Bailey: “Research shows that only about 50 percent of the achievement gap is explained by economics. We do need to look at economics, but that’s not all. …Once you get rid of economics we still have an achievement gap.”

Ms. Bailey mentioned some programs that have been implemented at District 65 to improve minority achievement, including the use of instructional leaders, interventionists, home-school lessons, extended day, partnering with community organizations and working on high expectations.

“I also believe we need to look at measurement, but measurement on how kids are currently doing with our programs, and then how they are doing in eighth grade and whether they are more likely to graduate high school. That’s where cooperation with ETHS is very important.”

She also said it was important that kids come to kindergarten prepared, and important to monitor the goal in the Strategic Plan that students who have been in District 65 for four years be reading at grade level by third grade.

Eileen Budde: “I absolutely agree with Katie that we need to keep working on those initiatives that are targeting reading at grade level by third grade. I know we also have a program to work with families who have children in the pre-school program at the District building, and I applaud that effort. I know it’s kind of new, and I think we need to keep pushing on that. Also, there’s kind of a parent university where they bring parents in to learn what they can do to support learning at home.”

“I think we need to work on that at kindergarten, first, second, third grades – more than just pre-school. I really think we need to work on a literacy strategy that’s all-encompassing, that gets the message out to parents how crucial it is to read aloud to children, because we need to have a partnership between parents and the schools, and we also need to work harder on partnering with community members who would like to help with this.” She suggested bringing in volunteers to read aloud to students for 20 minutes a day. “Bring in community members who believe that’s an important contribution to a young child’s life.”

J.B. Rees: “I’d like to increase the school year to 180 days from 176, and I would also like to increase the school day by 40 minutes. …Keeping kids in the classroom longer and making the school year longer, I think, will have a benefit for all kids.” 

He said he was excited about the common core standards, which he said would increase rigor. “With high expectations, I think sometimes also comes no excuses. The great organization that brings people from all different backgrounds and brings them through and promotes them is our U.S. military. They have a high standard; they give the resources to everyone regardless of their background, and say here’s where you got to go. We’ll give you the tools to do that.”

“When we talk about high expectations, we need to give children tougher work, more homework, more rigor, and I think that is the best way to elevate all boats.”

Richard Rykhus: “I think we need to base any choices we make on best practices and some of the most innovative techniques that are available.” He cited several conclusions drawn by Dr. Robert Ferguson, an African American professor who founded the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

“First, we really need to dispel myths about African American children in the classroom.” He said Dr. Ferguson gives an example showing that some African American children may be working hard to complete their homework but lack the skills to do so; and some teachers may draw the wrong conclusion about them. “There needs to be some education about some of the differences in skills that children bring to the classroom.”

A second issue Mr. Rykhus discussed is extending the educational experience, which he said goes beyond simply extending the school day or school year – “it’s actually deepening the experience.” He cited the childcare program at Dawes as an example that has a “positive academic impact on children” that is “extending the educational experience.”

He added that the District needs to make sure there are enough resources for children with IEPs, and that it should partner with community organizations, including Northwestern University. “There are a lot of things we can learn from experts around us.”

Keith Terry: “We have to stay the course in many respects. I am very proud of what has happened over the course of the years at District 65. There has been a shift and a closure in the achievement gap. We have to acknowledge that. It’s not enough. We have to work harder.”

He said the District adopted a five-year strategic plan several years ago, and “We have to have the courage to execute on that.” He added, “The strategic plan talked about a readiness gap. If we really want to hit the ball out of the park, kids need to be ready by the fourth grade.”

He added that if programs, such as the ACC, are working, the Board should consider expanding them. He supported having conversations about race sponsored by PEG. He said the Board should adopt a specific goal to address the achievement gap, and that the District needed to partner with community organizations. “The equation for education and achievement is more than the teacher, the principal, the Board. It includes the mom, the dad, the parents, the social network. It takes the community to raise the child.”

School District 202  Candidates:  

Question: What benefits do you believe have come from using the Pacific Education Group (PEG) to facilitate discussions on race?

Jane Colleton: “Conversations about race are very complicated and very difficult and very personal. From my perspective as a Board member, that’s one of the great things that PEG has given us is the opportunity to better understand the implications, the effect, the influence of race, just as Board members.

“The benefits are huge, I think, professionally and politically in terms of the impact it has on students at ETHS. I think we all grow when we better understand the other, someone who’s not ourselves, and that has certainly happened. Teachers, in particular, when the door closes to the classroom, it’s between the teacher and student;  and if teachers bring high expectations to students, it can be nothing but a winner. The expectations drive much of what happens in the classroom. If teachers have expectations that this is a low-performing student, consciously or subconsciously, they behave accordingly. The training with PEG is going to help teachers be able to better serve students by really understanding themselves and understanding the cultural capital that each student brings to the classroom.”

