District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren, left, and District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon at the State of the Schools event. Photo by Lynn Trautmann/LTPhoto Evanston

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School Districts 65 and 202 hosted a “State of the Schools” event on Jan. 29 at Evanston Township High School. The theme of the evening was “Building Our Future Together” and featured Superintendents Paul Goren of District 65 and Eric Witherspoon of ETHS District 202 who discussed initiatives and answered questions about the state of the schools.  

The event drew more than 200 people representing both Districts: parents, students, staff, School Board members, community members and local business owners. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and State Senator Daniel Biss, both of whom have family attending Evanston schools, also attended. Nearly 100 other people watched the event online and dozens connected via live tweets and online.

In her opening remarks, Jacqueline Newsome, an alumna of both District 65 and ETHS, shared how her Evanston public school experiences shaped her opportunities and her future. Ms. Newsome, who is currently in her final year of law school at the University of Chicago, said, “Where else can a little black girl, whose parents grew up on the west side of Chicago, grow up to attend the number-four law school in the country? Only in Evanston.”

Ms. Newsome said she has experienced racial micro-aggressions as a law student and as an eighth-grader, as well as other times in her life. She referenced the ETHS fight song, still memorized from her days as a high-school cheerleader, to encourage people to help ETHS students succeed, just as others had helped her. “‘ETHS we will fight for you, for the right to do, anything for you.’ ‘Anything’ means preparing all of our students for the future,” Ms. Newsome remarked. “So today, I encourage all in attendance to continue to build our future together by … helping Evanston become the premier public school system in this nation.”

Highlights from D65

Dr. Goren used District 65’s mantra, “Every child, every day, whatever it takes,” as a backdrop to talk about District 65’s programs such as the African-Centered Curriculum and the Two-Way Immersion program. Dr. Goren said that while “the state of our schools is strong, it needs to get stronger.” Reading scores show that 68% of students are reading at or above grade level, that 70% are on level for math, said Dr. Goren.  College readiness benchmarks show that 60% are on track to college-readiness in reading and 57% in math. And while the District can celebrate that briefly, he said, these scores also show too many students are not performing to standards.

“We have gaps,” said Dr. Goren referring to socioeconomic, racial and ethnic achievement gaps. He pointed to efforts such as the Joint Literacy Goal, where the two Districts are working together to optimize student success.  Dr. Goren also highlighted community collaborations with Northwestern University, Oakton College, Youth Organizations Umbrella, Foundation 65, The City of Evanston and Evanston Public Library.  “We cannot do this alone,” he said.

Highlights from ETHS District 202

The “goal is to inspire life-long learning,” said Dr. Witherspoon. He touted recent student success measures, including two consecutive years of the highest ACT scores in the history of ETHS, a five-year graduation rate of 90 percent, and a record-low student dropout rate of 1.1 percent. He explained that Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores at ETHS had reached the highest in the school’s history, with 64 percent of all juniors and seniors taking at least one Advanced Placement exam in 2013-14 school year and achieving a record number of scores of 3, 4, and 5.

Dr. Witherspoon said the high school’s efforts to promote academic success and college readiness for all students in Advanced Placement and beyond is an inspiration to others, as noted by the College Board’s designation of ETHS as one of eight Gaston Caperton Inspiration Award-winning schools in the United States. ETHS’s nationally-recognized work in AP was documented in a January 2015 article titled “No Child Written Off: ‘You Can Get Smarter,” published by the Washington, D.C.-based National Journal.

Dr. Witherspoon also emphasized several opportunities for collaboration across districts through a variety of models that seek to prepare more students with the tools they need to be proficient readers by the time they walk through the doors of ETHS. He mentioned the newly launched Oakton Scholars tutoring/mentoring program, under which black high school students from ETHS are paired with black students at District 65’s Oakton Elementary School who are struggling with reading. Other joint literacy efforts include a series of cross-district classroom observations by teachers and curriculum leaders in both districts to help build a shared understanding of an instructional framework known as Disciplinary Literacy.

Finally, he explained the importance of being “nimble” as District 202 faces financial uncertainty with the State of Illinois. He said the District relies on the efforts of the ETHS Educational Foundation to supplement funding. He said the challenge of creating a state-of-the-art learning environment in an aging, 91-year-old, building also becomes an opportunity because facilities can be improved to reduce costs and the school’s overall carbon footprint. He cited the Foundation’s work in supporting the renovation of the school’s planetarium and the construction of a new advanced manufacturing lab this summer.

Dr. Witherspoon closed his session by saying District 202 has been selected by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) for an April site visit that will provide a look at ETHS’s freshman-year restructuring of humanities and biology courses. According to the AERA website, leading researchers from across the country will visit ETHS to learn how the school’s “progressive restructuring initiative works to provide each child with access to honors-level classes.”

After the superintendents’ speeches, Janet Webb, a retired teacher from both Districts, moderated a question and answer session.  Questions were accepted online ahead of the event and also via online and paper means during the event.

Partnership for Assessment Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC)

One person asked about resources being devoted to PARCC, the new standardized test mandated by the State. Dr. Goren said there would have been resources going into the ISAT this year, so some efforts are the same. There are, however, additional resources going into implementing the PARCC test, such as increased IT support. He stressed that he is in favor of “robust” testing that is aligned with the curriculum but said “We don’t know” if PARCC “will deliver.” Many states have asked to push the PARCC implementation off for a year, and “that would be great” but, Dr. Goren said, the District is obligated to give the test or risk losing $7 million in funding.

Dr. Witherspoon was a bit more animated in his response to the PARCC question. From the high school’s perspective, he said, “We’re using way too much. It’s alarming. … We have tons of concerns”: computers freezing and other glitches experienced during trial runs, training staff and interrupting classes, and the fact that PARCC does not support other tests needed for college. “I cannot believe it’s mandated when we don’t know how useful” the test will be, he added.

School Funding

Another person asked about school funding from the State. “Clouds are hovering,” said Dr. Goren, and “we may have to make tough choices.” District 65’s finances for the next year are “relatively fine,” he said, but deficits are projected in subsequent years due to the anticipated shift in pension costs from the State to local school districts and to pending legislation that would rearrange how the State funds education. He said the legislation puts the District in jeopardy of losing millions of dollars in State funding. The fact that the State did not sustain the temporary income-tax increase may cut into education funding as well.

District 202 is living within its budget each year, something “the State of Illinois could destroy” said Dr. Witherspoon. Tax-payers are doing their share – he said to applause from the audience – but the State is taking a “Robin Hood approach” to funding as proposed in 2014 Senate Bill 16, now re-introduced with some changes as Senate Bill 1. He also talked about the looming shift of pension costs to local school districts, saying the State is going to “shift to us what they failed to put in all these years.

“Yes, I’m concerned,” he concluded.

Special Education

Another question brought to light the issue of special needs services. “When we say every kid gets support we mean it,” said Dr. Witherspoon.  We have high expectations on how to be successful in life and believe “every child is worthy” of a quality education. He talked of the individualized education plans. “We address needs in a respectful way,” added Dr. Goren.

Reaction

School Board presidents Gretchen Livingston of District and Tracy Quattrocki of District 65 told the RoundTable they agreed that the evening was “fantastic” and that the Boards are “excited about the collaboration” between the two Districts and the community. District 202 Board member Bill Geiger said the “best is yet to come,” that he is pleased with the depth of the relationship between the two Boards and the shared commitment to outcomes. District 65 parent Katy Hart said it is “refreshing” and that she is “thrilled the two Districts are finally working more closely together and saying so publicly. Now let’s see results.”