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Following the presentation of District 65’s 2016 Achievement Report on Feb. 6, the RoundTable interviewed Paul Goren, Superintendent, and Candance Chow, President of the School Board, to get their input on what the District is doing to improve achievement of black and Hispanic students.

The Achievement Report shows that there is still a wide achievement gap between black and Hispanic students, on the one hand, and white students, on the other. But there are some promising signs.

Importantly, the Board has set and is adhering to high expectations, that students will meet the college readiness benchmarks identified for the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The Achievement Report shows that 33% of black students and 39% of Hispanic students are on track to college readiness in reading, compared to 85% of white students.

While much work remains to be done, one-third or more of the black and Hispanic students in the District are excelling, using a very high bar. On a nationwide basis, 37% of all students meet that bar in reading.

The gap may be due in part to differences in income-status and institutional racism. Almost 80% of black students and 67% of Hispanic students in District 65 are from low-income households, and about 86% of those households have an income less than 130% of the federal poverty line. The percentage of white students from low-income households is very low.

The data indicates that income-status matters. For example, last year, 24% of black students from low-income households met college readiness standards in reading, compared to 58% of black students from non-low-income households.

But the data also shows the gap may be due to institutional bias or other factors. For example, 58% of black students from non-low income households met college readiness standards in reading, compared to 87% of white students from non-low income households.

District 65 is addressing these issues using a holistic approach and a commitment to equity. In September 2016, the School Board adopted an Equity Statement, with 10 stated commitments. See below.

When asked what are the five most important things the District is doing to improve black and Hispanic student achievement, Dr. Goren said 1) focusing on improving reading at the K-3 grade levels, 2) focusing on students in the bottom quartile, 3) providing social and emotional learning, 4) providing equity training for all employees and the Board, and 5) focusing on hiring people of color.

Most of these strategies are contained in the District’s five-year Strategic Plan adopted in March 2015 and are at various stages of implementation. The strategies are  beginning to show some promising results.

 In the last two years, the percentage of black students meeting expected growth targets increased by 11 percentage points in both  math and reading. The increase for Hispanic students has been 4 points in math and 8 in reading. For white students the increase was 9 points in math and 11 in reading.

All students are showing growth, and about the same percentage of black and Hispanic students are meeting annual growth targets as white students.

And significantly, the District uses a high bar to measure whether students are meeting growth targets. Under the District’s definition, students must show significantly more growth than the national average, in some cases twice as much. 

The District is also showing progress using other measures: 39% of the new teachers hired last year were persons of color, compared to 20% in the previous year; three of the four principals hired in the last two years are African American; of the three School Board members appointed by the current School Board in the last three years, two are African American and one is Hispanic.

K-3 Reading

The achievement gap exists when students enter kindergarten, and the District is “intentionally focused on improving reading at the K-3 grade levels,” said Dr. Goren.

“We’ve strengthened our literacy curriculum by focusing on reading, writing, and language development,” Dr. Goren added. “Shifts include more explicitly teaching early literacy skills in our youngest grades through a new shared reading curriculum focused on teaching concepts about print, comprehension, and phonemic awareness. Additionally, word work is being introduced earlier in students’ development through the inclusion of Words Their Way in kindergarten. The District has also added the Lucy Calkins reading workshop curriculum in 2nd and 3rd grades to guide focused whole-class and small-group reading instruction which is applied by students in their individual reading work.” 

The goal in the early grades “is learning how to read, so you could read to learn in later grades,” he said.

Raising Kids Out of Lower Quartile

The District is focusing on students who are performing below the 25th national percentile on MAP, and using Response to Intervention (RTI), by developing an individual intervention plan for each student. “We’re deploying our resources on the academics of children who are in the 25th percentile or below,” said Dr. Goren. “A disproportionate share of students who are in that level are African American and Hispanic.

 “With our strategic plan, we put a stake in the ground and as a District we put significantly more focus and resources on kids at or below the 25th percentile with a focus on accelerating learning,” said Dr. Goren, adding that the District has hired someone to coordinate the effort.

 The achievement report showed some growth out of the lowest quartile last year. Raising kids above the 25th percentile is a first step to moving them above the 40th percentile, which is the marker to participate in Evanston Township High School’s freshman earned-honors program in Humanities. Moving kids above the 40th percentile is essential to moving them toward college readiness.

Social and Emotional Learning/School Climate Teams

 “All children need to have the skills to work well with each other, to understand the sense of self, and to have the skills to work in a group, to work in a diverse culture, to really focus on how they get along, and to have the skills to manage conflicts when they have them,” said Dr. Goren.

“The idea of actually focusing efforts on the social and emotional skills children need, coupled with academic growth, is key to any success, and we’ve done this through our focused work on restorative justice. We have peace circles and talking circles that teachers can deploy in the classroom. We have strategies to focus on the healthy development of kids so that when there is a conflict it can be resolved immediately. And we pay attention to the social dynamics in the school house.”

