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More than 100 African American parents and community members attended the Dec. 14 District 65 School Board meeting to call for action to address the achievement gap between white students and students of color. We share the frustration. We too are upset that so many African American and Hispanic children are not prepared. It is very disheartening. We have no doubt that teachers, administrators and School Board members – who devote their lives and countless hours to educating children – are disheartened as well.   

Since we published our first paper on Feb. 18, 1998, we have attended virtually every District 65 School Board meeting. During that period, the achievement gap has been a major concern of every School Board and administration. Many programs have been implemented to address the gap: improving and expanding the District’s early childhood program, using as many as 40 reading specialists to provide in-classroom supports to struggling readers, targeting and monitoring supports through Response to Intervention (RTI), improving differentiated instruction and flexible grouping techniques, providing before- and after-school programs, enhancing the summer program, reducing the number of African American students placed in special education, providing alternatives to suspensions,  making the curriculum more culturally responsive, implementing the African Centered Curriculum at Oakton school, providing professional development, and many other initiatives and programs. 

Despite many efforts, the fact remains that the achievement gap continues and many children are not prepared. It is a complex problem, one that intertwines with income and the challenges faced by low-income households. Based on the most recent data available, 77% of African American students and 70% of Hispanic students at District 65 were from low income households. Overall the degree of poverty is high. More than 85% of District 65’s households who are considered low-income earn less than 130% of the poverty line. By comparison, 7% of white students are from low-income households.

We think the Board and many community members are attempting to address the gap. That is not to say they have all the answers, or that more cannot be done, or that they have all the help they need.

Raising Expectations for All Students

For many years, the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) were set so low that students who were at serious risk of academic failure could still “meet standards.” This gave a very misleading picture of achievement, and it set very low expectations for students and school districts. 

In 2011, the District 65 School Board raised the bar. Using research provided by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the District 65 School Board decided to measure the percent of students, by subgroup, who were on track to college and career readiness. The data showed that the achievement gap was much larger using this measure than portrayed using the State’s much lower benchmark to “meet standards.” The Board also set goals to increase the percentage of students, by subgroup, who were on track to college readiness. District 65 was the first school district in the State to do so.

Since then, the Board has reported the percent of students who are on track to college readiness using other measures as well, including the EXPLORE test, the MAP test, and most recently the PARCC test.

Aligning with college and career readiness benchmarks is important because it sets much higher expectations for all students, expectations aligned with a child’s chances to succeed in life. It affirms a belief that all children can and should achieve at high levels.

D65’s Strategic Plan, A Holistic Approach

In February 2015, District 65 adopted a new five-year strategic plan after obtaining input from more than 2,000 administrators, teachers, parents, and community members through surveys, focus groups and community forums. An important part of the plan is to build on positive things that were already underway and to improve the rigor and quality of instruction for all students. The plan also requires administrators to develop a framework to provide interventions and supports for struggling students.

One distinguishing aspect of the plan is it seeks to address the needs of struggling students in a holistic fashion and to build a welcoming, learning community in the schools.

The plan focuses on developing each student’s executive functioning and academic social and emotional learning. It calls for providing new approaches to culturally relevant instruction. It also focuses on developing each student’s mindset that he or she can grow and succeed.

The strategic plan calls for the District to intentionally increase parent engagement, to empower parents, and to make schools more welcoming to both students and their parents.

 It seeks to enhance and increase partnerships with community organizations in providing after-school and summer programs, in addressing the root cause of disciplinary issues, in providing alternatives to suspensions, in increasing STEM programs available to underserved students, in piloting a community school and possibly expanding it, and through the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2) initiative, which has as its goal: “By the age of 23, all Evanston youth will be leading productive lives.”

The District is also establishing School Climate Teams and a Whole Child Council, which will pay attention to the issues and challenges that children bring with them to school, and see if they can be addressed within the school system. If not, the District will consider how to work with community organizations to do so. 

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.

The plan also provides that the District will revamp its recruitment practices with the goal of hiring best-in-class teachers that reflect the demographic diversity of the students in the District. The District hired four new principals last year; all four are African American. The District is giving more autonomy to principals and teachers to address the particular needs of students in their schools, and administrators are working with principals in setting goals to measure progress.

As with any plan, success lies in its implementation. The community should expect meaningful annual growth in achievement under the plan.

Focus on Ages 0-3

One thing that neuroscientists, pediatricians, leading educators, and economists all agree on is the importance of focusing on kids from birth through 5 years old. Research shows that gaps emerge as early as 18 months and are evident at age 3. By then, much of the physical structure of a child’s brain has been formed, in large part based on a child’s early experiences. A child’s exposure to words and a child’s knowledge of words by age 3 are predictive of whether he or she will be kindergarten-ready, will be proficient in reading in third grade, and will graduate from high school.

While there are windows of opportunity later on, the earlier neural circuits, developed through very early experiences, provide the foundation for more advanced neural circuits. If the lower-level circuits are not wired properly, it becomes far more difficult and less effective than getting things right the first time, according to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

At District 65, a significant achievement gap exists among children when they enter kindergarten. We think if the community is serious about addressing the achievement gap, the community must address it, starting at birth.

In a Joint Literacy Goal adopted by the District 65 and 202 School Boards in January 2014, the Boards committed to partner with early childhood providers and others to achieve a long-term goal that all students would be college ready in reading when they graduated from Evanston Township High School. District 65 and 202 Board members and administrators are actively working on this critical issue, together with 39 other institutions and community organizations in the Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative. One working group is focusing on the 0-3 age group, another on ensuring that kids enter kindergarten ready to learn.

We think this is essential to address the achievement gap. To make it work, the entire community must be actively involved.

Conclusion

We encourage the community to continue bringing their concerns and their ideas to the District 65 Board. Administrators and members of the Board have committed to listen.

In our view, the percentage of African American, Hispanic and white students who score above the 50th percentile and the percentage who are on track to college readiness should meaningfully increase each year. We add the 50th percentile because it is a leading indicator of being on track to college readiness, and ETHS uses the 40th and 50th percentiles as benchmarks for admission to earned honors courses in humanities and biology in freshman year.

And we encourage the community to join in and help.