The Oakton Planning team, a committee of administrators that included Oakton Elementary School’s principal and assistant principal and central office personnel, presented its proposals at the Feb. 22 District 65 School Board meeting.

Three programs are offered at Oakton School, 436 Ridge Ave.: general education classes, with 204 students; the Spanish/English two-way immersion (TWI) program, with 119 students; and the African-Centered Curriculum (ACC), with 87 students.

“Oakton School is a diverse and vibrant community with a wealth of community resources and support. Taking advantage of these strengths was a core interest of the planning team,” wrote Assistant Superintendent John Price in a memo dated Feb. 22.

The population is diverse. Of the school’s 410 students, 41% are black; 26% are white; and 25% are Hispanic; 71% are classified as low-income. Student performance at Oakton has been historically lower than at the District’s other schools. In the 2014-15 school year, only 27% of Oakton students met college-readiness benchmarks in reading and 19% met those benchmarks in math.

Enrollment in the ACC is low, but mobility in ACC is high, at 47%, with the result that class sizes there fluctuate significantly during the school year. “A significant proportion of the students in the ACC are homeless,” said Oakton Principal Wayne Williams, adding that many families do not have sufficient support or adequate housing.

The Oakton Planning Team, composed of Mr. Williams, Assistant Principal Deborah Osher, Bilingual Programs Director Lauren Leitao, ACC and Social Studies Director Jamilla Pitts, Family and Community Engagement Manager Ismalis Nunez and Mr. Price, addressed major ongoing problems at Oakton such as low academic achievement, low enrollment in the ACC program and a lack of cohesion among the three academic strands.

The committee considered several options, Mr. Price’s memo stated, but discarded some – such as the elimination of the TWI or the ACC program – and presented three options to the Board: a Global Citizenship Academy, Oakton Cultural Academy and Oakton Builder Academy.

A soon-to-be-formed committee that will include administrators and Oakton teachers and parents will vet these options and make a recommendation to the School Board about which “academy” the committee members feel will best promote student achievement and school cohesiveness. The Board will have the final vote on the proposal, which will be the academic theme for the school. Each of the three current programs will participate in the academy but retain its own identity – ACC, TWI or general education.

Three Academic Options

Each of these proposed academies would maintain the current staffing, the current three programs – ACC, TWI and general education – and discrete homerooms for each program, Mr. Price’s memo stated, “giving families the choice of the program that best suits their child’s needs.” The academy would act as an overlay over the three programs.

Each new option seeks to improve student performance and school culture in three ways: by embedding project-based learning into the curriculum, by articulating a “universal instructional framework that will support teaching and learning in each program” and by increasing cohesion across the school while maintaining the integrity of each program’s unique design and goals.”

The Global Citizenship & Social Justice Academy: In the proposed Global Citizenship & Social Justice Academy, students would learn from District 65 instructional materials such as Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math4, from interdisciplinary units with cross-program and cross-classroom projects with social justice themes reflected in current and historical events and issues that impact global communities. Students in the General Education program would have opportunities for multicultural exploration; students in the TWI program would study Hispanic and Latino issues; and students in the ACC program would study issues about Africa and the African diaspora.

The unifying vision for the Global Citizenship Academy is “project-based units focusing on addressing social-justice issues and community engagement to prepare students to participate in a global society.”

Oakton Cultural Academy: Where Identity Meets Inquiry: Inquiry and identity would be developed “through academic pursuits that build academic awareness and intellectual capacity” at the proposed Oakton Cultural Academy, through the unifying vision for the programs. The vision also encompasses the ideas that students would “clarify their own values and appreciate the values of others” and “understand [that] the values we have shape our identity and [that] the values we share shape our community,” said Mr. Williams.

Sample units from the curriculum in the Cultural Academy are, for kindergartners, creating a collaborative timeline project, and, for second-graders, composing a memoir with contributions from other student authors. In fifth grade, each student will select two fine arts concentration courses for the year.

Oakton Builder Academy: Service Learning for Community Growth: The unifying vision for the programs in the proposed Oakton Builder Academy is “engaging students by applying learning to real-world problems through extended service-learning experiences,” Mr. Williams said. The curriculum would follow national, state and local standards and use District 65 core instructional materials, such as a Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math 4. Teams would solicit community partners to engage in service-learning project aligned to units of study, said Mr. Williams.

