A Joint District 65 and 202 Committee discussed developing a joint reading goal for the School Districts and the community at its Sept. 11 meeting. The Committee includes the superintendents of both Districts, the Chief Administrative Officer of District 65, and the Presidents and Vice Presidents of both School Boards.

Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of School District 202, opened the discussion on a joint goal by offering a broad vision that would bring in the community. He said, “I think there is a huge potential to look at something across the spectrum, across all grades and in my mind across the community.”

“I think there’s an opportunity here for ‘opportunity youth,’ but I’d really love for you to consider some kind of a reading goal. We really do have some issues within our community about all of our children being proficient in reading. I really do believe, and I feel it’s the kingly goal, you have to be a proficient reader. You just have to be. I don’t think it’s something you [District 65] can do alone. … I know we [District 202] can’t do it alone.”

“I think we have an opportunity, and this may not be the direction you may want to go but I’d sure ask you to consider it. Could we be looking at something that is really bold and dynamic in this area that not only commits two Districts and two School Boards, but really commits to even trying to getting the community and early childhood and expert programming, because I think we can transform a lot of educational outcomes in our community. Frankly, I think if we could close the reading gap, we could change the achievement gap.”

Dr. Witherspoon added that he is part of community effort called “cradle to career” that is meeting at the high school, but is not a high school effort. “It’s based around this idea, how do you mobilize the community around our youth being successful and how do we as a whole community own our youth? It’s starting to get legs,” he said.

He added there is a group of early childhood providers working with the Evanston Community Foundation. “There’s really an effort to make it a community-wide commitment. I say that to you because the two School Boards would have an opportunity to really leverage something … “

Barbara Hiller, chief administrative officer at District 65, noted, “All the funding of Foundation 65 is very much into the literacy programs. I think it would make a lot of sense.”

Katie Bailey, District 65 Board member, said, “You sold us. It makes so much sense.” She added, “I think if you develop the common language across the Districts and across the community, it would be quite helpful. I’m wholeheartedly in support of it.”

She asked, “Are we only going to do one [goal], we could do more.” Earlier in the meeting she suggested the two Districts work together in addressing the needs of “opportunity youth.”

Jonathan Baum, District 202 Board member, said as Board members, “We do the ‘what’ and the administrators do the ‘how.’

“In suggesting marching orders to administrators,” Mr. Baum continued, “I don’t think we’re looking at shaping a Board goal for the ‘how’ – that we are approving this initiative or we are going to do that initiative. I think the goal at the Board level should be the ‘what,’ and it is essentially output. We want to backtrack from college and career readiness at 12th grade to 8th, 5th, and 3rd, and we want students to [be] at some level of proficiency at each of those levels. I think the importance of the goal is we pledge our joint efforts – that District 202 is going to help District 65 to achieve the 3rd grade goal, and District 65 is going to help District 202 achieve the 12th grade goal.”

Gretchen Livingston, president of the District 202 Board, said, “Well put.” In response to Ms. Bailey’s question about adopting multiple goals, she said, “We can do more joint goals,” but she suggested that the Boards start out with this goal “because it has such power.”

Tracy Quattrocki, president of the District 65 Board, said, “This would be a perfect opportunity for our research arms to come together and to come up with measures year by year –

“Oh yes, for a fact,” Dr. Witherspoon interjected,

” – so we know exactly where we need to be at third grade so we’re at career and college readiness,” continued Ms. Quattrocki. “So that would be my hope.”

Ms. Livingston asked the administrators to bring back something a little more specific that the Committee could use to frame a joint goal, and which they in turn could consider at their joint board meeting in January or June next year.

Recognizing the importance of being able to read by third grade, the District 65 School Board has adopted third-grade reading goals on numerous occasions during the last 10 years. The District’s current strategic plan, adopted in 2009, contains the goal, “Ensure, by the end of third grade, that students enrolled in the District for four continuous years are reading at grade level.” Over the years, the District has implemented many programs in an attempt to achieve these goals.

Despite these efforts, the chart below, shows that only 48% of black students and 51% of Hispanic students are reading at grade level, using performance at the 50th percentile as the measure of grade-level performance. Some progress – 8 percentage points for black students and 5 points for Hispanic students – has been made since 2006.

Many studies point to a “word gap” that exists at first grade as being a factor in children’s reading abilities in subsequent years. One researcher estimated that “linguistically disadvantaged” children know about 5,000 words compared to 20,000 known by “more advantaged” children at the time of school entry. Moreover, “studies … have shown a substantial relationship between vocabulary size in first grade and reading comprehension later on,” say the authors of a meta analysis, “The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning” (2010).

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) and the National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation found in a joint report that “early experiences determine whether a child’s developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” In light of continuing scientific findings in this area, NSCDC says, “The need to address significant inequalities in opportunity, beginning in the earliest years of life, is both a fundamental moral responsibility and a critical investment in our nation’s social and economic future.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...