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District 202 Board members who attended the National Summit for Courageous Conversations gave a report on their experiences at the conference during the Oct. 26 Board meeting. The Summit, sponsored by the Pacific Education Group (PEG), was held Oct. 10-15 in Baltimore, Md. Four District 202 Board members and 26 members of Evanston Township High School’s staff attended the conference. 

There were more than 750 attendees at the Summit, said Board President Pat Savage-Williams. She said she  goes every year, and sees it as a “time to look for opportunities to engage and sustain conversations about systemic racism and the impact it has on students, and the impact it has on learning and achievement.”

As described on the PEG webpage, “The Summit for Courageous Conversation brings together dedicated leaders for racial equity from across the nation to engage in a deepened conversation about systemic racism and its impact on opportunity and achievement for all students. The Summit provides a unique space for collaborative exploration of the knowledge and skills needed to eliminate racial educational disparities.”

Ms. Savage-Williams said that the conference is known for bringing together nationally renowned experts in the field of equality in education and that most presenters “are not affiliated with PEG.” One of the featured speakers was Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an acclaimed author and professor in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who gave a keynote address entitled, “Hip Hop/Hip Hope: The (R)Evolution of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” Gyasi Ross, an author, lawyer, filmmaker and member of the Blackfeet Nation, gave a presentation entitled, “Can There Ever Be Justice on Stolen Land?” Glenn Singleton, the founder and chief executive officer of PEG also spoke.

Several breakout sessions were offered to attendees. Board member Monique Parsons discussed the six open sessions and four workshops she attended, including an affinity discussion group where she and others reflected on a one-man show called “Cops and Robbers.” The performance by Jinho Ferreira, a hip-hop artist and deputy sherriff in Alameda County, Cal., analyzed an officer-involved shooting from various perspectives.

Other sessions included: “Spelling Out Institutional Barriers to Equity and Excellence for Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners”; “Are you Listening? The Power of Student Voice”; “My Brother’s Keeper: A Courageous Transformation of the Plight of Black Males as We Journey Back to Love, Engagement and High Achievement”; “Leading the Change: What Does Race Have to Do with It?”; and “Engendering Race, Racializing Gender: Exploring the Intersectionality of Race and Gender in Pursuit of Achieving Equity.”

Board Reactions

“My goal in attending this conference was accomplished,” said Ms. Parsons. She told the Board that she “received training that has been essential for the development of our Board goals. I gained a deeper dive into equity work to upkeep the Board’s equity statement. I am on this Board to represent the collective community…and in order to accomplish that, even the choir needs rehearsing,” said Ms. Parsons.

Board member Mark Metz said this was the third time he had attended the Summit and he felt this year’s was the best yet. He said the conference “beats you up mentally,” and he thanked those who attended for taking time away from work and their families. He said that he came home with a “pocket full of ideas, and it’s because of who was there. The reason this conference is so valuable is because it is the conference for people in education who are doing equity work. The best authors, the best researchers are there. No other conference comes close to bringing this kind of talent and horsepower together to study these issues. As a white guy, I have to work on this every day to be able to see the world through the lens of kids who don’t look like me. It’s important for me to go to these things and deepen my understanding.”

Mr. Metz added that “it would be great to have all seven members [of the D202 Board] in Austin” for next year’s conference.

Anne Sills said she requested to attend and that learning about PEG’s protocol on how to have courageous conversations “helps me to build understanding about how equity and excellence, rigor and high expectations work only when we are aware of the forces that inherently prevent equal access to all.” She shared with the Board copies of tent cards available at the Summit which describe the protocol. “I will attend again and will urge all to do so,” added Ms. Sills.

Jonathan Baum, who did not attend this year’s conference but who has attended five PEG programs in the past, said, “I want to make a very clear distinction here between racial equity work and the specific organization PEG which, contrary to what we’ve heard, is not the only organization in this business. The next item on our agenda is the Annual Student Achievement report. This report continues to show a profound and persistent racial achievement gap based on race. We have rightly established the elimination of racial predictability of achievement as one of our highest priorities. We have worked with PEG for more than seven years. We have given that organization more than $400,000. Can you show me any reduction in our achievement gap that has been demonstrated to have come from our massive investment in PEG?”