 The District is in the second year of developing “School Climate Teams.” There are now School Climate Teams in 12 of the 18 schools, and the plan is to implement them in the remaining schools next year. The purpose of these teams is to look at performance data, discipline data, or other signals that a student may not be doing well and use that information to intervene and help the student.

The goal is to make sure that schools are a “safe place” where children and parents are welcome “and really feel as though they are owners of the school and part of the school environment,” said Dr. Goren.

“The school climate work, restorative practices and social and emotional learning are great for all kids,” said Ms. Chow, adding that they help to build trusting relationships between students and adults in the school, and create a tone or culture where students feel valued. 

The restorative justice work is used to “create a classroom where everybody is valued, said Ms. Chow. “Every child needs to know that we believe in them and that they believe in each other for them to thrive. Seeing that the class is this small community that can work on itself and do better and make mistakes and recover from that, I think really will help our striving kids immensely in their life, and all of our kids.

 “Understanding it’s okay to fail, understanding that you can get back up again because inherently you are valued, if we can do that through this work, I think the academics will improve more rapidly and more effectively. That’s why, to me, connecting academic and social and emotional, including all the supports around a child’s learning, and building trust between the school and home, are essential. Our commitment to that sets us apart.” 

 Equity Training

Dr. Goren said the District is making an intentional effort to pay attention to equity training. “We have to be the first to admit that there are barriers to student growth that exist in institutions, including District 65. In order to address issues of institutional racism and the marginalization of children who come from backgrounds that have been historically marginalized, we’ve been working fast to provide training on these issues for our staff and for all of our leaders.”

Dr. Goren said he and senior administrators have participated in the “Beyond Diversity Training,” and, “We’re working on a pathway to have Beyond Diversity/Courageous Conversation’s training be mandatory for all staff. We see that being done by 2019.”

In addition, the District is providing SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training, which is a year-long intensive program designed to address institutional racism, privilege, and how to teach in a diverse environment. “We set SEED up as a pilot and thought we’d have 28 people sign up, and we had 62 on the first round, so we created two classes. We’re going to have a SEED program in every school,” Dr. Goren said.

Last fall, the District required Districtwide professional development on equity, institutional racism and privilege; and middle school students are participating in the SOAR program managed by students at Evanston Township High School. “We’re encouraging a student voice as well,” Dr. Goren said.

The plan is to build a critical mass of teachers and staff in each school to make sure that the commitment to equity and the commitment to remove barriers that affect student learning are sustained over time.

Ms. Chow said every member of the School Board received equity training last year. In addition, a two-day training session is planned for after the April 4 election; Board members who cannot attend due to work schedules will be expected to take training during the year.

“This work needs to be done at all levels to make necessary shifts as a broader institution – changes to policies, practices, and people,” said Ms. Chow. “Work that is in progress in earnest in many places in our District now has even more momentum and intentionality.”

Dr. Goren said, “I think the work around the equity training will make a difference. When you have a sense of belonging and a sense the space is your space, you’re going to be more engaged and a more engaged learner.”

Hiring to Reflect Diversity

One goal in the strategic plan is to attract “the best talent” and that “reflects the demographic diversity of our student body.” The District’s student body is 45%  white, 22% black, 19% Hispanic, 9% multi-racial, and 5% Asian.

Dr. Goren said the District sponsored a seminar two weeks ago for principals, conducted by the Human Resources Department. The seminar explicitly focused on hiring practices as they relate to hiring people of color and “to work in an intentional way to ensure that our school staff and our teaching staff reflects the students that are in our classrooms.”

Among other things, the seminar stressed the need for principals to interview candidates and to ask questions about equity, such as how they have dealt with a range of students who have different backgrounds and how they would teach using a culturally relevant curriculum.

Dr. Goren said the District plans to offer similar seminars in the future. “We’re jumping in this full-force,” he said.

Ms. Chow referred to recent hirings. In the last year, 39% of the teachers hired by the District were persons of color, compared to 20% in the prior year. In the last several years, the District has hired four principals, three of whom are African American.

“We know that principal leadership is very important in a system,” said Ms. Chow. It’s setting the climate. It’s setting the tone. Having leaders of color is important, not only because they’re great principals, but because they can set a certain tone and they can work with their staff as well as parents in maybe a different way than someone else might be able to.”

 Other Strategies

Dr. Goren and Ms. Chow said the District is doing many additional things to improve the achievement of black and Hispanic students. These include enhancing the pre-K program; purchasing culturally relevant books and piloting approaches to teaching a culturally relevant curriculum; teaching executive functioning skills, which includes a focus on developing a growth mindset that each student can grow and succeed; providing alternatives to suspension; increasing parent engagement; and if the referendum passes, expanding the Digital Promise program, piloted at Chute and King Arts, to all middle schools. 

