Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Superintendent Paul Goren presented a revised draft of a strategic plan to the District 65 School Board at a specially set meeting on March 2. The draft represents the culmination of a five-month effort in which more than 2,000 people, including teachers, principals, parents, students and community members provided input in focus groups, as members of five working committees and an advisory committee, in town hall meetings, through surveys and by email.

The strategic plan builds on and strengthens the District’s existing foundation. It contains five goals to improve high-quality teaching and learning, to build a thriving workforce, to enhance family and community engagement, to provide a safe and supportive school climate, and to maintain financial sustainability.

The plan lays out four to six strategies to achieve each goal; it includes “milestones,” or action steps to implement each strategy; and it includes specific “measures of success,” sometimes referred to as “leading indicators” to track whether each goal is being met. There are also overarching measures of success.

Significantly, the strategic plan also represents a change in culture in the District.

A ‘Clarion Call’ to Action

The context of the plan starts with the data presented in District 65’s 2014 Student Achievement Report, said Dr. Goren.

The data shows that 43% of the District’s eighth-graders were not on track to college readiness in reading at the end of the 2013-14 school year. In math, 56% were not on track. The vast majority of the students not on track are African American and Hispanic students, primarily from low-income households.

In addition, the percentage of students who met expected annual growth targets on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test has “decreased dramatically over the last four years,” said Dr. Goren.

“It’s a clarion call for all of us, starting in my office, through the classrooms and into the community, and not only for us as educators and not only for us who work in the system, but for those of us who live in Evanston, to really get behind the schools and the work that we want to do to move forward.

“It’s really a clarion call to say, ‘Let’s build on the foundation that we have, let’s make sure that foundation is strong and then let’s move forward to find progress so that we can make a difference in the lives of kids.’”

“The plan is built on what I refer to as ‘deep listening,’” said Dr. Goren. “We spent time in the schools, we did surveys, we had a broad public comment period, we had town hall meetings, and we really listened to the concerns and issues and the hopes of citizens in Evanston and Skokie.”

High Quality Teaching and Learning

The Goal: Prepare students for high school and beyond in an environment of innovation and continuous improvement through high quality teaching that addresses the needs of each learner.

The strategic plan lists six strategies to achieve this goal. First, the District recently developed collaborative professional learning structures – Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) – in each school. The PLCs provide a structure for teachers to develop, share and discuss new ideas and best practices, including how to apply new instructional techniques. They also provide a structure for ongoing professional learning to be tailored to each teacher’s individual learning needs. Dr. Goren said the PLCs will be refined and improved.

“We envision the District as a community of learners where change can flow from schools to the central office, from the central office to the schools, and between schools and individual teachers,” says the plan.

Second, the strategic plan acknowledges “the need to improve the rigor and challenge of instruction for all students especially those who are academically advanced.” To do this, the District will implement a framework that “defines high-quality curriculum and instruction.” The framework will catalog in detail elements of effective teaching for each grade level and subject, and may include a wide variety of topics, ranging from the use of instructional time, methods of differentiating instruction, and the use of technology. Addressing what Dr. Goren has termed “initiative fatigue,” the framework will provide “a coherent approach to instruction rather than introducing a series of unrelated new instructional initiatives.”

Acknowledging the need to improve foundational literacy skills, the District will start developing the framework at pre-K through second grade. 

The District also plans to increase the rigor and quality of instruction by implementing “Disciplinary Literacy,” which Districts 65 and 202 agreed to implement as part of their Joint Literacy Goal. Under this approach, teachers will “challenge students to read, write, speak, and reason as practitioners of various disciplines including language arts, science, social studies, and the arts.” This will help develop critical thinking in each subject. In the first year, District 65 will begin this approach in social studies and science classes in sixth through eighth grades, which will provide a smoother transition to high school.

Third, the District will focus on three groups of struggling learners: students in the bottom quartile (especially low-income students and students of color); students with a disability, and English-language learners. As a first step, the District will improve supports to students struggling academically and clarify the roles and expectations of the various professionals who work with these students.

The District will also implement a new curriculum for English as a Second Language and assess the Two-Way Immersion program and may recommend changes. The District also plans to develop approaches to a culturally relevant curriculum and to draw on community resources to assist students with a disability.

Fourth, the District plans to improve the use of formative assessment data and ensure that all students and all families receive clear feedback on what students have learned and what each student should do next to continue his or her academic progress. As part of this effort, the District plans to develop of series of curriculum maps that specify the order and pace of units and standards taught at each grade level.

