The Strategic Plan Steering Committee of the District 65 School Board held its first meeting on July 10. The eight-member committee is charged with overseeing and managing the process to develop a new strategic plan that will guide the District for the next three to five years. The current five-year strategic plan extends to June 2014.

Candance Chow, co-chair of the Committee and a member of the School Board, said a larger Planning Team, consisting of 25-30 persons, will define or refine the District’s values, beliefs and vision statements and develop the strategic priorities and goals for the Strategic Plan. Action Teams will then flesh out performance objectives and targets in each of the strategic goals areas.

One important purpose of the smaller Steering Committee is to ensure that the process stays on track and that the process is collaborative and involves administrators, teachers, parents and the broader Evanston community. Stakeholder groups will be represented on the larger Planning Team, and community input may also be obtained through sessions held between October and December.

Ms. Chow said the goal is to create a strategic plan that is student-centered, aspirational, provides focus, is easy to communicate and provides accountability.

The End Game

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said the District has systems and programs in place, including a data system, differentiated instruction, the Inclusion Program, a dual-language program, an extended-day program, a teacher evaluation system and professional development.

“We’re not looking at a District that doesn’t have systems and programs in place,” he said. “I think that what we need to do is look at where we are and determine where we want to be, then make some judgments about whether or not the programs we have are getting us there.” He added, “We still have room to grow and issues we need to address.”

“It’s a fair question,” Dr. Murphy said, “to put on the table in terms of what the outcomes are, do we stay the course with the current programs or do we make a hard turn to the right or left and focus on something else.”

Ms. Chow said she thought the strategic plan should settle on a “discrete set of major goals that we want to pursue and focus on. It doesn’t mean other things are going to go away. But based on where we are today and where we believe we need to be, where are the gaps and what are those three or five big things that we as a District need to focus on and that we need to rally our resources around?”

Richard Rykhus, co-chair of the Steering Committee and a member of the School Board, said, “From my perspective, it’s financial, in part. Next school year our finances are pretty solid. The following school year we are in a deficit situation. It’s not insignificant. As I think about the choices we’re going to have to make in terms of funding, I think we need a really clear set of priorities that have been widely agreed upon, that we can say this is where we’re going to have to focus.

Jean Luft, outgoing president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), said the strategic plan should reflect that “the District has a responsibility to the children, but also to the people they employ.”

Dr. Murphy staked out his position that he would like the strategic plan to be based on the “5Essentials.”

The 5Essentials are based on extensive studies of Chicago schools by researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the University of Chicago and reported in their book, “Organizing Schools for Improvement.” They found there are five essential components for school success: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, a student-centered learning climate and ambitious instruction. 

Penny Sebring, a founder of CCSR, one of the authors of the 5Essentials study and a consulting member of the Steering Committee, said the five elements have been talked about in education circles for many years. What their study found was that schools that measured strong in all five supports were at least 10 times more likely than schools with just one or two strengths to achieve substantial gains in reading and math. A sustained weakness in just one of these areas undermined virtually all attempts at improving student learning.

Dr. Sebring said the 5Essentials could be “a good filter for the things that we talk about.” When discussing a program or initiative, she said, the Committee could consider whether it would improve leadership, teacher collaboration or another of the 5Essentials.

“The other thing that impressed us as we were doing the studies,” Dr. Sebring said, “is how important trusting relationships are.”

Dr. Murphy said, “We know that over the years there’s been a tapering off” in student achievement.  (See, e.g., accompanying charts.) “Maybe it’s those things Penny’s talking about in the Five Essentials that will make the District begin to hum, so we can regain momentum in our student growth,” he added.

He said he hoped the strategic plan would talk about increasing collaboration, trust and leadership, rather than be a document that talked about programs and initiatives.

For years, many District 65 teachers have complained that the District has a top-down management style and that their views are not valued.

In May 2012, administrators said they were moving from a system of strong central control to a plan of “distributive leadership.” Dr. Murphy said at the time, “Over the years we’ve had a very centralized effort. … We see this [proposed change] in some way as a decentralized effort, so that it’s no longer top-down. … What we are trying to say is you guys know how to make this happen in your schools. So you have a role here in the process.”

A few months later, teachers complained that Dr. Murphy unilaterally imposed a teacher evaluation system that was statistically flawed. After hundreds of teachers protested at School Board meetings, he put the system on hold while administrators and teachers negotiated a new system with the help of an outside consulting firm.

Picking up on Dr. Sebring’s comments, Ms. Chow said the 5Essentials could be used as a “filter” to identify gaps and areas that the District could improve on.

She  pointed out that District 65 teachers, parents and students (grade 6-12) took the 5Essentials Survey administered by the Illinois State Board of Education, and that the District had not yet received the results.

She said, “One thing we’ll look at in this process
during the data-gathering phase is how do we improve those results? Where are we and where do we want to move to in different categories?”

She said the strategic plan needs to decide “where we are,” … “where we want to be,” … “what do we need in place to get there?” and “how to measure whether we are making progress.”

Committee members Jonathan Webb and Sylvia Rodriguez discussed the importance of getting input from a diverse range of parents. Therese McGuire suggested they obtain input from area employers and strive to make District 65 a “destination school.”

The Steering Committee plans to hire a facilitator and select a model for a strategic plan in August, and to identify members of the Planning Team by early September.

On Aug. 22, 2011, the District 65 School Board adopted a goal to increase the percentage of students scoring at or above the 50th percentile (an indicator of grade level performance) and who were on track to college and career readiness in both reading and math. The Board also adopted a goal to decrease the percentage of students in the bottom quartile.The charts above show the trends in reading, using scores on the 2006 through 2012 Illinois
Standard Achievement Test. Results on the 2013 ISATs have not yet been made public. It is important to note that high percentages of black and Hispanic students are from low-income households. Research shows there is a clear correlation between household income levels
and student achievement.

5Essentials

The five essentials for successful schools are:

• Effective Leaders: Principals are focused on instruction and work with teachers to implement a clear and strategic vision for school success.

• Collaborative Teachers: The quality of the faculty and staff recruited to the school is high, they receive strong professional development, they are inclined to embrace innovation, they are committed to the school and work together to improve it.

• Student-centered learning climate: The school provides a safe, welcoming, stimulating and nurturing environment focused on learning for all students. Teachers have high expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers.

• Ambitious Instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by emphasizing the application of knowledge. Teachers have the tools to advance learning.

• Involved Families: Schools are a welcoming place for parents and there are strong connections between the school and local institutions. The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning.