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Each year, Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and I write guest essays in anticipation of the first day of school for the students of Evanston and Skokie. We have much to celebrate in our schools. I recognize how fortunate District 65 is to have a team of the best and brightest educators, a community incredibly supportive of its public schools, and so many families who are deeply engaged in their student’s education.
On the surface, it seems we have hit the trifecta. Yet, we still have students, and disproportionately students of color, who are not getting what they need from us. As we look at student achievement, there is still racial predictability. The same rings true for student discipline and office referrals. Let’s call it what it is. In District 65, there are African American and Latinx students who, although they are performing at national averages, are still not being served at the same level as their White peers. All of our students are bright and work hard. Our teaching staff is as dedicated as they come. I believe these outcomes reflect institutional barriers that need to be eliminated.
Our reasons to focus on equity are obvious. We cannot and will not accept the status quo. In District 65, we are committed to the best possible education for all children. Two years ago, we embarked on efforts to improve academic outcomes for all students, especially students of color; to dismantle systemic and institutional racism; and to provide opportunities for staff to examine bias and to think deeply about issues of race in intentional and thoughtful ways. While we are only in the early stages of our journey, our commitment to equity is stronger than ever.
In the wake of Charlottesville, I want to state publicly and clearly, that hate has no home in District 65 schools. There are not two sides to this story. In moving from colorblindness to color consciousness, it is essential that we collectively address equity in our respective spheres of influence. Racism, hateful words and actions, and discrimination surfaces every day, even in our own backyard. This is not what we, as residents of Evanston and Skokie, and we as Americans should ever tolerate. Yet, what matters is what we do now.
In the now “most-liked” tweet ever, former president Barack Obama reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s powerful words from his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.” In my heart, I believe this to be true. Last spring, I stood on Ridge Avenue and watched our kindergarteners — Black, Latinx, and White children as young as five — stand hand-in-hand as part of the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism. In the only way they knew how, they denounced feelings of hate and racism. They stood in support of their classmates and friends. They stood together with a common goal. They chanted and held homemade signs that read ‘Love for All,’ ‘Hate Go Home,’ ‘I care about everybody,’ ‘We can change the world.’ It was simple and it was pure. We can all learn something from our kids. The current events have undoubtedly provided a teachable moment on issues of race and identity for all of us.
I echo Dr. Witherspoon’s words that as a community that embraces diversity we must be “fully committed to doing the heavy lifting to achieve equity, especially racial equity for all.” I believe that our role as educators is to provide a high quality education that offers every opportunity for success – for all students. We must have unwavering love, support, and high expectations for every child regardless of race, gender, income, or ability level.
Despite our efforts, I know there are students, especially those of color, who have not been empowered to achieve success. As educators we must reflect on our own practices that create such barriers and then change our practices. Every child is unique with incredible strengths that must be honored and celebrated. Our administration, the teachers’ union, and the school board are working collaboratively to build upon efforts already underway on equity, diversity training, and culturally relevant teaching while prioritizing our work on early literacy and improved school climate.
In the end, we all want to be a part of a school and school system where everyone feels welcome and valued, and where all children are provided with every opportunity for academic success. This school year, we will take every opportunity possible to make this vision a reality for every child. We must continue to work together as a community, in support of every child and family, to make a meaningful difference in their lives. I am confident that we will make important progress in our journey and that we will have much to celebrate by the end of the school year.