This is the text of a speech given by School District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren to the District’s teachers at Pick Staiger Hall, Northwestern University on Aug. 21, 2014.

GOOD MORNING. WELCOME.

So great to see you, to celebrate the end of the summer (or with climate change, mid-fall) and to start the school year together.

I want to take a little time to introduce myself, take a moment to celebrate the beginning of the school year and all the work that you do, and offer some ideas on what is on the horizon for District 65 and the schools of Evanston and Skokie.

First I want to recognize an outstanding educator who has served every District 65 child, every day for several decades. Barb Hiller is a teacher at heart, someone who focuses her professional attention and her heart on the children in our classrooms. She has a “whatever it takes” attitude that influences all who are around her. She served in a leadership capacity last year, remains doing so this year, and will remain as special assistant to the superintendent. She is indeed special as an educator, a leader, and someone who brings communities together. I too want to acknowledge what she has done for each and every child, every day, by whatever it takes. Join me in thanking Barb for all that she does for all of us.

Now, let me start with a story. A story of a 7th grader and a science teacher. The teacher was teaching a semester on biology and was right in the middle of explaining mitosis and meiosis.  The student took a unit test and from about 15 minutes into the test the student realized that he was not doing well even though he thought he knew the material. The teacher graded the test quickly and called the student in for a quick conversation. She told the student that she knew that he had a rough time on the test, yet she had faith in him that he knew the material. And then she told the student to take a copy of the same test home, use the book if necessary, and bring the completed test back the next day. The student did, aced the exam, and felt all the more confident as a young biologist. Miss Woodle gave me that test some 42 years ago. I can still remember talking to my mom that evening, amazed that my teacher trusted me, had faith in me, and that she was willing to give me a second chance. I have never forgotten that moment, and I bet each of you have a similar story about a teacher who did the same for you in your life.

Turn to the person next to you and take a minute or two to talk about that teacher you remember, that teacher that had faith in you, who believed in you, who truly made a difference…..

I start with my story about Miss Woodle because you are the teachers and principals and social workers  and special education specialists and teacher assistants who our students will remember decades from now. You are the educators who make a difference in the lives of our students, each and every one of our students, like Miss Woodle did in my life. And for that I want to take this opportunity to thank you, thank you for all that you do…

Let me tell you a little bit about me and my background.

I actually have very deep Evanston roots. My mom, at the age of 17 and a Denver Public Schools graduate was a freshman at Northwestern in the Medill School of Journalism when she met my dad, age 23, and a Chicago Public Schools graduate who was back from the war as a junior at Northwestern. They met at a little diner next to where the Einstein Bagels shop is in downtown Evanston. They married two years later in 1949 and started their family soon thereafter.

If you come to my office you will see a set of pictures from Avalon Park Elementary school on Chicago’s southside that tell part of the story of my childhood. I grew up in a neighborhood that had very similar characteristics to that of Evanston. In the early 60s the neighborhood – called Marynook for those who know the southside – was predominantly white. As the first African American families moved in, many of the white families left for the suburbs in the era of “white flight.” The kids who were my friends told me their families were moving because of the quality of the schools, code words my parents did not buy. My folks stayed in the neighborhood as it shifted from a white community to a predominantly African American community, remaining there until just months ago.  I learned at an early age that people from backgrounds different than my own were really not that different.

I attended high school at Metro High, a Chicago Public School that used the city as its classroom. With classes at the Shedd Aquarium and Second City and with magazine editors and lawyers as teachers we learned by doing, and by using the resources of Chicago to frame our education. I was influenced in my own thinking by the group of educators and leaders who created Metro; educators who worked to engage young people and their families in educational experiences that were meaningful and relevant. I want to believe that my interest in education as a career came from my experiences at a high school with outstanding leaders, engaged teachers, community involvement, and with kids from every neighborhood and socioeconomic level of the city. 

After college I taught middle school – mathematics and socials studies and I coached basketball. I have said over and over again that I never worked harder than when I taught and I still believe that. I earned a master’s in public policy in the early 1980s and then went to work for Tom Payzant – then superintendent of the San Diego City Schools. Tom went on to serve Pres Clinton as Assistant Secretary of Elementary  and Secondary education and then as superintendent of Boston’s public schools.  I worked in San Diego for 3+ years, influenced by Tom who asked us daily “What have we done to improve the lives of children today?” He instilled within me a sense of urgency – that our work is important each and every day.

After stints at two nationally known foundations, I took a fellowship to work on policies to improve the education of the indigenous people of NZ – the Maoris – paying close attention to culturally relevant curricula. I then worked as a senior advisor at the Chicago Public Schools and the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. And most recently I served as Senior VP at CASEL – focused on academic growth and the development of social and emotional skills for all students.

And now back to my Evanston roots – I married into Evanston, as my wife attended Nichols and ETHS and my mother in law was once on the 202 Board. My three children attended and graduated Oakton and Chute – a combined 27 child years in District 65.  I have been involved in community activities over the past 16 years and have proudly supported the Evanston Public Schools. So when I think about it, you are District 65, as a parent and resident, I am District 65 and indeed now WE ARE DISTRICT 65.

It is an honor to serve the communities of Evanston and Skokie, to be an advocate for the public schools, and to be your advocate as we all serve every child, every day, by whatever it takes.

I want to take a moment to introduce the district’s leadership team —

  • Will everyone who is a member of an ILT please stand up. Thank you for your leadership.
  • Will everyone who teaches Prek-5 please stand up. Thank you for your leadership.
  • Will everyone who is a Special Education teacher or specialist or an ELL teacher please stand up. Thank you for your leadership.
  • Will everyone who teaches grades 6-8 please stand up. Thank you for your leadership.
  • And will everyone who is a principal, AP, and administrator please stand up.