Mark Metz: “There’s a buzz on the street that somehow PEG is setting the agenda for the Board – influencing the Board in terms of policy and trying to influence the Board to make everything all about race. I want to be very clear that is not the case. The work we’re doing with PEG is to help the Board and then all of our teachers and virtually everybody in our buildings and then hopefully people in the community as we spread this, to really understand the perspective of people who don’t look like them. And that’s a huge undertaking. It’s so difficult for teachers, administrators, Board members and everybody else to understand the perspectives of kids of a different race when they come into our building. If we’re going to effectively educate them and really meet them where they are, then we’ve got to understand the perspective they bring when they come to us.”

“The reason we isolate race is not because it’s the only issue, but it’s the hardest one. And if we can make a lot of headway with that, then dealing with things like gender and socio-economic issues and all the other issues that affect education, that’s going to be a little easier; and we can use some of the same techniques.”

Scott Rochelle: “Evanston, with its diversity, needs this sort of communication with professionals who can assist our leaders, our administrators, our teachers for dealing with such a diverse group of students, not just racial diversity, diversity with their backgrounds and their learning abilities.”

“We need to do a better job of actually communicating what this group is doing. I think there’s such a big blow-up in the community about what PEG is doing in the school. If we could communicate exactly what PEG is doing, what is the benefit to the student – because those who are sending their students to ETHS are expecting their children to receive a great education.”

“Moving forward, I think we need to communicate what the benefit is, because when people understand what the benefit is then they can actively come to the table and give their objections or their support. But right now we don’t have that yet, because people don’t really know what’s going on.”

“I’ve researched PEG and I myself would like to know how this is affecting our students.”

Jonathan Baum: “I would like to see a broader cultural change.” He said he had been involved in effecting cultural change at his law firm, and he learned a few things. “One is you can’t go in and try to beat people up. …You have to reach and find the goodness in people. …The second thing is, I couldn’t categorize people and make assumptions based on categories.”

“I think I’d like to bring that to ETHS in the sense that we do need to meet every student where they are, but each student is a complex of characteristics. I’d like to reach and meet every student taking into account their race, their economic circumstances, their abilities, their disabilities, their hopes, their dreams. I really would like to see broader cultural change that helps us reach every student as an individual, with all the multiple characteristics that make them up.”

Question: What instructional initiatives would you advocate for to address the achievement gap?

Mark Metz: “The recent change we made to the freshman humanities program is an important step. The data is clear; our conclusions, I believe, are incontrovertible. The action we took, of course, is subject to debate; and many people in the community have different opinions on that. But what this is about is a whole big group of kids in the middle who are not achieving at their full potential and have not for many, many years at ETHS. When you lay over that the racial breakdown, we see that those kids are disproportionately children of color. And this program is designed to raise expectations, provide supports and relentlessly pursue higher performance on the part of all children, including children of color.”

Jane Colleton: “Academic changes supporting equity are strong now,” mentioning SOS [System of Supports] morning supports, study centers in the afternoon, and professional development.

“We’re looking at rigor, and part of the rigor we’re looking at is going to come through the common core standards that we are doing. We want to see it applied across the board, not just with high-achieving kids, but with kids who are in lower levels, in the regular education. We need to see a stronger emphasis on college and career readiness, which really is about having kids be flexible, not necessarily to go to college but ready to continue learning when they finish at ETHS – whether in a college classroom or a further work training environment.”

Jonathan Baum: “I think we need to study what works and replicate it. One of the things that often gets overlooked is that we have many, many students of color who are outstanding in their academic achievement, and I think we need to talk to them and to their teachers and their families to find our what helped them to get where they are, and we need to replicate that.”

“Second, I think we can’t just focus on instruction or even supports. We need to talk about guidance, about mentoring. A lot of research shows that a key to breaking down the achievement gap is building relationships. …We have to build stronger relationships with our students. We need more adult mentorships to guide them through the maze of opportunities that we provide them.”

“Finally, we need to build a seamless educational continuum between Districts 65 and 202. That’s absolutely essential to this task. The honest truth is we will never close the achievement gap at ETHS without the firm cooperation of District 65.”

Scott Rochelle: “Curriculum alone will not close the achievement gap. It takes so much more than just a curriculum. More rigorous work, more homework – that’s not going to close the gap.”

“We have to be able to teach students how to attack a curriculum, how to value a curriculum. …We will close the gap by reaching those students who are not seeing value. …A student needs to walk into a classroom and say ‘I want to learn more. I see this teacher who wants to teach me. This teacher expects me to do well. I want to do well because this teacher expects me to do well.”

“If a student is not getting that at home, we need to provide that at ETHS. If no one expects a student to do well, the teachers should.”

“We have African American students who do well at the school. You can ask the question what works for them. I’ll tell you what works for them. Support. They have parents at home who are giving them the support they need. We can’t go into their homes.  But we can provide a school that gives them the support they’re not getting at home. This is where we start. This is how we close the gap.”