Members of OPAL (from left) Roger Williams, Melissa Blount, and Martha Burns at a press conference on black student achievement on Oct. 23.

Citing data from 1967 and 2016, members of OPAL, Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, said the achievement gap between white and minority students has worsened over 50 years and called for a sense of urgency on the part of School District 65 to take action to address it.

Standing out of the cold rain under the roof of the Joseph E. Hill Education Center on Oct. 23, where the District 65 central administrative offices are located, Roger Williams, President of OPAL, told a crowd of about 20, “This is a somber occasion and a call to action, because on the part of the District there have been no goals, no progress, and no sense of urgency to address the Black and Latino student achievement gap at District 65.” He urged everyone to attend District 65 School Board meetings, held the third Monday of each month at the Hill Education Center.

Mr. Williams was the only speaker who mentioned the achievement gap between white and Latinx students. Black student achievement was the main focus of the press conference.

Reading a statement on behalf of OPAL, Melissa Blount said, “Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is a district rich with resources in a community that takes great pride in education and diversity. Yet these resources do not seem to translate into academic gains for Black students. In 1967, African American students in District 65 scored at the 27th percentile in reading and at the 39th percentile in mathematics, versus white students who scored at the 64th percentile in Reading and the 76th percentile in Math. …

“In 2016, 49 years later, District 65 released the Report on Black Student Achievement, revealing that 49 years later, District 65 continues to under-educate Black students, and the achievement gap has widened, not narrowed. A white student today is nearly three times more likely to reach college readiness benchmarks in reading, and nearly four times more likely to reach benchmarks in math.”

Among the demands by OPAL were that “District 65 implement a rigorous, results-oriented accountability system that immediately focuses upon improving African American student outcomes. … [W]e are calling upon District 65 to implement the hiring practices, curriculum changes, and school climate initiatives of schools and districts that are succeeding with Black student achievement.”

OPAL’s statement criticized the District for “failing Black students by not hiring enough Black teachers, using a curriculum that does not sufficiently highlight the contributions from Black culture, and disproportionally disciplining Black students.”

While 44% of the students enrolled in District 65 are white, 77% of the teachers are white; 24% of the students are Black, but only 13% of the teachers are Black. For Latinx, the percentages are 19% (students) and 5% (teachers), according to OPAL.  

OPAL also said its members had collaborated with the District 65 Board and Superintendent “to provide meaningful solutions to the achievement gap, and it has waited patiently for meaningful and steady results.”

On the positive side, OPAL applauded the District’s adoption of a racial equity policy and its mandate that all staff participate in the training program “Beyond Diversity” by 2019.  

Demanding “greater accountability,” OPAL said the District should make public information about which schools and which teachers are successfully educating black children, and hire a Black student coordinator “to advocate for our underserved students.”

Members and supporters of OPAL stood behind the speakers, holding posters created by OPAL showing similar gaps in achievement at Evanston Township High School and at the early childhood center, also located in the Joseph E. Hill Education Center. At ETHS, 52% of white students, 11 % of Black students, and 22% of Latinx students met or exceeded standards on the 2015 PARCC test. In the Pre-K and Head Start programs at the Hill Center, 75% of white students, 33% of Black students and 46% of Latinx students met or exceeded the kindergarten-readiness benchmark in reading.

OPAL member Martha Burns said, “This District spends $14,000 per student. … There are 200 students at [the Hill Center] not properly being prepared to go to kindergarten.”

OPAL Vice President Oliver Ruff said, “We’re not here in an adversarial role. We request more action and less rhetoric. We just want more things done to close the academic gap, particularly for students of color.”

Margarita Matlis, who for more than two decades has been a critic of both District 65 and ETHS for their failure to improve the achievement of minority students, said, “In 1975, we had this gap. … Do we have any program for parents? Do parents know what to do with kids? Many parents of all races do not know what to do for their kids.”

Before Ms. Matlis finished, Dr. Blount said, “We are righting an historical wrong, so that isn’t something that we’re addressing.”

Shawona Tinch, mother of a child at the Hill Center and a member of the parent board there, said, “As a parent, you think you’re going to get everything. … If your child has an IEP [Individualized Education Program], you have to speak out. You can go into the schools. … I need to hear more voices at these meetings. … Yes, we do need more Black parents.”

At the Joint District 65/202 Board meeting that evening, Oct. 23, Ms. Matlis said she had been at the morning press conference and heard the “discouraging reports. … I always thought that there are three components to education. One is the schools, and they can’t do everything. Another is the parents – and many are Hispanics like me, who don’t know how the system works. They have to have a special program for them to know what they have to do for the kids. And others don’t know what to do with their little kids. The third one is, of course, the kids. In District 65 there used to be a contract signed by the school, the parents, and the children, and each one had the responsibility to do something. I think this should be reinstated.”