Fifth, the District will build students’ executive functioning skills and, drawing on Carol Dweck’s research, encourage a growth mindset for students which can have an impact on their academic outcomes. Dr. Goren said students should have the view, “I’m a powerful learner and I believe in myself, but I also have to be organized to do the work that needs to be done.”

Sixth, Dr. Goren said, the District will form an “innovation work team” that will be composed of teacher leaders, administrators, and himself. He said the team will look at innovative ideas in the District, whether it is instruction, supports for children, or the use of technology and “try to figure out how we best can spread those innovations throughout the District.”  At the same time, Dr. Goren said, the team will pay attention “to the innovation going on in the fields we work in.”

Thriving Workforce

The Goal: Foster a collaborative, creative, and inclusive workplace that attracts, develops and actively supports the best talent.

The strategic plan recognizes that a talented, thriving workforce “is the heart of this strategic plan. … The key to sustaining improvement over time is the quality of people that we recruit and retain in positions across the District.”

The strategic plan contains four strategies to implement this goal: improve the quality of the recruitment, selection and orientation process; provide high-quality professional learning to all employees; build a culture that respects employees; and provide pathways for employees to develop and grow. 

 “We know recruitment has to be intentional, it needs to be timely and we have to focus on retention,” said Dr. Goren. “We want to create and build upon the culture that we have at District 65, so we can move forward with teachers with a celebration that this is a fabulous place to work. We want to have pathways for all staff members where we really look to growth and opportunities.”

Family and Community Engagement

The Goal: Cultivate and strengthen intentional and meaningful partnerships with all families and community agencies to support academic success and healthy development of all students.

“We want to make sure we expand the engagement opportunities and make sure we pay attention to how we engage families,” said Dr. Goren. “And for those families who may not be engaged, we want to be sure we intentionally reach out and do our best to welcome them into the system.” The District plans to use focus groups from several schools to identify barriers that keep many families from participating and to identify strategies for reducing those barriers.

The District also plans to engage community organizations to partner with the schools. The initial work will focus on three key partnerships District 65 has with District 202, the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative and Northwestern University:

• District 65 is partnering with District 202 on the Joint Literacy Goal, on implementing Disciplinary Literacy, preparing a Joint Accountability Report, and they  are collaborating on many other things.

• District 65’s work with EC2C will focus on early childhood education, early literacy and wrap-around services, says the strategic plan. One important step will be exploring the feasibility of developing and implementing a measure of kindergarten readiness.

• The District will continue to partner with NU, whose students provide tutoring and whose professional staff provide services on various programs.

The Community School being piloted at Chute Middle School is another community partnership. “We want to embrace everything we can learn about the Community School,” said Dr. Goren. “There are multiple sides of the partnership that are really quite exciting,” including ways of engaging and empowering families to make decisions about the supports their children need, and partnering with community organizations to provide wrap-around services that support families.

“There’s a real emphasis on building capacity for family and community engagement and that includes a focus on diversity, the diversity of all our families,” said Dr. Goren.

Safe and Supportive School Climate

The Goal: 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 emotionally and physically safe, included and accepted.

“It’s in this section that we talk about the importance of both academic skills and the social and emotional learning,” said Dr. Goren. “That work has to be done in the regular routines of the classroom.”

The District uses several programs that contain components of academics and social and emotional learning, such as Second Step, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), peace circles, restorative justice and “Making Meaning.” The District will conduct an audit of these programs, work with a “Whole Child Council,” now in formation, and develop a framework to select and implement social and emotional programs.

Dr. Goren added that the District will have “a real focus on the whole child,” and pay attention to the needs that a child comes to school with and attempt to address those needs inside the school or perhaps outside the school through community partners.

To focus this work, the District will create a district-level “Whole Child Council,” said Dr. Goren. The Council will be charged with continuing to improve services to whole-child development, including academic progress, social and emotional learning, disciplinary strategies, cultural responsiveness, and wrap-around services. The Council will seek to leverage community partnerships to work with students with disabilities.

It is anticipated that school-based teams, in conjunction with the Whole Child Council, will work to meet the holistic needs of students in each school, including identifying available resources in the community to help meet those needs. Prototypes may start in three schools next year.

Financial Sustainability

The Goal: Ensure long-term financial stability of the District with resources aligned to priorities.

The District is projecting mounting deficits beginning next year. In addition, there is legislation pending or proposed in Springfield that may either make substantial cuts in District 65’s revenues or substantially increase its costs.

The strategic plan provides that the District will present its budget and financial reporting documents in an easier to understand format, and that it will move toward priority-based budgeting and use a modified zero-based budgeting model in preparing its 2015-16 budget. The plan also recommends that the Board consider an operating referendum and a capital referendum.

