Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

School District 65 is moving apace to develop a new strategic plan to guide work at the District for the next three years. The framework for the new plan is organized around five general areas based on the “5Essentials Supports for School Improvement” model: high quality teaching and learning, a thriving workforce, a safe and supportive school climate, family and community engagement, and financial sustainability.

During the last three months, the District has gathered input through 30 focus groups, individual interviews, committees and an online survey. Candance Chow, a School Board member and liaison to the strategic planning process, said, “2,000 individuals have touched this process.”

Five working committees, each assigned to one of the framework categories, have been meeting to discuss issues and to develop a goal and four or five strategies for their respective areas.

On Dec. 10, an External Advisory Committee met for the second time. At that meeting, Patricia Maunsell, a partner in M2 Communications, presented a summary of the input gathered from the community. Chairs of the five working committees presented draft goals and possible strategies to achieve the goals. About 20 members of the advisory committee then provided input on the draft goals and strategies.  

Paul Goren, superintendent, told members of the advisory committee “what you see here is the beginning of a long-term process.” The feedback provided by the advisory committee will be taken back to the working committees to use in shaping their final recommendations for a goal and strategies.

After that, Dr. Goren said the Board will have input, a draft strategic plan will be prepared, and the public will have an opportunity to provide input at town hall meetings. The Board is scheduled to adopt the plan in March.

A.  The Community’s Input

M2 Communications, a consulting firm that works with school districts to integrate strategic communications into efforts to improve education, designed the plan to solicit input to help frame the strategic plan. Ms. Maunsell and her business partner Eva Moon conducted 15 focus groups composed of parents, community members, principals, teachers, and staff, and they also interviewed many people and administered an online survey.

Principals conducted 15 group sessions with fourth- and fifth-graders at the elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle schools. As of Dec. 10, Dr. Goren and Maria Allison, chief strategy officer, gathered input from principals and small groups of teachers at 13 schools.

“We have really had a robust process for gathering community input to this strategic planning process,” said Ms. Maunsell. 

Ms. Maunsell told members of the Advisory Committee on Dec. 10 that there were “some very high level themes” that became very clear.

In terms of developing the strategic plan itself, she said there were two points. “One is a demand for focus and prioritization. Do a few things really well.” A second point is to “develop the strategic plan actionable with specifics that we can look at and say, ‘We did that or we haven’t gotten there yet. And be clear and develop something we can put into action.’”

Ms. Maunsell listed five high level themes that emerged concerning the educational process:

• “Leadership matters at every level, whether it’s from the District office, whether it’s the School Board, principals and kids. Leadership is really, really important.”

• “We have high standards and high expectations for all students, with supports for all students. And that means that teachers are getting the professional development that they need, kids are getting whatever kinds of supports that they need to be successful. Always be crystal clear that we want everybody to reach a high level.”

• “The concept of focusing on the whole child. Social and emotional learning was raised in every conversation that we had. People really felt that it was important to look at both academics and social and emotional learning – all the things that make up the child, not just their MAP scores or their math class.” Many people also felt that social and emotional learning “should be integrated into the curriculum and throughout the day.”

• “Really big words like ‘trust,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘transparency’ were over and over mentioned both at the District level and down to the local school level, to the relationship with teachers.”

• “Relationships matter to how the District works, whether it’s the District that’s supporting teachers and having a good rapport with principals, parents having a good rapport with their kids’ teachers or principal, and certainly teachers having a strong relationship with kids.”

Ms. Maunsell also summarized some of the big ideas gathered through the focus groups. She said while people raised concern and frustrations, “their comments were largely framed in positive, constructive ways. People identified many effective strategies and opportunities that are currently in place but would like to see the District enhance and build on those and spread them equitably throughout the District for the benefit of all students.”

Leadership and a Welcoming Culture: Many people suggested, “Set a tone, a welcoming tone, a positive culture” at the District level, and added that it “was really important to engage and show respect for staff.” They also want principals to set a positive tone at the school level, to be “instructional leaders at the building,” and to “create a culture of learning where all adults and students are learners.” 

Some thought “the principals should know about the kids, where they excel, where they struggle, and understand the teachers’ needs.”

High Expectations: “High expectations for all kids was a given, absolutely a given, which was another very positive thing,” said Ms. Maunsell. “There was an assumption in the room that all kids would get there, we just have to figure out how to get them there. We may have to do it differently, but we will get them there.”

