More than 100 people came to the April 25 meeting of the District 65 School Board, drawn by the topic of black student achievement.

A gap in performance between white and black students has persisted in Evanston public schools for decades. The meeting was scheduled several months ago at the request of the Evanston/North Shore branch of the NAACP, which submitted several questions to the District. In response to those questions, District administrators presented a Report on Black Student Achievement in District 65 and an Analysis of Black Student Achievement, both using data from school years 2012 through 2015.

The achievement gap at District 65 is apparent as early as kindergarten and widens as students advance to higher grades, according to the Report. In grades 3 through 8, even when black and white students are meeting “expected growth” at similar rates, the gains are not enough in many cases for students to meet a college-readiness benchmark.  

Research has shown that many factors are related to school performance, including poverty, race, education level of the mother, parent expectations, exposure to reading, and one-on-one conversation in the home. Many residents who attended the meeting, though, said they felt race is the primary factor in the achievement gap. Others blamed teachers for having negative expectations about minority students, such as the notion that minority students would be disruptive in class and that they would not perform well academically.

After the District’s presentation of data and current strategies, a panel of six residents presented their views on race and the achievement gap.  Comments from the public and from the Board and administrators closed the meeting. 

Current Strategies to Address the Achievement Gap

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said a few years ago the Board implemented more rigorous standards for all students. The State had set a low bar for achievement, saying that students who scored at the 17th percentile were meeting State standards, even though that score was far below the score needed for a student to be prepared for college. The new higher standard of “college readiness” draws the achievement line at a higher level; scores below the 60th percentile in reading and the 68th percentile in math fall are below the college-readiness benchmark. 

Superintendent Paul Goren said, “As educators, as Evanstonians, as leaders – these are our children. …The Board and I are acting on our commitment to hold ourselves accountable in respect to achievement by subgroup.” The solution, he said is a holistic approach to children and their learning.

John Price, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, and Stacey Beardsley, Interim Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, described some ongoing programs and strategies to support students and to improve instruction across the District. These include raising expectations for all children at all schools, improving the use of teacher-created assessments to identify needs and support instruction in a timely manner, improving K-3 reading instruction through the new K-3 Literacy Framework, improving communication with families, and helping students develop executive functions.

What these and other strategies will mean for District 65 families, said Mr. Price and Dr. Beardsley, is more positive messages for students, greater representation of students in the curriculum, timely implementation of supports for students, and more feedback about each student’s performance and strengths.  

Most of these strategies are included in the District’s Five-Year Strategic Plan, adopted last year. The plan contains many additional strategies.

The District also partners with Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), the McGaw Y and Foundation 65 for its summer programs, and is an active partner in the Cradle to Career initiative.

Some things are new this year, such as implementing culturally relevant curricula and changing the school climate. In addition, Y.O.U. is working with the District to implement a second community school. The District’s first community school is at Chute Middle School; the second will be at an elementary school.

At Lincolnwood, Culturally Relevant Teaching

 “We are using culturally relevant teaching at Lincolnwood,” Lincolnwood School Principal Fred Hunter said, to create “a bridge between a student’s home and school-life, while maintaining high standards. Three pillars of culturally relevant pedagogy are academic achievement, cultural competence and critical consciousness. Students are encouraged to be themselves; a student’s culture is used as a vehicle to learning; and teachers and students are engaged in a collective struggle against the status quo. … Culturally relevant teaching enhances the performance of black students and is good for all students.”

At Dawes, Work on School Climate

At present there are School Climate Teams in six schools, and the plan is to increase that number to 12 next year.

Work on improving the school climate at Dawes School began about a year-and-a-half ago, said Karen Bradley. The School Climate Team took a look at “What do we need to start doing, what do we need to stop doing, and what do we need to continue doing in our practices,” she said.

“Students need to feel comfortable coming to school every day,” said Raquel Galan, psychologist at Dawes.

Dr. Galan said the team looked at four types of relationships: adult-to-adult, which includes every adult working in the building; adult-to-student; student-to-student; and school-to-family.

The work has allowed them “to become aware of our own biases and our own strengths,” Dr. Galan said.

Dawes kindergarten teacher Maria Torres described two other initiatives to improve school climate at Dawes. “We came up with a comprehensive definition of what bullying is and communicated that understanding to all staff,” she said.

The School Climate Team is also looking to create opportunities for families to come into the school – not only for performances or PTA events but to participate in other ways as well.

In the pipeline may be a welcoming committee that includes students and families making new families and students feel comfortable at the school.

Mr. Hunter and Dr. Karen Bradley and her team all said the responses to the changes have been positive.

