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We have written a lot about District 65’s new strategic plan, which was unanimously approved by the School Board on March 23. That plan 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.
There are goals for each of these critical areas, but we think the goal stated for the high-quality teaching and learning section is the end-game: “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.”
There are many excellent things in the plan. We will highlight a few.
The Strategic 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. Parents have asked the District to improve differentiated instruction. This is an important step.
One particular strategy discussed in the Strategic Plan is to implement Disciplinary Literacy, which is also called for in the Joint Literacy Goal with District 202. While this concept is difficult to wrap one’s arms around, the more we learn about it, the more we like it. When students study history, they will be taught to investigate, reason, read, write, talk and problem-solve like a historian. When they study science, they will be taught to investigate, reason, read, write, talk and problem-solve like a scientist. And so on. It is contemplated that this be done not through lectures, but by posing thoughtful questions, through class discussions, by doing the discipline, by project-based learning, and similar techniques. We think this holds potential to transform instruction in the classroom in a very positive way.
The Strategic Plan also calls for developing students’ executive functioning and their academic social and emotional learning. These include the skills to plan, to set goals, to complete a task, to interact with others in a positive way, and to collaborate and reach decisions with others. The plan also focuses on developing a mindset that each student can grow and succeed. These are skills that can foster a positive school environment where learning is valued. Importantly, students will need these skills to succeed in high school and, later, in college or careers.
The District also plans to improve the supports for struggling students, but in addition there is an intentional approach to address the needs of these students in a holistic fashion by developing approaches to culturally relevant instruction, by taking steps to ensure that each child feels part of the school community and ownership of his or her school, by reaching out to parents in new ways, and by paying attention to the issues, concerns and challenges that students bring with them to school and seeing how they can be addressed in the schoolhouse and, if not, by working with community partners to do so. The District will establish a Whole Child Council to oversee this.
Importantly, the District is committed to partnering with District 202 in the Joint Literacy Goal; it is piloting a Community School at Chute Middle School; it is a member of the Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative; and it has formed partnerships for after-school programs, summer programs, and addressing behavioral issues. These partnerships enable the School Districts and community partners to address our children’s needs in a seamless, holistic fashion. We view this as critical if we are to ensure that all of our children have opportunities in life.
Of course, teachers are pivotal to the success of our schools. The Strategic Plan contains steps to improve the hiring, training, and retention of teachers. It also calls for enhancing the professional learning communities in the schools. Whether District 65 will be able to maintain the same number of teachers and whether teachers will have sufficient time to collaborate and participate in professional learning communities may hinge on finances and what the State legislature throws at us.
We think these and many other strategies in the Strategic Plan represent a positive change. If implemented, we think they will over time transform instruction and the culture of our District. We commend the many administrators, Board members, teachers, parents, community members, and students who participated in this important process.