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren also spoke at that meeting. “This morning, representatives from OPAL held a press conference here at JEH to talk about Black student achievement and the longstanding gaps in opportunity and achievement that are present in District 65. On many occasions, I have attempted to communicate that I share the same understanding of this problem as those in the community that are advocating for achievement and greater support of Black and Latinx students.

“As the leader of this District, as a leader who is white, I fear that I have not been able to communicate in a way that conveys the full depth of my beliefs on this. Here’s what I really want you to hear from me: I know that Black and Latinx students in our community are not being provided what they need, to achieve to their full potential – and that’s not okay.

“I could go through a laundry list of the things we’re doing in our District to address this, but you don’t need me to go through it again. I believe we are taking unprecedented and long overdue steps 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.

“Our work in District 65 is extensive and also includes best practices in literacy, culturally relevant teaching and learning, supports for striving students, examining and changing our hiring processes, school climate, and early childhood education. As we do this work, I want to salute our colleagues in District 202 as they have partnered with us and continue to do so as both Districts move forward on our equity agendas. …

“As an organization, we take full responsibility and have made equitable outcomes for Black students in District 65 a priority. I encourage you to visit the equity-focused section of our website for details on the work currently underway in District 65. I look forward to continued collaboration with our staff, families, and community partners and with District 202 as we continue on this important journey.”

Reporting Disaggregated Achievement Data, Goals

District 65 has publicly reported student achievement data disaggregated by race since the mid-1980s, and the RoundTable has reported that data for the last 19 years. In 2010, the RoundTable published a series of articles showing that the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test were set so low that students who were at serious risk of academic failure could still “meet standards.” This gave a very misleading picture of achievement, it masked the extent of the achievement gap, and it set very low expectations for students and school districts.

In 2011, the District 65 School Board raised the bar. Using research provided by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the District 65 School Board decided to measure the percent of students, by subgroup, who were on track to college and career readiness. The data showed that the achievement gap was much larger using this measure than portrayed using ISBE’s much lower benchmarks to “meet standards.”

In 2011, the School Board also set goals to increase the percentage of students, by subgroup, who were on track to college readiness. District 65 was the first school district in Illinois to do so.

During Superintendent Hardy Murphy’s 13-year tenure at District 65, from 1999-2013, the District implemented many initiatives to improve black and Hispanic student achievement.

District 65’s Strategic Plan

In March 2015, the District 65 School Board adopted a five-year Strategic Plan, after obtaining extensive input from parents, teachers, administrators, and the community at large. The plan contains many strategies to improve high-quality teaching and learning, to develop a thriving workforce, to provide a safe and supportive school climate, to enhance family and community engagement, and to maintain financial sustainability. The plan sets high expectations for all students, and contains goals to prepare students for college readiness and to decrease achievement gaps.

The Strategic Plan calls for the District to increase the rigor of its curriculum and instruction to prepare all students to succeed, and to provide interventions to address the needs of striving students.  When asked earlier this year what are the five most important things the District is doing to improve black and Hispanic student achievement, Dr. Goren told the RoundTable: 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. The RoundTable reported on the District’s steps to follow through on these initiatives in an article, “District 65 Takes Holistic Approach to Address Black and Hispanic Achievement.”

The Strategic Plan also calls for the District to address issues that OPAL has raised. One goal is to develop a thriving workforce, with a strategy to develop an annual recruitment plan that addresses, among other things, the diversity of the workforce. In 2016, the District reported hiring a higher percentage of teachers of color than in the prior year, but the District has acknowledged that much work remains to be done. Another goal is to improve the school climate, so students feel as though they are owners of their school and a valued part of the school environment. In the last two years the District established “School Climate Teams” in 12 of the District’s 18 schools, and teams will be developed in the remaining schools this year. Another step provided for in the Strategic Plan is to ensure there is a culturally responsive curriculum.

For the last five or six years, the Board has focused on reducing out-of-school suspensions, and has significantly reduced the number of such suspensions. There is still a disproportionality in disciplinary actions. 

In September 2015, as part of the Strategic Plan the Board adopted goals to measure progress, including that students will meet expected growth targets and meet college readiness benchmarks in reading and math and that the District will decrease the achievement gap between white and black and Hispanic students. As has been the practice, the District disaggregated the achievement data by race.

In September 2016, the District adopted an Equity Statement and in May 2017, the School Board adopted a Racial and Educational Equity Policy. School Board members, administrators, teachers, and staff are undergoing equity training.

Thus far, the achievement results are disappointing. In its latest achievement report, District 65 reported that on the 2017 MAP test, 31% of black students and 84% of white students met college readiness benchmarks in reading and 22% of black students and 80% of white students met standards in math. The national averages are about 36% in reading and 38% in math.

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...