Differentiated Instruction/Student Supports: “Differentiated instruction is mentioned over and over again,” said Ms. Maunsell. Teachers need to be “prepared to meet each student’s instructional needs at all performance levels.” People also thought the District needs to “provide a continuum of resources and supports for schools to serve all students, from those who struggle to those who need additional challenge.”

Curriculum: People want “cutting edge curriculum and instruction” that includes enhanced STEM education, world languages and integrated arts. People felt the District is “pretty good at providing a culturally relevant curriculum and a developmentally appropriate curriculum and that we need to continue to enhance that.”

Teacher Supports:  People support the District’s mantra, “Every day, every child, whatever it takes.” There is a recognition, though, that “We have to support the teachers in order to make it happen. High quality professional development, planning time, collaboration time were raised over and over again – not just by educators, but by others too, including the kids.”

There was also a feeling that all staff, including lunchroom staff and custodians, should receive professional development; and the District should create career paths for teachers and other support staff.

Teachers Want to Be Part of the Solution: “One of the things that was just really positive in talking to the educators – of course, there were frustrations and concerns, it’s an incredibly hard job – but the way they cast it was ‘I want to do a really good job, I want the best for my kids. They looked at it more as ‘I want to be part of the solution. How can we help to do that?’ And that was really, really positive and refreshing.”

Special Education: There was “a lot of conversation about the special education staff and how dedicated they are,” said Ms. Maunsell, and there were “positive comments about the leadership.” She said, “A lot of people talked about how special education teachers get a certain kind of training that’s really valuable – a lot of what they’re talking about is differentiation.” They suggested that type of training may be valuable for other teachers.

One concern brought up is that the District needs to continue offering a full continuum of services and options for students with a disability, including Park School.

Safe Schools: People felt it was important to make sure “there’s a sense of community and belonging in the District and within the schools.” The concept of safe schools includes not only a concern that no physical harm will occur, “but the idea that it was safe to take a risk and ask questions and feel comfortable and supported by those around you.”

Building Community/Diversity: The District and schools should be “welcoming and embracing of all the diversity of our community and our students whether it’s gender, race, special needs and really having a positive experience for everyone.”  In addition, Ms. Maunsell said, people felt “The District and the schools need to employ a range of strategies to engage students, families and community members who have historically not felt included.”

Equity: People recognized there was an “opportunity gap” and a “technology gap,” and “different students and different schools may require different things in order to be supported.” People mentioned there are disparate outcomes in discipline.

D65 as a Hub/Partnerships: “The big one that came up a lot was the idea that the school was the ‘hub.’ The community school model came up a number of times – that [a community school] was a really strong model for Evanston,” said Ms. Maunsell. People also supported the cradle to career initiative and the YMCA managed summer school program. The sense was, “the need to do more. Do these, do more, make bigger and better and do others as well.”

Collaboration with District 202: “People feel good about the level of collaboration. It’s a good start. We need to make it as systemic as we can” so that the collaboration will continue if leadership changes.

The Students’ Views: The students “totally tracked with the adults,” said Ms. Maunsell, except they expressed their views in their own language.

The students understand that not all students in their class are “in the same place,” said Ms. Maunsell. They recognize that students “all need different things and it’s really okay that the teacher helps a kid next to me a little bit more than me, but next time, I might need a little more time.

“There’s a desire to be part of the solution to help their classmates to develop a community in the classroom and that they are all part of and working together to help one another.

“They want a strong positive relationship with their teacher,” said Ms. Maunsell. “The kids talked very clearly about ‘I want my teacher to be nice, but strict. I want my teacher to care about me, to care about my learning, but I want them to hold me accountable.’”

B. Emerging Goals and Strategies

The five working committees, composed of 13-15 people, have each met three or four times. Before they met, each committee was provided a “charge,” and the scope of the charge was limited for three of the committees.

At the Dec. 10 Advisory Committee meeting, the chairs of each working committee summarized the key issues their committee was attempting to address, together with a draft goal and potential strategies to achieve those goals. The goals and strategies are still regarded as a work in progress.