Of course, the District’s core curriculum, which depends heavily on differentiated instruction, and the Two-Way Immersion program are key parts of the instructional program.

 “We’re moving with dispatch,” said Dr. Goren. He added, though, “We have to move in a way that will sustain progress over time.” 

 On March 14, 2016, Pedro Noguera spoke at Evanston Township High School about “Education, Racial Inequality and the Future of American Democracy.” Dr. Noguera is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA and has written extensively on the achievement gap.

A theme running through Dr. Noguera’s presentation is that poverty and other inequities related to poverty (e.g., lack of preparation for school, hunger, health issues, lack of stable housing) interact with student learning outcomes and that schools cannot be expected to solve these problems alone. But, he added, if schools hope to address the achievement gap, they must address the needs of students in a holistic fashion.

Dr. Noguera discusses the same issue in some of his articles. The following are excerpts from his article, “The Achievement Gap and The Schools We Need” (2012):

• “[E]ducational policy has not acknowledged that disparities in academic outcomes that correspond to the race and class backgrounds of students are actually a multi-dimensional phenomenon related to unequal access to early childhood education (the preparation gap), inequities in school funding (the allocation gap), difference in the amount of support well-educated, affluent parents can provide to their children versus poorer, less-educated parents (the parent gap).

• “If educators fail to understand or fail to address the numerous ways in which other inequities – income, health, housing, etc. – interact with learning outcomes, then much of what is done to ameliorate the problem will simply not work.

• “The history of failure in past school reform efforts has made it clear that a reform strategy based upon a more holistic framework that explicitly tackles inequality is the only way sustainable progress in public education will be achieved.”


College Readiness Sets a High Bar

As part of the Strategic Plan, the District 65 School Board adopted four goals relating to student achievement: 1) Increase the percent of students at or above college readiness benchmarks in math and reading; 2) Increase the percent of students making expected gains in math and reading; 3) Decrease the percent of students at or below the 25th percentile; and 4) Decrease achievement gaps between groups of students in math and reading by improving performance of all students.

The benchmarks for college readiness were identified by the Northwest Evaluation System, the owner of the MAP test, and they predict whether a student is on track to having a 50% chance of obtaining a B in freshman year college. On average, the benchmarks used are at the 63rd national percentile for reading and the 68th for math.  This means that about 37% of students in the nation are expected to meet the benchmarks for reading, and 32% in math.

The college readiness benchmarks set a “really high” bar, said Superintendent Paul Goren, “and the bar should be set high. And we shouldn’t be shying away from high standards.”

Board President Candance Chow said it is important to set a high goal, “because we’re setting high expectations for all of our kids.” While recognizing that not all students will go to college, she said if students can achieve at that level, “it opens up a full range of opportunities” for them. 

“If we set lower expectations, inherently, I think it would make a statement that we don’t think everyone can achieve at a higher level, and I don’t think that’s a true statement. We have to maintain high standards.”

Six years ago, District 65 was using “meet standards” on the ISATs as the measure of success. The meet standards benchmark corresponded to about the 20th national percentile.D65’s Equity StatementIn September 2016, the District 65 School Board adopted an Equity Statement that provides, “District 65 recognizes that excellence requires a commitment to equity and to identifying and addressing practices, policies, and institutional barriers, including institutional racism, that perpetuate opportunity and achievement gaps. The District must work proactively to acknowledge racial and cultural biases, and eliminate institutional structures and practices that affect student learning and achievement.”In the Statement, District 65 commits to do 10 things. The first three are: • “Raising the achievement of all students while eliminating the racial predictability of achievement; • Raising the achievement of all students while eliminating the predictability of academic achievement based upon family income, disabilities, gender identity, and status as an English language learners; and • Ensuring that all Board and staff members examine and change educational practices, policies, and processes that contribute to and perpetuate racial disparities, and the disparities of those who have been marginalized in society by their identity, cultural, or economic status.”“The equity statement sends a message to our children and our families that this is what we value and this is what we care about,” said Paul Goren, Superintendent. “It also is, for all teacher-leaders, principals, assistant principals, and staff-leaders, a statement that the District is committed to explicitly paying attention to racial and educational inequities that exist, and our intent is to address them full force.”Candance Chow, President of the School Board, told the RoundTable the equity statement is “an acknowledgment that we know that there are systemic obstacles in the way of kids’ reaching their full potential based on race. We know that there’s predictability of outcomes based on race, ethnicity and other conditions and we’re committed to figuring out in our system what those obstacles are and trying to get rid of them.”The District has retained an equity consultant to conduct an equity audit of the District, including walk-throughs in all schools and to make recommendations. Ms. Chow said the Board is also scheduled to review equity policies within the next few weeks.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...