A sample unit for second-graders would be studying water, working with the City of Evanston to conduct water-testing along the North Shore Channel or at the lakefront and creating flyers about yard waste and fertilizers in water runoff. Fifth-graders studying government could engage in voter registration drives and create public service announcements for radio stations.

The thematic academy that will be selected will unite the school, Mr. Williams said. He said high-quality professional development would be offered to staff and suggested a three-year plan for monitoring the success of the program after its implementation in fall of 2017.

He also said, “Experiential learning is not activity-driven but standards-driven experiences.”       

The Process

 Mr. Price described the Planning Team’s process and said, “We have come a long way and still have a long way to go.”

Mr. Williams outlined key recommendations of the team: that Oakton maintain the TWI, general education and ACC programs; that an 18-month school-planning process be implemented; that a programmatic model that can be implemented and measured for effectiveness be created; and that a school-based team be formed.

Because none of the proposed academies has been developed into a complete program, Mr. Price told the Board on Feb. 22, “there may be questions we may not be able to answer fully,” such as student performance in the African-Centered Curriculum, the cost to implement the selected program, and school staffing of the new program. He said the Research and Development department is working on the data about student achievement in the ACC and that cost and staffing issues would become clearer after a specific thematic program has been selected.

“The Board should be aware that there will be cost implications,” Mr. Price said, and added that he believes the potential for increased student performance and the opportunity to share culturally relevant pedagogy from the ACC with other schools in the District could justify the cost.

The Planning Team did not engage the Oakton community to a large extent, but parents were told of the process at two meetings and teachers at four meetings, Mr. Williams said. The small amount of feedback – from teachers, parents and from students who had gone through the ACC and TWI programs was positive, and it indicated that people were eager for change. “They said, ‘Something has to happen.’ They said, ‘Things can’t stay as they are,’” Mr. Williams told the Board.

During citizen comment, Paula Zelinski, president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers’ union) and Oakton parent Ronnie Robinson each voiced concerns about the lack of teacher and parent involvement in the initial planning process.

Board member Richard Rykhus said he was inspired by the leadership but was trying to reconcile the questions from two speakers about why the team was composed only of administrators and did not include parents or teachers or community representatives.

Mr. Rykhus said, “When we form a committee, it creates the perception that the administration is doing something on its own when the other stakeholders aren’t explicitly part of that. … That’s not how Evanston rolls.”

Mr. Price said there were two reasons for keeping the Planning Team to administrators: the intensity of the time and the work.” We worked at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. I thought it was important to have a smaller and more nimble group.” He conceded, though, “There were a couple of points when we could have included parents and teachers in a different way. The issue we were trying to confront was an administrative one – whether to continue the three strands and if so, how – that were needed to … to get to this point. We had our own work to do.”

Superintendent Paul Goren said similarly that the decision whether to keep all three programs at Oakton was an administrative one and that with the new leadership at Oakton, the central administration wanted to ensure “that the ownership would be at the building and District level. … We needed to say that we, the school and the leadership, are unified.”

Next Steps

The next steps for Oakton School will consist of long-term and short-term plans. The District will create a school-based planning team in the next few weeks, and by April the team will have defined expectations and needs. The plan is to implement new Oakton Academy, in one of the forms that likely will evolve in the planning process and be approved by the Board, for the 2017-18 school year.

Mr. Rykhus said he is concerned about a three-year timeline to implement, monitor and assess a new academy at Oakton “and yet I understand why it needs to be that long. When we look at the composition of the school – 41% black – we need to do something short-term about the achievement gap. … We need to talk about how we will keep a laser focus on the achievement gap at Oakton while we are doing this.”

Mr. Williams said “To improve student performance, we will put a priority on professional learning; data analysis and create a system and structure to support all students.” He said social-emotional learning and high quality professional learning will help in both the short-term and the long-term.

Board member Omar Brown, who is also an Oakton parent, asked, “Who gets to make the decision, and when is that decision going to be made?”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said the process would likely be similar to the one used in the process of rebranding the magnet schools. “After all the hard work, the recommendations were brought to the board and we approved and celebrated.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...