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In an interview with the RoundTable on March 27, Superintendent Paul Goren highlighted how District 65’s new five-year strategic plan will increase the achievement of all students and how he planned to guide and monitor the implementation process.
The strategic plan, unanimously approved by the School Board on March 23, builds on existing foundations to improve high-quality teaching and learning, build a thriving workforce, enhance family and community engagement, provide a safe and supportive school climate, and maintain financial sustainability.
“At the macro-level, we’ve got to think about ‘How do we take what we believe is a fantastic school district and a world class school system and keep it at that level?’” Dr. Goren told the RoundTable. “The macro issues of being focused on high quality teaching and learning, a thriving work force, and a safe environment – those three components are so important. Financial sustainability is what drives it. Community engagement is what keeps us honest and focused on the needs.
“The goal for all children is embedded in the language of the plan, but there’s a theme that really runs throughout,” said Dr. Goren. The goal for the high quality teaching and learning section is to “Prepare students to be on-track for high school, college, career, and life readiness in an environment of innovation and continuous improvement through high quality teaching that addresses the needs of each learner.”
The Board has also adopted overarching measures of success for the plan, which includes tracking the percentage of students who are on track to college readiness, the percentage of students at various achievement levels who are meeting expected gains, and the percentage of students in the bottom quartile.
Stating goals and having outcome measures “leads to action,” Dr. Goren said. It “is going to actually drive a lot of the work that we do.”
The five-year plan, he said, “gives us opportunities to really double our efforts in places where we have to pay attention and … to look to new interesting ways of doing things, while working on what needs to be improved inside the system.”
Critical Thinking. The District has been implementing the Common Core State Standards for the last several years, said Dr. Goren. These standards talk “about the critical thinking skills and the communication skills that all young people need to thrive in the 21st century,” he said.
“The way we deliver instruction is really getting more and more tied to the idea that young people have not only to understand the work, but they have to be critically thinking about the work,” said Dr. Goren. “They’ve got to be able to express themselves in different ways. When kids land in high school, they’ve got to be ready to take on the level of course work that ETHS offers and that prepares them to take on course work in college, university and beyond.”
An Instructional Framework. The plan calls for improving the rigor and quality of instruction by developing and implementing a framework that catalogues effective teaching techniques and provides a clear guide to improving instruction for all students.
The framework, Dr. Goren said, “has to pay attention to all achievers, those who are high achievers, in the middle level, and those who are challenged and need to progress. The mapping is what we are teaching, how are we teaching it, how are really reaching the broad range of kids in our classrooms and how do we provide opportunities for kids to excel regardless of their achievement level.” He added that it was important that the framework become “part of the routine of the work that we’re going to do over the next five years.”
Disciplinary Literacy. One strategy discussed in the strategic plan and in the Joint Literacy Goal with District 202 is disciplinary literacy. “The very specific work around disciplinary literacy pushes us to the next level, which is, ‘How does a scientist think, how does a mathematician think, how does a literary critic think, and what’s the framework they use in how they express themselves, how they make decisions, have judgments?” said Dr. Goren. “I believe, we all believe, disciplinary literacy will yield a different way of delivering instruction over time, and a different way for kids to be embracing what they’ve been taught, and indeed a different way of thinking about things, like homework and projects.”
Executive Functioning and SEL. Dr. Goren said the plan’s focus on developing students’ executive functioning and their academic social and emotional learning are also important and will make a difference. Executive functioning skills include getting organized for the day, giving thought to what’s coming the next day, planning and goal setting. The plan also focuses on developing a mindset that each student can grow and succeed.
Dr. Goren said some people see social and emotional learning as providing interventions when there’s a problem, but he said there is another dimension. Students, he said, will need to be able to work, collaborate, and reach decisions with others in interactive groups to succeed in the workplace of the future. “We’re providing children, regardless of where they are in the academic spectrum, the opportunity to develop skills that will actually serve them well in high school, college and in the virtual world that we’re now becoming.”
Innovation. The plan also embraces a “quest to find where innovation is occurring in the District,” said Dr. Goren. He emphasized the schools are communities of learners, including both adults and students. The plan calls for enhancing the professional learning communities in the schools, encouraging innovation in the classrooms, and forming a work group to identify innovative practices both in and outside the District and to implement promising new ideas in the schools.
Dr. Goren added that the District has to build a “pipeline of best-in-class educators. That pipeline for the future is going to be very important.”
Struggling Learners. While each of the foregoing strategies is intended to benefit all students, Dr. Goren said, the District also plans to target interventions for three groups of students: the lowest performing students (a group with a high percentage of low-income students and students of color), students with a disability, and students who are English-language learners. The District will improve the supports for these students and develop approaches to culturally relevant instruction. One distinguishing approach of the plan is to address the needs of these students in a holistic fashion.
The strategic plan calls for the District to intentionally increase parent engagement, to empower parents, and to enhance partnerships with community organizations in providing after school and summer programs, in providing alternatives to suspensions, in potentially expanding the community school initiative, and through the cradle to career initiative.
The District is also establishing a Whole Child Council, said Dr. Goren, which will “pay attention to the issues, concerns, and challenges that children bring with them to the schoolhouse and then see where can we intentionally and very purposefully address them inside the system, and when we can’t – if it falls slightly outside of our warrant – how do we work with the community providers, whether they are health care providers, or housing providers, or those who are doing job development for adults or addressing other issues in the community.”
Guiding and Monitoring
The strategic plan contains five goals, one for each of the foundational areas; it lays out four to six strategies to achieve each goal; it includes “milestones,” or action steps to implement each strategy; it includes specific “measures of success,” sometimes referred to as “leading indicators” to track whether each goal is being met. It also contains overarching outcome measures.
“The strategic plan will give us the guideposts to move forward, and then the data will help us be reflective on where we’re making progress and where we’re not,” said Dr. Goren.
He said senior administrators – whom he calls his cabinet – will be looking at the five foundational areas on a regular basis, and monitoring whether the milestones for each of the five areas are being implemented.
In addition, Dr. Goren said, he plans to form a group of principals, teachers and senior staff that, on a regular basis, would review steps taken to implement the plan, reflect on how things are going, and provide suggestions on what to do next. “I think it’s a way to keep the process going,” he said.
Dr. Goren added that reports on the measures of success for each of the five foundational areas and the overarching outcome indicators for the plan, together with the District’s achievement report and the joint achievement report being prepared with District 202 will provide “a suite of reports” that will enable the District to determine where students are on track and not on track. The reports will show progress by achievement level, by race, by ethnicity, and by income level, he said.
“The attention that we pay to the outcomes that we have will drive our work for all children, will drive our work for children who are high achievers that we want to absolutely maintain as high achievers and will drive our work for children who are in challenging situations who we have to improve,” Dr. Goren said. “The fact that we have metrics in here will nudge us over time.”
“Not everything is going to come out perfectly in the execution of this plan,” said Dr. Goren. “The question is then, ‘How do we learn from what we’re doing and then change what we’re doing?’
“You can do this work without a plan but then you’re willy-nilly all over the place. My commitment is to have this not only be something that people use in their routines, but something we use all the time. I won’t feel like it’s successful if the strategic plan gathers dust on my shelf and other people’s shelves.”
“When all is said and done,” said Dr. Goren, “this has been a fantastic process and there’s a great set of ideas and plans and milestones and goals, but this has to be part of the routines of the work that goes on school by school, across the elementary schools, in the middle schools and with the senior management and with the principals.
“This is only the beginning,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to live up to the passion of the young kids in our schools.”