On March 17, Evanston Township High School students sponsored a forum that attracted all eight candidates for the District 202 School Board and a relatively large audience – about 100 persons.
ETHS senior Angelina Brady organized the forum together with a high school group, “Students for Change,” that she chairs. She emceed the forum and senior Lora Kelley and freshman Ryan Foreman moderated the forum and posed the questions, which were culled from online student surveys. In a new twist, candidates were given an opportunity to ask questions to a panel of six students.
The students’ questions concerned the importance of participation in extracurricular activities, ways to improve communication between students and the School Board, the school’s discipline policy, the future of the earned honors program, the possibility of eliminating class rank, and concrete ideas to prevent violence.
The RoundTable summarizes below the candidates’ answers to selected questions to give each candidate’s approach to some issues that have not been covered in previous issues of the RoundTable.
Question: What do you think of ETHS’s discipline policy? What are your ideas for a more positive and less punitive environment?
Andy Bezaitis: The School Board recently discussed PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), which is premised on a more positive reward system and early interventions, rather than on a negative or punitive system. “Dealing with children who have been put on a negative disciplinary path has clearly led to incredibly negative outcomes. Inevitably students end up cast out of school rather than tapped into the school and that’s clearly destructive,” said Mr. Bezaitis. “Changing that to turn into a positive element [through PBIS] is clearly a key element.”
Second, Mr. Bezaitis said, engaging parents so they feel they have more power to support their students and engaging the community to assist students as mentors would be positive steps. “Extracurricular activities are also opportunities to provide positive role models that will create self-desire to put students’ path on the right track,” he said.
Deborah Graham: “We have cut in half the number of students expelled in the past two years. That’s a positive outcome that should not be dismissed. If you don’t have students in the classroom, their ability to learn is impaired.”
She added, “We need to pay more attention to these detention issues” and said some students are sent to “alternative schools” and that “might not necessarily be the best choice for them.
“We need to do more to create a very welcoming environment at ETHS where discipline goes down.”
Casey Miller: “The Board and administration have an obligation to provide a “safe environment where learning can occur.
“The first part is to make ETHS feel welcoming and to look for ways to guide students away from what I’ll call destructive behavior, and I think involves a mentoring program that would help students find productive outlets for their energy and to look for positive ways …. If a kid is already struggling, throwing him out of school doesn’t help anyone.”
Elena Garcia Ansani: “From a student’s perspective, from a teacher’s perspective, it is very difficult when you have an individual in the learning environment who is demonstrating inappropriate behavior. It disrupts the learning environment. It’s upsetting to everyone involved. But more importantly, it’s a student who is demonstrating pain and who is in need of an intervention. A negative reinforcement unfortunately is not the answer and we really have to examine the social constructs that are in place that perhaps contribute to their fate.”
Pat Savage-Williams: “I think it’s important to take the time to understand diagnostically what the needs are and to be proactive to support the students and provide an environment that is supportive so students can be educated. Our purpose, our goal, is to provide an education for students. When we remove a student from the classroom, we’re not doing that.
“PBIS is good because it provides positive intervention beforehand, and it also provides data that we can use to inform our interventions.”
Bill Geiger: “I want to give a shout out to PBIS. It seems to me that a positive intervention, consistently applied, with clearly articulated expectations, is a great place to start.”
Another necessity is a “welcoming environment,” he said. “For me, as an adult, that means I first show respect before I expect it back. … I think if adults show respect, it’s much more likely we’ll get respect back. … I’d be really interested to know the impact of restorative justice.”
Gretchen Livingston: “This is an area where we really need the student voice. There are two committees where you can raise your voice: the School Improvement Team and the Disciplinary Committee. Those are both committees that report to the Board that involve students, and we welcome all input.
“The PBIS approach we’re using here – ‘Respect Yourself, Respect Others, Respect the Community’ – I think it all starts there. So that goes to the general climate issue. … The more specific discipline policies that I would wholeheartedly endorse are the idea of alternative dispute resolution, and some of the things we do around the school that are short of the very punitive things we do, suspension, or even detention.”
Doug Holt: “It’s clearly a big issue that affects not just the school, but the community. Suspensions, for example, have a time limit, but there’s no limit on how many suspensions can be issued. And if you have a student out in the community, not going to school, that creates a problem for the community pretty quickly.
“From what I’ve heard there’s a real question about how much learning goes on in [alternative schools], and they’re vastly more expensive than sending students here.”
He offered two ideas: “Increase the use of peer juries, so students decide what’s the appropriate measure”; and consider providing “an alternative to an alternative school, basically something within ETHS that could be sort of an interim step before actually leaving the school.”
Question: What are some concrete ideas to prevent violence at ETHS?
Andy Bezaitis: “A safe school is a starting point for learning. ETHS is a safe school, in my estimation.
“To the extent that there is violence or activities that are inappropriate, you have to deal with it.” PBIS offers one positive way to prevent violence, he said, adding the school’s Disciplinary Committee provides a vehicle to address violence. It would also be beneficial to obtain input from student groups. “I think all of these are effective. … I think we want to stay positive. We have to address it given the stakes for the school.”
Deborah Graham: “As a member of the City/School Liaison Committee, I asked for improved lighting in the vicinity of ETHS,” said Ms. Graham. “New safety phones are also being installed in the PE and in the arts wing and outside school and these will help create a much safer atmosphere for ETHS students because they can pick up the phone and call when they feel in danger.