1. High-Quality Teaching and Learning

John Price, assistant superintendent of schools and chair of the Teaching and Learning Committee, said that the committee is focusing on three things: 1) addressing the District’s current achievement/opportunity gaps while continuing growth for all students; 2) creating an environment that promotes innovation and creativity for educators and students; and 3) building on the District’s strengths in order to address the areas of need. The committee, he said, recognizes, “we cannot transform our schools for students” without creating a supportive environment for adults.

The draft goal is: “Deliver high quality teaching that prepares all students for high school through effective differentiation in an environment of innovation and continuous improvement.”

Mr. Price said some of the possible strategies to achieve that goal are creating high-quality professional learning models; promoting collaborative learning structures for teachers; implementing instructional strategies that address the needs of English language learners, students with an Individualized Education Plan, and students from low-income households; providing culturally responsive instruction; and teaching students “executive functioning and habits of mind.”

The charge to the committee limited its scope. The charge provides, “The committee is not going to design or recommend specific curricular programming outline or content-specific strategies.”

2. Family and Community Engagement 

Trish Murray, principal at Kingsley School and chair of the Family and Community Engagement Committee, said the committee is working to address two critical concerns: 1) how to engage all District 65 families in meaningful ways that support students’ success, and 2) how to strengthen and create community partnerships that benefit students and families.

The draft goal is: “Intentionally cultivate and strengthen meaningful partnerships with all families and community agencies as partners.”

Ms. Murray said some of the possible strategies include creating a variety of opportunities that connect, engage, and sustain parents and community agencies as partners; developing a community engagement system that matches community resources with the highest priority needs at the District and school levels; and leveraging the community schools model as a way to make schools a hub of resources.

3. Thriving Workforce

Beatrice Davis, assistant superintendent of special services and chair of the Thriving Workforce Committee, said the committee is working to address two key challenges: 1) how to build more comprehensive human resource practices (e.g., recruitment, hiring, retention), and 2) how the District can create a supportive work environment.

The draft goal is “To foster a collaborative, creative, and inclusive workplace that attracts, develops, and actively supports the best talent.”

Ms. Murray said some possible strategies include developing and implementing an annual recruitment plan that addresses timing, candidate sourcing, the hiring and interview process, and new-hire orientation and support; intentionally creating a culture of trust and support; building high quality, aligned professional development for all employees; and creating career pathways for all employees.

“We have to support the  teachers in order to make it happen.”

The charge to this committee also limited the scope of its review. It carved out appraisal systems and compensation.

4. Safe and Supportive School Climate

Joyce Bartz, assistant superintendent of special services and chair of the Safe and Supportive School Climate Committee, said the committee is trying to address two issues: 1) how to enhance social-emotional programming that teaches good behavior and emphasizes improved self-esteem, promotes problem solving ability, and celebrates positive relationships with all and 2) how to improve positive discipline strategies to maintain a safe, healthy, and inclusive environment.

The draft goal is: “Ensure all District 65 schools have positive school climates built upon clear and equitable policies and practices, where all members of the school community feel safe, included and accepted.”

Ms. Bartz said some possible strategies include improving implementation of positive discipline strategies at all schools, such as restorative justice, social and emotional learning, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), and responsive classrooms; providing parent- learning opportunities about the programs that support positive school climate, so parents may transfer some of the techniques to the home; and incorporating culturally responsive education within the core curriculum.

5. Financial Sustainability

Mary Brown, assistant superintendent of business services and chair of the Financial Sustainability Committee, said the committee is focusing on ways to use data to make informed decisions on structural budget deficits, options to balance future budgets, and scheduling and funding capital projects.

The draft goal is “To ensure the long-term financial stability of the District with resources aligned to priorities.”

Dr. Brown said the recommended strategies include creating a template to use in budget development; implementing a systemic prioritization process to align District 65 programs and practices with available resources; communicating capital needs to the community on a long-term basis; and seeking and advocating for additional revenues.

The charge to the committee provides that the committee “is not charged with making specific recommendations how funds are spent.”

C. Next Steps

At the Dec. 10 meeting, members of the advisory committee provided feedback on the draft goals and possible strategies to chairs of the working committees, which the working committees will use in finalizing their recommended goal and strategies.

A draft strategic plan, which will contain goals, strategies, metrics and action steps, is scheduled to be posted online on Jan. 28. Anyone may post comments about the draft plan online; and anyone may provide comments at town hall meetings to be scheduled for late January or early February. The Board is scheduled to adopt a strategic plan in March.

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...