On Jan. 22, administrators presented the District 65 School Board with a 23-page report called the “2018 Strategy, Equity Reflection” (the “2018 Report”). The report combines into one document the District’s five-year strategic plan adopted by the Board in March 2015, and the Equity Report prepared by Corrie Wallace, the District’s Equity Consultant, in May 2017.

“As a Board and as the senior leadership team we remain committed to the strategic plan as a living document that serves as a guidepost of our work and as a statement to the community on the key areas we are addressing and must address and prioritize,” said Superintendent Paul Goren. He added that the District is moving forward on all but two of the recommendations made by Ms. Wallace in her Equity Report.

The 2018 Report “shows explicitly where and how our equity work and our strategic work are one and the same,” said Dr. Goren. “This is the work that will drive the District over the next two-and-a-half years, including the work on Black student achievement. It will help us with our focus on improving outcomes for Black students and serve as a guidepost of our work and that of educators in the District.”

Maria Allison, the District’s Chief Strategy Officer, said, “Our goal through this process was to gather everything into one place, using the strategic plan framework to organize it conceptually. We believe this will be really key to sustaining our efforts because we have one plan to point to and we have our work organized under a common framework.

“It was time to include an updated lens on racial equity in our work. Arguably the original strategic plan was thin in that regard and everything we have learned and have heard in the past one-and-a-half years or so has greatly impacted our thinking and our approach to our work and it was time to share that explicitly somewhere.”

Peter Godard, Chief Officer of Accountability, Equity, and Organizational Development, said, “This process really challenged us to see the connection between our work and to sharpen our focus on how the work can advance racial equity.”

The 2108 Report is a “mid-point” document, Mr. Godard said. “We’re half way through the strategic plan implementation, and it describes how we are approaching each of those priorities with a racial equity lens.”

The strategic plan’s five goals and many of the strategies to implement those goals remain in place, but in the 2018 Report, each of the goals and strategies is viewed with a focus on equity. The goals, some key strategies, and examples of the District’s equity approach are summarized below.

Goal No. 1, High Quality Teaching and Learning: “Prepare students for high school and beyond in an environment of innovation and continuous improvement through high quality teaching and learning that addresses the needs of each learner.”

“Teaching and learning remains at the core of our strategic plan,” says the 2018 Report. “When the plan was adopted, our efforts in this area focused primarily on updating and improving core curriculum and instructional resources. At this midpoint in our strategic plan, we are building on this work by applying a culturally relevant and responsive lens to our instruction to further strengthen the instructional core. This means taking steps to make sure children of all social identities see themselves in the curriculum and that teachers are prepared to teach in new ways that reach all students.”

One key strategy to do this is to “focus on professional learning.”  The District is following a two-prong approach: first, provide learning opportunities to staff to develop a better understanding of what racial equity truly means, so “we can change mindsets and systems that have historically underserved communities of color;” and second, build “equity leaders in every building and throughout the system who have the capacity and necessary training to support and grow our efforts.”

The District says that providing Beyond Diversity Training and SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training will increase “culturally relevant teaching practices throughout the District” and “deepen staff knowledge of how to promote a safe and supportive culture of equity” in the schools.

So far, 379 staff members have participated in Beyond Diversity training sessions and/or SEED training, with several additional opportunities planned for this summer. 

A second strategy is to “improve the rigor and quality of instruction by developing and consistently implementing a framework that defines high quality curriculum and instruction.” The District says, “We will ensure students across the District have access to instruction that is consistent, high quality, and culturally relevant.”

The “primary tools” the District has built to support this strategy are “instructional frameworks,” which outline essential instructional practices in all classrooms. These practices include approaches to meeting the needs of diverse learners. In the past two years, the District focused on building frameworks in reading and math for all grade levels, and it will focus next on science and social studies.

As it proceeds the District says it will “1) make sure that each framework incorporates culturally-relevant teaching practices,” (e.g., include a more accurate reflection of the experiences and perspectives of non-white people), and 2) “provide necessary training to staff to implement these practices.”

A third strategy is to “ensure consistent implementation of instructional approaches for struggling learners.” The District says, “We seek to provide consistent services for learners who need support beyond classroom instruction but do not require special education services.”

The District says it plans to do this using what is known as “Multi-Tiered Systems of Support,” through which the District will provide “customized supports depending on student needs in addition to the high quality classroom instruction all students receive.” The District plans to provide these supports to address the learning needs of each student whose test scores fall in the bottom 25% of students nationally.

In the last two-and-one-half years, the District says it has created a District-level position to lead this work and implemented technology to ensure students are receiving appropriate interventions. In addition, the District has developed a math program that provides supplemental instruction customized to student needs and a new literacy support course at the middle school level. 

A fourth strategy is to “promote academic and personal success by building students’ executive functioning skills and encouraging a growth mindset for students.” The District says, “We will support students’ success in high school, college, and life by helping them build non-academic skills such as goal-setting, planning, and organization.

 “These skills, along with decision-making, self-monitoring, and problem-solving are referred to by educators as executive functioning skills. Research on executive functioning indicates that students who are struggling academically stand to benefit significantly from executive functioning skill development.”