“Improved lighting is important because there are too many dark areas in the school and they impact the effect of safety cameras and without those cameras we can’t keep track of what is going on around the schools.”
Elena Garcia Ansani: “It [violence] is not something that’s commonplace, but it’s a reality. How do we address this? Through conversations, through perhaps somehow incorporating it into the curriculum discussions. Children need to learn about themselves and why they have some of the pain and anger that exists within them, that sometimes causes them to lash out. And again, I don’t think negative reinforcement is the way to go.”
Doug Holt: “When we think about violent acts and people who are doing that, this is a person who has nothing to lose. The system hasn’t worked for that person. To the extent we can get these people engaged, that’s a win. It’s a multi-faceted issue, but community partnerships with YOU, YMCA, YWCA, and other great community organizations may help. Our faith community plays a role here.
“I think it also comes down to jobs and having different pathways to success at ETHS, and that would include the career and technical education study at ETHS.”
Gretchen Livingston: “I think everybody touched on good ideas. I’m going to mention something that I was involved with last week in Springfield on Evanston Lobby Day. One of the big issues in Springfield involves a proposed new state law that would allow the concealed carry of guns. … It’s very important that we raise our voices around that law so that school grounds, not just the school building, but school grounds are exempted from any law that would allow the concealed carry of guns.”
She added she agreed with everything said, especially the need to help students find jobs. “We need to work much more closely with our local employers, so that students who finish here and don’t have a place to go, can get further training for a job in town.”
Bill Geiger: “I think Gretchen had a very good point. So many good things have been said. Part of the role of a Board member is to advocate for policy changes and in this case in Springfield. Being informed and powerfully advocating for the kinds of legislation and the kinds of policies that will enhance our school is really critical.
“We have to get real about the violence. This fall, Dajae was shot. What was powerful for me were the evenings at the YMCA and Fleetwood when the community came together to try to really understand and get real about the violence.” [Time ran out.]
Pat Savage-Williams: “I’ll pick up on that. … I think the violence that we’ve experienced as a community has touched our community. ETHS is part of the community, so when it happens outside the high school, it affects the high school. We have to take a pause. We have to take a look at this. It is very disconcerting that the legislature is considering a law that would allow concealed weapons to be carried by people in our community. We have to take a stand against that.”
She also suggested the Board obtain suggestions from ETHS’s Safety Department.
Question: Class rank appears to foster competition among students. Are you in favor of eliminating class rank?
Doug Holt: “The issue of class rank often comes up in the context of applying for college. … More and more high schools are getting rid of it because, surprisingly, it seems the college admission process doesn’t adequately account for the difference of a high GPA [grade-point average] at a small high school and a high GPA at ETHS. I think it’s important to look at this. My inclination would probably be to move away from a class rank because at a school the size of ETHS it probably works against most of our students. More and more schools are doing this.”
Gretchen Livingston: “We have a committee looking at this and they’ve been studying it very closely for a long time, talking to our neighbors, talking to colleges, considering all the upsides and downsides. The Board is anxiously awaiting this report. I think we’ll get it sometime this spring. I’m officially neutral. I think there’s a lot to embrace about the idea of getting rid of class rank. We are in a minority now. Even our highly competitive neighbor to the north has not had class rank for quite some time. It can certainly harm some of our students.”
She added there may be other ways to look at it, such as reporting student’s position by deciles.
Bill Geiger: “To have an informed opinion, I’d like to hear the results of the committee working on it.”
He said class rank may have nothing to do with the academic potential or the ability to be a great learner. “Where I’m concerned is where class rank impacts youth in a negative kind of way. We need to be very, very careful about that outcome.”
Pat Savage-Williams: “I work at that ‘school to the north’ [that has eliminated class ranking]. Reporting class rank “can be devastating for students and it really doesn’t tell the whole story about students. Colleges really want to see more.
“Removing class rank is smart. I would certainly want to see the report. … I think it would be a positive, healthy move to take it [class rank] away.”
Andy Bezaitis: “I think there’s a natural challenge when we talk about class rank. … It’s about the competitive process that kids have today, that they have had.
“This is really about what students feel and the pressures they feel. We should not be fooled to think kids aren’t still going to feel the pressures themselves, whether it’s about what they scored on the AP exam, how many credits they got, or what they got on some other tests. If eliminating class rank diminishes that without side effects, I’m fine with that.”
Deborah Graham: “I think class rank should be eliminated because it fosters an unhealthy competition between students who are obsessed with what their GPA is and that’s not healthy for anybody. In terms of collaboration, I think senior studies provides an exceptional model for collaboration and we should do more of that.”
Casey Miller: “The one thing not mentioned yet is the role that the quest for class rank plays in the kinds of courses that students select. Some kids know in freshman year what the course profile is in order to be valedictorian. High school, to me, ought to be about learning. And kids taking courses simply because they’re trying to create some sort of profile that’s going to enhance their prospect of getting into college, I’d like to discourage that and encourage children to experiment with the full array of the curriculum, try to find out what really excites them about things.”
Elena Garcia Ansani: Ms. Ansani referred to a recent report which she said proposes paths for accessible and equitable educational opportunities, beginning from pre-school to college.
“It’s critical for us to understand that even though there are systems and practices that have been in place for almost a century, maybe more; that we are at a point in history, this is the 21st century, as we move forward the educational policies being proposed are to provide opportunities for all students.”