At Oakton, Real-World Problem-Solving

Jamilla Pitts, Social Studies Facilitator for the District, said students in the African-Centered Curriculum were exposed to collaborative problem-solving this year. The students were divided into groups along the K-2 and 3-5 grade levels and given a “real-world” problem to solve. “They were charged to work in harmony” as part of a section on harmony, she said, adding, “Working in cross-grade groups builds harmony.”

A Panel of Community Partners

The panelists – Cicely Fleming, Roger Williams, Danny Featherstone, Ronnie Robinson, Sergio Hernandez, and Terri Shepard – all said they feel race has a negative impact on student achievement at District 65.

Ms. Fleming, founder of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL), said she would not beg the District for anything but said she and other black parents “have to look at educating our own children.” She asked members of the black community to “speak out against racism in our institutions.” 

Roger Williams, a member of OPAL’s board and husband of Pat Savage-Williams, president of the District 202 Board said, “District 65 educates white children much better than black children.” He also criticized the District’s recommendations and strategies as “always outward, never inward,” addressing “the impact of race and racism on black students.”  He said, “If you don’t identify race [as a cause], nothing will be done.”

Saying he is a District 65 alumnus, Danny Featherstone said he sees “African American students being treated badly every day. White supremacy is so deep in America that a lot of people don’t believe it exists.”

Sergio Hernandez, who works for Voices for Illinois Children, said, “We should improve parent engagement, balance academic content with social-emotional learning and have high expectations.” He said the District should hire more black and Latino male teachers and “contextualize reading so it is culturally relevant to black and Latino children.”

Ronnie Robinson, parent of a third-grader at Oakton School, said “For 27 years we have been discussing the same issue, talking about justice and fairness. … Why can’t we get a fair shake? For 27 years, as long as I’ve lived in Evanston, we haven’t taken it [the achievement gap] seriously. … Can we agree that what we are doing in Evanston is not working?”

Ms. Shepard said, “When I was reading this report, I was glad to get to the end of it, because it was so disappointing. The facts speak for themselves. Black students are performing below the national average.”

Ms. Shepard faulted the teachers. “It’s the teachers. We entrust our kids to these teachers eight hours a day.” She also said, “Is the gap because of poverty or racism? We don’t buy the ‘poor’ part, but all will buy the ‘racism’ gap.” She also made several requests, among them diversity training for Board, teachers and administrators by the Pacific Education Group, and the re-institution of a teacher training program discontinued by the previous superintendent. She also said, “We want the best teachers placed with the lowest-achieving students.”

Comments From the Public

Several parents and community members spoke, some concerned or angry at the persistent achievement gap, with positive suggestions.

DeAnna Williams said she is the mother of an African-American student at District 65 and of a 27-year-old who went to Evanston Township High School. “You need to have a program with more parent involvement.” She said, “I have an 11-year-old, and I am afraid to send him to ETHS. … I don’t think he will get an education at ETHS. I think a lot of parents agree with me.”

Rina Campbell described segregation in the lunchroom even in the early years. She asked the Board to look at policies, such as lunchroom policies, that separate children and “think about what we need to do as a community to fully engage kids.”

Mary Brown spoke to the problem of black students with disabilities. Dyslexia, she said, affects one in five students and impairs their ability to read. “Schools are now legally mandated to identify the diagnosis of dyslexia,” she said.

Kymara Sizemore said her grandson has had a reading specialist since he was in kindergarten. He is now 10 years old and has just been diagnosed with dyslexia. “I am mad, very mad, angry and upset. Some teachers are excellent; some need monitoring.” She also said she did not feel that teachers are teaching children how to read. “What happened to teaching a child to his abilities? Please teach these children how to read.”

Lisa Laude-Raymond, an ETHS alum, said she faults teachers for the gap. “To me, it has to be the teachers. There are some excellent teachers, but I can tell you there are some teachers that absolutely must be held accountable … because they are not helping African American children.”

Jennifer Roden asked for STEM programs to be implemented at District 65. One such program, Project Lead the Way, is a K-12 program and is used at Evanston Township High School.

“I’m the angry back man, an alum of District 65 and ETHS,” said Lonnie Wilson. “What’s happening here is a multigenerational trauma. What you’re asking people to do is have a nice shiny piece of paper to erase the trauma.”

Robert Bady suggested a charter school “for parents who are concerned and want to think outside of the box. We have some resources in town and outside of the town. We’re a group of parents. We want to help.”

Board Comments

Board members thanked the speakers and panelists for their concern and their ideas.

“We need help. Our children need help. We need your guidance and the experiences your children have to help guide our policy,” said Candance Chow.

 “We do learn from these conversations,” said Richard Rykhus. We’re listening and trying to learn from each other. … We know there are structures that need to be dismantled, and, as a Board, we have to do what is in our power to change. I think I can speak for the Board that we are committed to that.”

Mr. Rykhus added that, as the father of an 11-year old African American boy, “I see that racism, when my son is in a bookstore carrying a book and the clerk says, ‘He looks like he’s going to steal that book.’”

