The discussion topic at the April 18 meeting of School District 65’s Policy Committee was an equity statement. The District’s Five-Year Strategic Plan, completed after gathering public input in several different ways, contains goals, strategies and measures of success for all students. The mission statement of the plan is “Working together as a community, we will inspire creativity and prepare each student to achieve academically, grow personally, and contribute positively to a global society.”

The District’s Five-Year Strategic Plan

The plan, modeled on the Five Essentials developed by the Chicago Consortium on School Research, tailors its goals to the five essentials: high-quality teaching and learning, a thriving workforce, family engagement, a safe and supportive school climate, and financial sustainability.

While the Strategic Plan does not contain an equity statement, one of the planning principles was “We must focus on what is best for children, grounded in a strong belief in equity and an obligation to serve all students in a supportive and inclusive environment.”

The goal of “High-Quality Teaching and Learning” is “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 school climate goal is “Ensure all District 65 Schools have positive school climates built upon clear and equitable policies and practices where all members of the school community feel emotionally and physically safe, included, and accepted.”

Many strategies are included in the plan to address the needs of all students in a holistic fashion, to engage all families, and to provide staff development. One strategy is to “develop approaches to culturally relevant instruction.” Another strategy is to focus on the “holistic needs of individual student and groups of students,” which the plan says will require “careful consideration of equity in the design and implementation of policies and practices within the school, such as discipline policies.” 

 The strategic plan also contains metrics to track and report on a regular basis the percentage of students by subgroup, including race, who are meeting college- readiness benchmarks, and the number of students by subgroup, including race, who receive a disciplinary referral or suspension.

 On Sept. 19, 2015, the Board adopted four achievement goals for the District’s five-year strategic plan, one of which is: “Decrease achievement gaps between groups of students in math and reading by increasing the percentage of each subgroup meeting college and career benchmarks.”

Toward an Equity Plan 

“This is an initial conversation,” said District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren. “I see an equity policy statement as essential,” adding that structural racism is a topic debated across the country. He said Corrie Wallace will help the District perform what he termed an “equity audit” of the District’s practices and outcomes.

Ms. Wallace is the Director of Equity and of the ELL [English-Language Learners] Parent Center for Niles Township schools.

Although this was only a Policy Committee meeting, all seven School Board members attended. In the meeting packet were the equity statements of school districts in Minneapolis, Minn.; San Jose, Cal.; and Seattle, Wash. In addition, Cicely Fleming, founder of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL), offered OPAL’s proposed equity statement for the District.

“Can we agree to have a plan [about equity]?” asked Board member Jennifer Phillips.

“That sounds excellent,” said Board member Suni Kartha, who chairs the Policy Committee.

“It would be good to have a transparent policy,” said Board member Candance Chow. “I would hope we would go beyond a statement and have a policy.”

“It’s really key,” said Dr. Goren. “We’ll take a deep dive into our practices and see what we do and how we might change. This is the job and the opportunity.”

“I think we should have a general statement on racial equity,” said Board member Omar Brown.

“We’ll look at what’s being taught, what’s being offered, our resources and what the data tell us about performance, suspensions, etc.,” said Dr. Goren.

“Are you going to do the policy first or the research?” Mr. Brown asked. He told the RoundTable, “I think we need a statement; I think we need a policy. You need research before you need a policy.”

“I think it’s well to have an umbrella statement,” Dr. Goren said.

Ms. Kartha said the Minneapolis policy “was the one I connected with the most. …  It did come from a very specific plan that created the policy. … It seems to me if we are going to do this in the right way that the first step is the equity audit.”

Should Race Be the Overarching Consideration in an Equity Statement?

Board member Richard Rykhus said the Minneapolis statement “talks collectively about the subgroups we’ve been talking about. There are barriers to success for students with disabilities, English-language learners, our lowest achievers.”

“There is a specific racial component,” said Ms. Kartha.

 “While we know that race alone can predict achievement, we know that’s the case with kids with disabilities and English-language learners,” said Mr. Rykhus. “We have to be careful that all our kids are included.”

“‘Equity’ is broad, but we definitely have a specific and predictable gap based on race, but I don’t think we address race in any way. But IEPs [individualized education programs] we address. We have never looked at any practices with an eye on race. We need to really look at what our policies and practices do address,” said Ms. Kartha.

 “I think we’re doing more than we ever have,” said Mr. Rykhus.

“Do we try to write an equity policy that addresses all other gaps?” asked Tracy Quattrocki, Board President. “Do we include economics, race, special needs? By writing a strong equity policy on race, we can’t ignore the other gaps. … If we start with race, it doesn’t mean we stop with race.”

“We can start there and build that out,” said Dr. Goren.

“It wouldn’t be mutually exclusive to have an umbrella policy – race first and there may be others,” said Ms. Chow.

Ms. Fleming read from OPAL’s Racial Equity Statement for District 65: “OPAL believes that you must honestly and intentionally identify any institutional barriers that limit students, in particular, students of color. … It is OPAL’s belief that every student in District 65 has the ability to learn and excel. It is our hope … that District 65 will work to eliminate all practices that contribute to racially disparate outcomes. … OPAL believes that … District 65 should adopt a formal Racial Equity Statement that is conjoined to their mission statement and strategic plan. … OPAL urges District 65 to be truthful about practices, biases, and environments that hinder predominantly black and Latino students.”

OPAL also presented suggested revisions to some goals in the Strategic Plan, which, Ms. Fleming said would embrace racial equity.

Some Board members said they felt the Board has already begun work toward equity. Mr. Rykhus said the Board is “doing some really intentional things that we put into the Strategic Plan. … We’re being transparent. Do we have more to do? Absolutely. But I think this Board is committed to equity.”

Ms. Kartha said to Ms. Fleming, “Your point is taken. It probably shouldn’t have taken us this long, but I’m glad it’s happening now.”

Ms. Chow said, “A number of these things are reflected now in the strategies that reflect the goals, especially conversations around structural barriers and institutional barriers.”

Roger Williams, a member of OPAL’s board, said, “Race is the most diminishing factor that contributes to the devastation of children.” He said the Board should draft, revise, and present an equity statement to the public by its June 13 meeting. “There is not one mention of equity in the entire strategic plan,” he added.

If you look at our six actual goals,” said Ms. Chow, “eliminating the achievement gap is a goal. … I think that for goals and metrics there is reference to equitable programs, and diversity training is certainly in that plan.”

“Some people believe that parents aren’t doing enough for kids,” Mr. Williams said, adding that racial stereotypes and low expectations – which come from outside the family – are damaging to children.

Mr. Williams and Terri Shepard, a former District 65 School Board member and a member of the External Advisory Committee for the District’s Strategic Plan, also criticized the District for having a gender equity policy on the agenda for the evening.

“Why is it when you want to talk about African American students, you want everybody else to be in?” Ms. Shepard asked. “There are still parents in this District who do not feel welcome here,” she added. “We don’t discuss race.”

Martha Burns, a former District 202 Board member and current member of OPAL’s board, accused the Board members of defensiveness.

“It wasn’t defensiveness, it was frustration,” said Mr. Rykhus. “We have research. We have done things. When people come, they speak like they do not know what we have done.”

“A white kid’s opportunity is just so vast,” said Ms. Burns, “I think the District does need an equity statement.” She also said any discomfort felt by Board members or administrators was positive, because it would open them to change.

The District 65 School Board has earmarked the April 25 Board meeting for a discussion of minority student achievement.