The Evanston community is fortunate to have eight people each seeking to fill one of four open positions on the School District 202 Board of Education, which oversees Evanston Township High School. 

Public schools are the backbone of a community, and strong and committed school boards are vital for Evanston to thrive. Our schools are charged with managing and cultivating Evanston’s most valuable resource: the minds and spirits of its children. ETHS must prepare all of our children for their next steps in life.

The community has a right to expect vigorous debate on issues confronting the school – academic achievement, equity, budget, discipline and safety, as examples – and most candidates have given their positions on them. As this paper goes to press, however, there are signs that some parts of the debate have turned ugly.

Some conversations and emails we have seen or heard about seem to have negative innuendoes about race and class. In some cases, members of the community have divided the candidates into “camps” or “slates,” but this has not been done by the candidates themselves.  Each candidate deserves an individual look.

Step back for a moment and remember that Evanston is better than that. Factionalism divides a community needlessly. Moreover, after the election, all members of the Board will have to offer more than lip service to collaboration and community members will have to summon what we all have in common and find ways to coalesce and thrive.

We hope all voters will take time to assess each candidate’s qualifications, vision, strengths and weaknesses to make an informed decision about which four deserve their votes.  

While the RoundTable does not endorse candidates, we do set out here our assessment of where the high school is and the direction in which we hope it will be headed.  

There is strong feeling about how students should be educated and fear in some places that certain programs, in particular the recent restructuring of several freshman courses, will leave some kids out of the mix. Some say or imply that they fear that those left out will be the high-performing students; others say they fear it will be low-performing or minority students.

We do not see education as a zero-sum game, in which the education of some students subtracts from the opportunities. Educating all our students, from high-achieving ones to struggling ones, cannot help but better this community.

We draw the community’s attention to two issues that have repeatedly come up through the course of this campaign: the restructuring of the freshman humanities and biology classes and the way in which students are prepared for life after high school.
Strong debate keeps the freshman restructuring, as it is being called, in the spotlight. We think, though, that a second and equally important issue – how the high school educates students who may not go to college immediately or at all – is one whose nuances are being glossed over.

Freshman Restructuring

The education community in Evanston and across the nation has been concerned for decades about the disparity in achievement between, in the aggregate, white and minority students. In Evanston both school districts have tried many programs to address that gap, some programs meeting more success than others.
The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, mandates equal access to education and establishes standards and measures of accountability. Congress renews the ESEA periodically, and in 2002 it was as the No Child Left Behind Act. In that form it mandated that each public school report the academic progress by subgroups, including African American students, Latino students, low-income students and students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The Act mandates certain sanctions for schools that fail for a number of years to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in educating all subgroups.
The multi-year failure of ETHS to make AYP with respect to its black and Hispanic students was just the latest discouraging bulletin in the decades-long achievement gap between white and minority students here. Several causes have been identified, but they all add up to a community failure to educate each child fully from birth on and to engage students and families in that process.

In light of these, the District 202 Board and administration undertook a restructuring of the freshman experience.

To expose more students to rigorous classes early in their career, ETHS places  all incoming freshmen who score at or above the 40th percentile on the EXPLORE test into detracked, earned-honors freshman humanities classes.

Similar placements are made in freshman biology classes for those scoring at or above the 50th percentile on the EXPLORE test.  In these classes, self-selected students who turn in additional, high-quality work can earn honors credit. The intent is to engage students in rigorous academics early in their high school career so they will feel prepared for and confident about taking honors and advanced placement (AP) classes.

When the Board was considering the restructuring of freshman humanities, the RoundTable endorsed the earned-honors model. We stand by that endorsement. Exposing more children to more rigorous academics and pushing them to take increasingly challenging classes will benefit the school community and the Evanston community.

Our endorsement was premised on the high school’s providing differentiated instruction and sufficient support for all students, something the Board and administrators promised.

Several supports have been implemented, such as A.M. Support and the Saturday Wildkit Academy, but differentiated instruction in many of these classes is still lacking.

A panel of experts headed by Evanston resident and Northwestern University professor David Figlio, director of the University’s Institute for Policy Research,  are assessing the results of the restructuring and will make recommendations perhaps in the fall of 2014.

While we agree that the findings of this very impressive panel will help focus ETHS in its quest to optimally educate each student, we do not think that the Board or administration need wait to implement differentiated instruction and additional supports that will benefit all students participating in the earned-honors program.

We cannot accept a reversal or retreat that would provide a substandard education to any of our ETHS students.

College and Career Readiness

In the 1990s the mission and vision of ETHS was to provide to each student an education sufficient for admission to an Illinois college or university. The high school now says it will ensure that its graduates are “college ready” or “career ready.”

But there is a stealth issue. It might be easy to latch on to the concept “career ready” to justify providing some students with only a set of skills rather than a rigorous academic education.

A 2008 study sponsored by the ACT, “The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring All Students Are on Target for College Readiness before High School” concluded that in today’s world “college readiness also means career readi­ness.”

To obtain a decent paying job with opportunities for career advancement “require[s] knowledge and skills comparable to those expected of the first-year college student,” says the study.

An earlier study, in May of 2006, reached the same conclusions, “Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?” Reports by other organizations reach the same conclusion.

Most if not all candidates have said they agree that students who do not go to college should be prepared for a career. With that we of course agree. There is an undeniable benefit to engaging students who might not be engaged by traditional academic classes.

We urge caution, however, to ensure that students are not prematurely placed in or pressured to opt for courses or a career path that would foreclose them from a rigorous academic experience and meaningful post-high-school life.

Students who take skills or career-prep courses should still be exposed to rigorous writing, math and science requirements  so they will have the same basic skills, formatted differently perhaps, as students who are immediately college-bound.
The risk is that offering too many skills courses might morph into a separate “career” track with less academic rigor than a “college” track.

It would be a travesty to open a rigorous curriculum wide in freshman year only to narrow it so quickly as not to afford all students the rich array of courses at Evanston Township High School. 

Eliminating tracking for students above the 40th or 50th percentile in freshman courses only to replace it with school-wide tracking or bifurcation into “college” versus “career” paths will be a great disservice to our students.

Therein lies the difficulty, and we urge the new Board and administration to heed this risk and ensure sufficient counseling to all students so they can look at expanded, not foreshortened, horizons after graduation.

All eight candidates have shown remarkable spirit during this campaign, though we cannot wholeheartedly say the same about some of their supporters. With varying credentials and experience, they all have committed themselves to four years of dedicated work on behalf of Evanston’s high-schoolers.   

We believe that the issues discussed here are two of the most critical, though complex, issues for our high school. Voters will doubtless do their own evaluations, but we also urge them to consider these two issues in assessing the eight candidates for the four positions on School District 202 Board of Education.