A review of School District 202’s work addressing issues of race and achievement with the support of the Pacific Educational Group (PEG) was presented at the Dec. 12 Board meeting against a backdrop of several earlier meetings that were punctuated by periodic displays of discord, emotion and misunderstanding associated, in part, with discussions about the recently approved Freshman Biology structure.

Despite earlier problems, the Dec. 12 meeting was characterized by respect, thoughtful questions and even moments of humor. The administrators, faculty and staff who appeared before the Board presented a unified and optimistic review of the work accomplished to date.

Board Conflicts and Reconciliation

Tensions among Board members and between Board members and school officials were sufficient to force District 202 Board president Mark Metz to call a recess to Board meetings on two separate occasions in November. In addition, at one point an administrator sitting at the dais, along with other administrators in the audience, walked out of the meeting. On another occasion, a Board workshop facilitated by Glenn Singleton, president of PEG, whose main agenda topic had originally been intended as a discussion of a book entitled “Leading for Equity,” ended up being primarily focused on a contentious wrangling about tensions, provocative and incendiary language and disagreements pre-occupying the previous two meetings.

“We have been talking about race, perhaps the most incendiary topic of our times,” said Mr. Metz at the opening of the Dec. 12 meeting, in an attempt to bring some closure to the earlier difficulties and to set a positive tone. “Frank discussion of race is bound to be difficult, emotional and messy. Still, no matter how difficult or painful, for the benefit of the students, we need to have those discussions in this school and in our community.”

 While he acknowledged recent conflicts, Mr. Metz also described the Board as “functioning and fully engaged … [and] committed to doing what is best for the … students. Despite differences over tactics, it is this shared commitment that will hold us on course and guide us in our deliberations.”

Later in the meeting, Board member Jonathan Baum stated his commitment to “being a role model for the community [and] holding ourselves to a high standard.” He also pointed out that the Board as a whole had, during a self-evaluation workshop on Nov. 8, that was facilitated by a representative of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), reaffirmed the Board’s agreement on the IASB’s Code of Conduct. He particularly emphasized Section 6, which provides, “I will encourage and respect the free expression of opinion by my fellow board members and will participate in board discussions in an open, honest and respectful manner, honoring differences of opinion or perspective.”

 PEG and ‘Courageous Conversations’

 “Our work with PEG has given us the protocols and the tools to have conversations about race,” said Marcus Campbell, director of Student Support and Equity. “PEG has also trained us to facilitate these conversations ongoing.”  

These “conversations” are termed “courageous,” a term that comes from a book of the same name by Mr. Singleton of PEG. According to the book, “courageous conversation is a strategy for school systems to close the racial achievement gap. By engaging in this strategy, educators develop racial understanding, conduct an interracial dialogue about race, and address racial issues in schools.

“Having these tools is really important in order to make sure that our conversations are effective and actually get to the root of our belief systems,” said Alicia Hart, assistant director of Student Support and Equity. “We know that race isn’t the only conversation – but it’s the one most often missing.”

PEG has presented its approach to the majority of District employees, the Board and two groups of community members through its two-day “Beyond Diversity” workshop. The balance of District employees, mostly staff and new teachers, according to administrators, will be trained next year.

Since 2009, the District has paid about $225,000 to PEG for consultation and training services, said William Stafford, chief financial officer. He said that there is an additional $70,000 budgeted for each of the next two years, after which, PEG’s services will be “phased out. We have built our own capacity [for training].” Mr. Stafford added that the fees amounted to about 10 percent of what he termed “purchased services,” which includes consultants.

District Structure for Implementation

The work in the District that has followed the initial Beyond Diversity workshop is being guided by four different groups, Mr. Campbell reported. They are the District Equity Leadership Team (DELT), Equity Team (E-Team), Collaborative Action Research for Equity (CARE Team) and PEG affiliates.