“PEG is an organization that teaches a protocol to have conversations about race; it’s a tool,” said Ms. Savage-Williams. “The fact that we still haven’t closed the gap doesn’t surprise me, because this gap has been in place for hundreds of years. The hope is that participants will take the time to understand all of the factors to understand how we can start to impact our world.”

Ms. Parsons said, “This summit allows you to see race as a factor, to build goals and strategies that address the success of our students, and to be creative and innovative to move achievement forward. That’s what I got, not that I would magically wave a wand and erase the gap. It might warrant asking our educators and students how it has improved their environment. I’m not in a classroom, so I’m not an expert. We aren’t in a classroom. Let’s base this on their understanding.”

“What is it that you have against PEG?” asked Mr. Metz of Mr. Baum.

Mr. Baum responded, “I don’t think it works, that Mr. Glenn Singleton is selling snake oil and we’ve been buying it for too long. I’ve been through equity training. Mr. Gilo Logan does a wonderful job. I like what he says, ‘Let’s not engage in victim Olympics,’ which is counter to what I experienced with PEG. I would support it even though I don’t like it, if someone could show me it worked.”

Board member Doug Holt said, “I appreciate this dialogue. One thing that occurs to me: maybe at a later date we should look at the pot of money designed for equity work… the way our budget is organized, it’s hard to tell our priorities. I’d love to see an RFP, let different companies sweat it out a bit. Our resources are finite. This is worthy of our best efforts.”

Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District superintendent, said, “That money was spent several years ago. We do not contract with PEG now; we haven’t in recent years. The only thing we do each year is spend under $9,000 to recertify our trainers who, among other things, help plan these summits. We do spend money on these conferences, but most of that money does not go to PEG, it’s travel. We’re magnifying a bit what we are spending on PEG. We’re investing in leadership. At the same time, we are also increasing rigor, a system of supports, raising expectations, creating a school of belonging. I think we have a huge change in this school, the culture has changed. We haven’t closed the gap, but students are doing better than ever and in seven years, that’s a pretty good start.”

Mr. Metz said “I want to point out that we’re the Board. I’m having a hard time believing that choosing what professional development our administrators and teachers chose is up to us. We never decide what specific opportunities staff take advantage of. We approve a budget for professional development. It’s up to our experts to choose. I don’t see this as an exception.”

Mr. Metz added that for previous equity work at the school, “PEG was selected by a team of department chairs and teachers who came back and said ‘we looked at various options.  This is what we want to use.’ And if our staff says it’s what they want, I’m okay with that.”

Community Reactions

During the public comment portion of the Board meeting, six students, five teachers and several parents spoke about their thoughts on equity education and PEG specifically. The Board room was packed with more than 100 people.

One student said, “PEG has made this conversation possible.” Another told the Board, “you have not wasted your money on PEG.” Teachers spoke of how equity work is happening in their classrooms. One teacher said “PEG and other programs” have helped make her “aware of assumptions” she has made about “those different than me.” Another said that attending the PEG conference, “fueled my desire to continue to create positive change. I think we’re doing some great work.” A few parents spoke, suggesting to the Board that the District should continue equity work but look at other strategies to close the achievement gap. One parent was critical of how PEG’s approach was being implemented in the classroom.

The Board’s discussions on equity education and PEG have led to several conversation threads on the Parents Engaged list serve. Parents have shared comments both for and against the PEG organization in posts distributed to ETHS parents who are signed up for the email group.

Dr. Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, attended this year’s PEG conference. Prior to presenting the Annual Student Achievement report, he shared with the Board some of what he learned in various sessions. He told the Board, “There is no ‘mission accomplished’ banner for the work. We want to keep that in mind when we look at the data. I caution against causality, and I suggest everyone look at the data as an affirmation of what we’re doing and a challenge moving forward.”