“The financial sustainability of the District is of utmost importance,” said Dr. Goren. “It is foundational to all other areas of the plan.”

A Doable 5-year Plan

 “I want to emphasize,” Dr. Goren said, “We can do this. The enthusiasm, the excitement that I’ve encountered over the last several months tells me we can do this.”

He said administrators are already working on a “very detailed implementation plan.”

While the strategic plan was originally envisioned as a three-year plan, Dr. Goren said, “This is a proposed five-year plan, with annual updates. At the three-year point, we would have time to take a look at where we came from, where we’re going and make a deep examination of whether or not we should change course in any which way to meet the needs that are emerging in the community. … We want to make sure we can go forward in a way that makes a difference.”

Board Members Very Supportive

“The community really came through,” said Board President Tracy Quattrocki. “It really makes me feel so much more comfortable that the Board is affirming a vision that we know is rooted in the vision of the community, so it’s a great feeling.

“Watching the document evolve, it’s been fascinating knowing it has the input of principals, teachers, parents, the community,” Ms. Quattocki added. “The last time I read it I said, ‘Wow.’ I really felt inspired. It felt intimate. It felt persuasive and had a real vision. I felt you did a wonderful job.”

Candance Chow, the Board’s liaison to the strategic planning process, said the process and the end-product of that process have “truly inspired me.” She said the strategic plan is “evidence-based, it’s focused on key levers, it’s embedded with accountability, and that all makes for a great plan that can be implemented.”

Ms. Chow added that the process “was imbued with the beliefs and the needs and the aspirations and the values of this community. … I don’t think it gets any better than this. It’s been a privilege to be part of this community and this process.”

Claudia Garrison said she would add, “It’s useful. When you say, ‘We can do it,’ I can say, ‘Yes.’ … I can see how it can be enacted. It’s a wonderful thing.” She added, “A five-year horizon is much more realistic.”

Katie Bailey said, “It’s also very honest about some of the challenges we face. Honesty and transparency is what this is about. It takes time to change a culture, but I really believe that this plan is going to do that.”

Ms. Bailey added, “There are a lot of exciting things in here – talking about the whole child, talking about innovation, talking about learning from our best practices. I personally am very excited about this. I thank you all for what you’ve done.”

Richard Rykhus, said, “It really is inspirational. It reflects the community. It’s actionable, and if we realize what’s in here, there will be a huge impact on students.” Mr. Rykhus suggested that a timeline be specified for the action steps for each of the strategies.

Omar Brown said, “Great job. I think the community involvement was intentional. I think it was pretty remarkable. But it provides a real challenge for you because now it becomes the floor and the challenge is now how do we keep reaching out and making sure we get the community to be involved.”

 Dr. Goren made clear the plan was not going to be put on a shelf and forgotten, “We want this to be an organic and living document that drives the work that we do in the District,” he said. “We want to make sure we can go forward in a way that make a difference.”

“We feel very positive that with the help you provided and with the help that we have elicited across the community that we can truly make a difference in the lives of children, in each child and every day.”

It is anticipated that the Board will vote on the strategic plan and the outcome measures on March 23.

Grounded on the 5 Essentials

The strategic plan is grounded in research conducted at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago that identified five essential elements for school improvement: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, family and community engagement, safe and supportive climate, and ambitious instruction. The study found that when at least three of the five are present, schools will perform at a higher level.

The foundational areas for District 65’s new strategic plan capture all five of the essential supports. The District has combined principal leadership and teacher collaboration into a “”thriving workforce”” category, and added financial sustainability.Aspirations of the Strategic Plan

“”We seek an education system that removes barriers to inequality, renews our democracy, and prepares all students for successful careers and fulfilling lives. We also seek a system that academically prepares all students for a high standard and builds capacity for critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. We want our schools and classrooms to be spaces marked by enthusiasm, equity, and reflection. Each of these aspirations is explored in this plan.””- The Strategic Plan, IntroductionStrenthening Foundations for Learning

The plan was developed being mindful “”of what leading scholars have learned: Well-intended complex initiatives layered on one another do not achieve results. This has been the case nationally, and it has been the case in District 65 schools,”” says the introduction to the plan. “”We heard again and again that our employees want time and resources to focus on the foundations of learning rather than adding to existing fatigue for new initiatives. To that end, we will renew our focus on building systems to support our staff in the quality implementation of research-proven strategies.

“”This we know: Every child has potential. Our plan builds on and strengthens our existing foundation so that all children have opportunities to unlock that potential. The plan also lays a path for innovation in every classroom and every school so that improvement comes not from complex new initiatives but from the hearts and minds of our educators.””

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...