Responding to a question from one of the speakers about what this Board is doing that is different, Mr. Rykhus said, “This year we brought in two more black principals. I think that’s important, because principals have a say in the hiring of teachers. … Culturally relevant instruction [is] being focused on in very different ways.”  He said with regard to suspension rates, there has been a 70% drop in days lost, and the Board will continue to monitor suspensions and suspension rates. In addition, he said, the District is partnering with Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) at an elementary school to make a community school.

Suni Kartha said, “Thank you to everyone who is here.” Acknowledging the many issues that had been raised, she added, “What are we going to do specifically around race to address equity? … We still bus children disproportionately out of their neighborhoods. … Kids have to rush out of school to get on the bus. They can’t stay, for example, to use the computers.”

Referring to a comment from one of the speakers that the District does not value black children, Ms. Kartha said she feels “busing is a huge value statement. I don’t think any of us intended to make that statement. … But we need to address busing if we’re going to talk about racial equity.”

Ms. Chow also said, “There are a lot of challenges that we need to reflect on …I know the data is bad.” Referring to the gap that is apparent already in kindergarten readiness, she said it is important the kids in the District’s early childhood programs be kindergarten ready. “We need to take ownership that these kids are prepared for kindergarten,” she said.

If students register early for kindergarten, perhaps they could be tested early, so they could be connected earlier to services, said Ms. Chow. She also said the Board could look at the attendance areas of the schools in terms of equity of resources “and not increasing busing. … We call ourselves ‘resource rich,’ but the resources aren’t getting where they need to go.”

Mr. Rykhus said he felt the District should go beyond improving the early childhood education at the Hill Education Center. “We should make sure every early childhood provider knows what kindergarten readiness looks like. We should get every child into a formal early childhood program.” He also asked that the administration provide answers to the questions posed by the speakers.

Omar Brown said he had been thinking about “how to respond, about what I was going to say, because a lot of people in the room want me to say A, B, C or D … [but] I think for myself.”

Commenting on the administration’s report, Mr. Brown said, “Maybe this was a data report. I feel like we’re missing something. It’s called an ‘achievement report’ but there is nothing about successful students. You missed a great opportunity to talk about successful students.”

Mr. Brown said he felt there is “a disconnect in the report, because the numbers don’t speak to the voices, so we heard the voices. Something is missing.”

Mr. Brown said he would like to have 10 high-achieving, 10 middle-achieiving and 10 struggling students talk to the Board and administrators, so they would be able to learn what practices are effective. “Let’s talk … about success to try to get together some factors we can use to correct the problems. …We need to start thinking about outcomes and changing things. We need to see how much we can make – not just this building but every building – welcoming to families. 

 “There is a general agreement we have a lot of work to do,” said Jennifer Phillips. “I hope we can make a commitment for outcomes for the kids that are in the JEH (the District’s] Head Start. … We can look at curriculum, engagement – things we have control over.”

“I feel like I’m undergoing another educational process,” said Claudia Garrison. She said the report is “what we asked for – a baseline report. We needed to know where we are.”

Referring to a comment that many parents feel their children are undervalued, Ms. Garrison said, “The one thing we can change is our hearts. … It is important to show we value children. … I think we can do it, but it’s a big task.” She said diversity training might be a way to help with that. 

“I would like to thank my fellow Board members, who have spoken eloquently,” said Ms. Quattrocki. “The problem is so big, we have to break it down in steps.”  She proposed two short-term goals for the Board, addressing busing and kindergarten readiness, to be brought back as immediate action items.

Picking up on Ms. Kartha’s reference to busing, Ms. Quattrocki said, “Busing is something we’ve all struggled with. We’ve rationalized it; we’ve talked about busing and talked about funding and tried to soften it, but it has been a struggle, and I think we need to bring that back and talk about it again.”

Addressing kindergarten readiness, Ms. Quattrocki said, “we all recognize from the data that the bridge between early childhood and kindergarten is so critically important. What we need to do is bring it back to the Board and see how we can direct resources to help.”

Referring to two speakers’ questions about how and whether phonics is taught at the District, Ms. Quattrocki said, “I think we need to address your concerns that that piece of literacy is being addressed sufficiently.”

Dr. Goren also thanked the speakers and said he felt there were two parts to the meeting – answering the questions and “learning where we are. We are in the process of acknowledging where we’re at and where we need to go. We can’t ignore that. … We have to lean into the difficulty. …We have a lot of information here, and we are piecing it together. We have an aggressive agenda that we’re working on with our School Climate Team. … Thank you for pushing us … as we are much more intentional around our equity agenda, as we pay attention to our practices, as we pay attention to race, as we pay attention to our budget … so we can make a difference in the lives of all our students.”

Mary Gavin

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...