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On March 12, Rachel Levy, James Rowan and Sonia Siu, students at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, presented ideas on ways School Districts 65 and 202 could increase collaboration. 

In the last few years, Districts 65 and 202 have significantly increased collaboration, and are collaborating now in aligning their curricula, sharing some student assessment data, reducing costs and other areas. In January, the School Boards adopted a Joint Literacy Goal that all students would be proficient readers and college ready when they graduated from Evanston Township High School. The Boards have also voiced support for the Cradle to Career initiative, whose vision is that by the age of 23, “all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives.”

In their presentations, the Kellogg students suggested that the Districts consider adopting additional shared goals, and that they consider whether sharing employees, sharing a department manager or consolidating departments would assist them in achieving those goals. They primarily focused on two areas: research and assessment, and technology.

Twenty School Board members and administrators attended the presentation. While several administrators said the Districts were already doing some of the things suggested by the Kellogg students, District 202 Board member Jonathan Baum said the report was “provocative and thoughtful.”

District 65 Board member Richard Rykhus said, “There’s a lot of opportunity and we have to figure out how to seize that.”

The students conducted their analysis as part of an independent study project under Therese McGuire, their supervising professor at Kellogg. They each have between three and five years experience in the business world. Dr. McGuire served on the District 65 Citizens Ad Hoc Budget Committee in 2011.

Suggestions on Research and Evaluation

Several members of the Joint District 65/202 Committee have previously suggested that the Districts consolidate their research and evaluation departments. They say that the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), given to 3rd-through 8th-graders, and the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), given to 11th graders, are misaligned. Consolidating the research and evaluation departments would enable the two Districts to analyze student test data in a consistent manner from kindergarten through 12th grade and make better analyses of the data, they say.

At the March 12 presentation, Ms. Siu focused on opportunities in the research and development area. She suggested that the Districts jointly track each student’s progress between kindergarten and  12th grades and post the data on a website accessible to each student’s parents; that the Districts, jointly create a strategy to evaluate programs; that the Districts enter into an agreement laying out when data may be shared and should be shared; and that the Districts collaborate on preparing and reviewing surveys of parents and teachers.

Mr. Baum focused on the suggestion to track students’ progress between K-12. In light of the Districts’ Joint Literacy Goal and in light of District 202’s goal to increase each student’s academic trajectory, he said, “Having some sort of database that runs from early childhood through 12th grades showing that trajectory is going to be essential.”

He added that the Districts should not only share test data, but they should reach a common understanding about what particular test scores mean in terms of student proficiency, and what is a satisfactory score at each grade level.

District 65 Board member Candance Chow said she thought the power of having shared data is it would enable the Districts to determine why some students succeed or get to some point at ETHS, and then being able to look back. For example, she said, “When kids are in AP calculus, what has been the series of experiences that they have had, what are the commonalities, what can we learn from them to understand better how we prepare children who are in third grade to reach increasing levels of success? That seems to be the opportunity.”

Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent of District 202, said issues caused by the “gross misalignment” of the ISAT and PSAE may be taken care of when the State implements PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) or another testing system in the 2014-15 school year. The test assessment should have a common scale from third through 11th grades, he said.

In order to analyze long-term trends, it may be necessary to agree on how ISAT, PSAE and PARCC scores correlate with one another. It may also be necessary to reach a joint understanding on what a PARCC score means in terms of student proficiency and college and career readiness, and what the target scores should be at each grade level.

Instructional Technology

Mr. Rowan offered many suggestions for collaboration in the area of instructional technology. He suggested the Districts could coordinate professional development efforts and create instructional videos, coordinate purchases of online resources between themselves and Evanston Public Library, jointly provide families with guidelines in making technology purchases, and explore additional ways to ensure all students have access to the Internet.

Paula Frohman, Director of Technology at District 202, said the Districts were doing a lot of the things suggested in the technology area, and that some things were in process. She said they were committed to collaborating the best they could.

Collaboration or Something More?

If the Districts decide to collaborate in a particular area, the level at which they will collaborate is an open question. Ms. Levy said adopting a shared goal with defined objectives is a “much higher level of collaboration.”

In addition, the Kellogg students said there are various management options across what they called a “collaboration spectrum,” running from separation to consolidation: collaborating, but maintaining totally separate departments; maintaining separate departments, but sharing one or more employees; maintaining separate departments, but sharing a single manager; and consolidating two departments into one.

Ms. Siu said the Districts are doing a great job of coordinating, but they could do more. “We think if you went anywhere up the line it would be better for the organization.” She did not propose a particular level at which the Districts should collaborate.

Ms. Levy suggested the Districts first decide on a concrete shared goal, then decide on a management option. For example, Ms. Levy said the Boards could determine what information they wanted about student achievement, what type of analyses they wanted, and what is the goal. Deciding on the goal is “the first step toward determining” whether the Districts should share employees, share a director of the departments or consolidate the departments into one joint department.

Mr. Rowan followed up saying that school districts in Lake Forest have separate research and assessment departments, but have one person overseeing the departments. “By having one person at the top, that helped communication in such a way that they were able to start trying to assess programs across the two districts,” Mr. Rowan said. “They were able to start looking across the board and able to start really doing interesting assessments.”

District 202 Chief Financial Officer William Stafford pushed back saying there is no definitive research that shows that sharing a manager or sharing employees results in any benefits. “You could have two departments with coordination and have just as good or better results as two departments with a shared manager,” he said.

While the Kellogg students were speaking from a business perspective, the approach is similar to the approach used in “collective impact” models where groups of institutions, school districts and community organizations band together to address complex social or educational issues. In a paper “Collective Impact,” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the authors distinguish collaboration from collective impact initiatives. Unlike collaboration, they say collective impact initiatives require a common goal, shared measurement, continuous communication, and leadership by a single entity.

Moving Forward

District 65 School Board President Tracy Quattrocki said that during the last school board elections, the community expressed a desire that the School Districts increase their collaboration. She asked administrators if the presentation by the Kellogg students generated some ideas.

“There’s some nuggets there that we agree with. For example, sharing research makes a lot of sense,” said Ms. Frohman. Sue Schultz, assistant superintendent of District 65, said the Districts were already collaborating, but added, “There’s definitely some ideas that we can bring back and look at.”

Dr. Witherspoon said historically the Districts would probably be given a “D” or an “F” in terms of collaboration. “I would say we’re in the B range now, maybe a B-, we’re definitely above average now and we’re headed toward an A. I think there’s really some good nuggets in here that give us a few more good ideas and guideposts on how to get to an A.

 “I don’t’ think you’re seeing a lack of enthusiasm as much as, “Gosh, let’s kind of build on what’s happening here because I do think the two Districts have come a long way,’” Dr. Witherspoon said.

Referring to Mr. Rowan’s suggestion that the Districts could consider adopting a joint mission statement, Dr. Witherspoon added, “I love the idea of not only having our own mission statement, but a joint mission statement. I really hope the two Boards explore that. … What can we say is the mission for every child in this community?”

Ms. Quattrocki outlined what she perceived to be a concern of some members of the Boards. “You are all such tremendous leaders, collaborative leaders. It is happening. But when you look back at history it depends on your attitudes towards each other’s Districts. I think what we as Boards would like to see is how to systemize that so we don’t have to rely on only good-natured superintendents to get along. It should go deeper and be more widespread and be something that’s in the system.”

Barb Hiller, chief administrative officer of District 65, said, “I think that issue of consistency is a very important one. I think the departments are working closely together and doing a strong job of collaborating, and we’d like to keep that door open. So the consistency issue is an important one.”