You are the leaders of this district and you do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of kids, every child, every day.

My team at the JEH Center supports your work and the efforts you take on daily in classrooms, media centers and libraries, the gymnasiums, the art and music rooms, and cafeterias and lunchrooms. We too work for every child, every day, by whatever it takes. I am pleased to introduce the senior team -–

  • Beatrice Davis, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources
  • Joyce Baartz, Asst Supt for Special Services
  • John Price, Asst Supt for Schools
  • Maria Allison, Chief Strategy Officer
  • Mary Brown, Asst Supt for Business Services
  • Barb Hiller, Special Asst

Let me note as well the “professional marriage” between Joyce Bartz and John Price, between our special educational services and our general educational services. In my mind we provide our services in a collaborative manner rather than in silos.

And  let me introduce several other key team members —

Curriculum and Instruction Leaders – Lauren Laitou, Demetra Disotaur, Jesch Reyes, Jamilla Pitts, Melanie Mudarth, Patty Zorzies

And Kathy Zalewsky  on Budget and Finance, Lora Tyra on Data and Information, Joe Caravello on Technology,  Jordan Ryan who heads our Food Services and Nutrition work, Melissa Messenger on Communications, and Sheila Burke who leads the superintendent’s office.

Several people have asked who has influenced my own thinking. Let me offer the Cliff Notes version of who I pay attention to in the education field.

I am a big fan of  —

  • Dick Elmore’s work on the Instructional Core
  • Carol Dweick’s perspective on Growth Mindsets – that we can learn and grow through hard work
  • Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s work on the importance of relational trust
  • Bryk, John Easton and Penny Sebring’s work on the Essential Supports for School Improvement (5Es)
  • Carol Lee and Gloria Ladson-Billings work on cultural competence
  • Jim Spillane’s (from NWU) work on Distributed Leadership, Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s  (with whom I studied) historical understanding of education reform,  and Cynthia Coburn’s (from NWU) work on how educators make sense of the work they do
  • Dick Murnane and others on the importance of using Data and Evidence for continuous improvement
  • Linda Darling Hammond’s work on what teachers need to know and be able to do in the 21st Century, and
  • John Gardner’s focus on the importance of community service and serving the common good.

Most recently I have been influenced by a short book about the changes in the Sanger School District in central California. Jane David and Joan Talbert documented how a district our size changed from a culture of professional isolation to Collaboration, Shared Responsibility, and Reciprocal Accountability. Sanger coined the phrase “Every Child, Every Day, Whatever it Takes” and indeed is pleased to hear that we feel the same way.

What a powerful phrase –

Every Child – regardless of background, academic standing, whether in general ed or in need of special services – that every child is served

Every Day – we work day in and out to help our children on their learning journeys, we are committed like Miss Woodle, Mrs. Hiller, and Dr. Payzant to make a difference in the lives of all children

Whatever it takes – that is our commitment – to work to engage, challenge, coach, push, encourage, complement, cheer on – to help each and every child learn….

 In the year and years ahead I would love to learn more from you on your own thinking and who influences your practices.

 Speaking of the year ahead, let me take a few final minutes to discuss several of the agendas we will be pursuing together.

The year ahead comes with tremendous opportunities as we implement the Common Core State Standards, continue our work on Community Schools, and engage with community partners on efforts to support young people in Evanston and Skokie from cradle to career. We will spend time engaging the school community, our board and the broader community in the development of a strategic framework that will guide the district for the years ahead. This will be a framework that will be usable, concise, and will help drive all of our work. During the next month I will be reaching out to talk to many of you so that we ensure that the framework represents the perspectives of those working with children at schools and in classrooms.

We will work with and develop even stronger ties with our colleagues at ETHS in District 202 as we work together to provide rich opportunities for all children prek through 12. And we will take on the challenges that face us in a transparent manner – the evident achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic backgrounds, and the gaps between those from different racial and ethnic groups.

On achievement and the evident gaps in student performance, I believe we need to have intentional conversations followed by action planning. These conversations can be shaped by the DuFour Professional Learning Communities model where they ask four questions –

  • What do we want students to learn?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • How will we respond if they have not learned it?
  • How will we respond when learning has already occurred? 

This year, we will explore new alternatives to suspension that provide the proper balance of support and discipline. We will learn more about instructional strategies that are culturally relevant for a diverse community of learners, and we will report regularly on our finances and potential financial challenges. We will also engage with families and our communities, offering a friendly smile and welcome to our buildings, in service to our communities, our families, our students.

The year ahead is full of opportunity….opportunities that we will work on together as a district team dedicated to the students.

I want to end by referencing a quote from one of the people I mentioned earlier. John Gardner, the influential secretary of Health, Education and Welfare who helped craft President Johnson’s Great Society and was the founder of Common Cause and the Independent Sector wrote in 1961: 

We don’t even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead. That is why we must train our young people in the fundamental fields of knowledge, and equip them to understand and cope with change. That is why we must give them the critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot now even predict.”  (John Gardner, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? 1961)

Our job within District 65 is to focus on every child, every day, to do whatever it takes to give all children those critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character. Our job is to support our community partners as well so that we all support our children and their learning wherever and whenever it occurs. You are District 65. I am District 65. We are District 65. With a focus on every child, every day, with whatever it takes.

Have a great year.