DELT has nine members and is responsible for planning, facilitation, oversight and accountability of the “systemic equity transformation process,” according to Mr. Campbell’s report. In addition to Mr. Campbell and Ms. Hart, DELT includes teachers Steven Speight, Matthew Walsh, Richard Cardis and Zachary Hermann, social worker Aracely Canchola, Dean Tyrone Nelson and community liaison David Futransky.

DELT meets weekly for the purpose of reviewing the status of programming and planning steps. They also continue the collective education for faculty and staff regarding transformation for racial equity. DELT also meets three to four times during the year with PEG for ongoing training and discussion as a team that carries on its own courageous conversation.

“I had the opportunity to travel with the DELT Team to Summit [a PEG sponsored workshop] this year,” said Board member Scott Rochelle, whose support of PEG’s particular approach has been notably lukewarm, although he has stated his commitment to addressing issues of student achievement. “I was overwhelmed with pride. … they [the DELT Team] get it … I’m proud to have them representing us. At the end of the day, the teachers are going to benefit from their ability to go in and learn how to reach every student.”

 The E-Team is a leadership group of 24 representatives from all areas of the District that provides professional development to staff throughout the year. In the course of this work, which is one part of a four-year rotation of professional development, participants “continue to examine the role of race in their personal and professional lives as well as the lives of students.”

Mr. Baum questioned how much time teachers were spending on PEG professional development as compared to other areas, such as differentiated instruction. Mr. Campbell said all teachers go through a four-year cycle, with one year each spent on a different topic: race and equity work, effective effort, instructional practice and differentiation and data-driven problem-solving.

The CARE Team is a group of 25 teacher volunteers who develop lesson plans “directed at a small group of students of color. … Through the knowledge gained about the students’ personal and academic strengths and areas for improvement, the teacher develops instruction to better reach [this particular] group, thus ensuring a more equitable experience for those students.” According to administrators, lessons, assignments, and assessments are targeted at the focus group students and their specific needs, improving the school experience and performance of underserved students of color. In addition the CARE Team also functions as a professional learning community (PLC) and shares work and insights with other teachers as they disseminate information through the members’ departments.

Finally, through the PEG affiliates, the District has invested in training five staff members to conduct the Beyond Diversity seminar usually facilitated by PEG consultants, thereby enabling the District to do its own training in the future.

Focus on Students

Mr. Cardis, who teaches, among other subjects, AP American History, described his experience on the CARE Team.

“It’s an intensive year-long process,” he said. “We take time to learn about culturally relevant pedagogy. … We have to look at different ways to reach students of color – what are we and what are we not doing. The guidance from PEG is fundamental. … We are peeling away the layers. There is no silver bullet. It’s an organic process that has to be ongoing year by year.”

Mr. Cardis also remarked on the value of the professional development he has experienced.

 “I have not experienced any sort of professional development that has touched me in quite the same way,” he said. “I don’t think we’re paying them [PEG] enough for what we’re getting. … It has had a profoundly positive effect on me as an educator.”

Mr. Speight, a science teacher, described how he had changed his teaching style in conjunction with the CARE Team work.

“Instead of having a static lab [with students sitting in one place],” he said, “my lab became a moving lab. [In addition] my classroom was open for other teachers… [They could] see the lesson actually being taught … I had students and other professionals giving me feedback.”

Mr. Walsh, a history teacher who had observed Mr. Speight’s class, said not only was there value in having “five more pairs of eyes” give input to Mr. Speight’s work, but “while I was walking through these labs … I was able to connect with students in this room in a way I don’t really get to.” He said that even now, when he sees those same students in the hall they relive that experience in a positive way.

 Student Board member Jesse Chatz said that he was satisfied to hear about how the PEG training was impacting students in the classroom.

Mr. Campbell added that “one of our next plans is to develop student leadership around racial equity in the fall of 2012.”

 “Students are the most honest when it comes to race,” Jesse said, “because they have nothing to lose. You can go into any classroom and ask about race and students will give their honest opinions. It’s important that we start listening to that.”