This year, the District says it built on a pilot at Haven Middle School to launch a new learning strand in Advisory for sixth-graders to build their goal-setting, organizational, and time management skills. The District has also integrated development of these skills into the design of an Algebra Excite course.

A fifth strategy is to “take a closer look at early childhood education.” Currently, at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center (JEH), the District provides early childhood services, including home-visiting services, Early Head Start for children ages 0-3, Head Start for children ages 3-5, Preschool for All for children ages 3-5, and Early Childhood Special Education services.

“We recognized a need to sharpen our focus on our early childhood programming,” says the 2018 Report. “Improving the quality of these programs must be a priority.” Starting last fall, the District convened a committee consisting of early childhood education experts, community members, and Board members to review program information, discuss best practices, and identify areas of opportunity. This committee will make recommendations on how the District can deliver “best in class services” to students and families.

Goal No. 2, Thriving Workforce: “Foster a collaborative, creative, and inclusive workplace that attracts, develops, and actively supports the best talent.”

 “At this midpoint of the strategic plan,” says the 2018 Report, “we are focused on building a workforce that is representative of our students and composed of individuals who respect and value the many cultural identities of our students and families. … We will recruit diverse staff who reflect our student population as well as staff committed to disrupting institutional racism and building more equitable learning environments.

“To recruit more diverse and qualified candidates, we have improved our marketing materials and organized a group of diverse educators to aid in these efforts. We have trained all principals on hiring for equity and the role of bias in the hiring process and have incorporated equity-focused interview questions into our candidate screening process.” 

Goal No. 3, Safe and Supportive School Climate GOAL: “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.”

“A positive school climate supports students not only in their academic pursuits but also their holistic development,” says the 2018 Report. “At the District- and school-level, our work is focused on promoting positive school climate by changing the rules and practices that influence how adults and students interact in schools.

“At the classroom-level, we are working to provide opportunities for students to build the skills they need to navigate and create positive learning climates. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) helps students develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

This year, the District has developed and launched several new learning opportunities for students focused on building their social and emotional skills. This includes a new advisory class for sixth graders and a new course called SEEL (Social Emotional Equity Learning) for elementary school students.

A second strategy is to address “the holistic needs” of individual students and groups of students and to foster positive school climates through District- and school-level teams. In the last two years, the District has established a “school climate team” in each school and provided team members with training and data. The teams are charged with promoting healthy relationships as well as addressing safety, student discipline, and culturally relevant teaching in their schools. Each team has identified priorities for improving school climate in their building and developed a plan to address these priorities.

At the District level, the District has created a District Equity Leadership Team (DELT) to review and recommend changes to policies and practices that contribute to inequitable outcomes.

Goal No. 4, Family and Community Engagement: “Cultivate and strengthen intentional and meaningful partnerships with all families and community agencies to support academic success and healthy development of all students.”

“Our families represent a wide range of racial, ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds,” says the 2018 Report. “As a public school district, we have a responsibility to create safe and inclusive schools that welcome the many perspectives and celebrate the strengths of individuals of all social identities. … We are working to build a more culturally responsive service model at the District office.

“We are also working to provide opportunities for families and connect them to services that meet their immediate needs and build stronger long-term school-family partnerships.”

As part of this effort, the District plans to develop partnerships with community organizations that can provide services to families and students, outside of the school setting.

As examples, the District says, “Our partnership with Books and Breakfast has expanded to provide tutoring and breakfast before school at two additional sites. We are also working with the YMCA to secure 30 scholarships for students of color to attend Camp Echo. In order to strengthen the effectiveness of our summer programming, we have prioritized learning opportunities for students with the greatest academic needs. We are also providing access to out-of-school STEM learning opportunities across the City for students of color and female students in collaboration with Northwestern University.”

The District is also drawing on the community schools model as a way to make schools a hub for resources. The model provides a way to connect families with services from other organizations while strengthening their relationship to their school community. These resources may include academic enrichment, health, social service, and youth and community development services.

The District says it is also in the process of revising its community schools model piloted in two schools. “In addition to our ongoing vision clinic and food market work, we are expanding to provide legal and mental health services in partnership with community agencies.”

Goal No. 5, Financial Sustainability: “Ensure long-term financial stability of the District with resources aligned to priorities.”

“With the passage of the recent referendum,” says the 2018 Report, “we will be able to pursue the vision outlined in this document for the next eight years or more. …   We must be forward-thinking to ensure that we are in a stronger position at the end of the eight years than we were at the outset of the strategic plan. As we assess our progress toward this goal, we seek to integrate, align, and prioritize a racial equity focus. … To do this, we will follow a budget process that aligns spending with our identified priorities, namely racial equity. Moving forward, our focus turns to prioritizing spending as we work to address our structural deficit.”

The 2018 Report refers to the District’s “significant capital needs that affect the safety and functioning of our buildings,” and the need to prioritize the projects that can be completed with available funds. …. Our first priority is to finish installing safe entries in all remaining schools which is planned for completion by 2020. We will continue to use project urgency along with an equity lens for the prioritization of future capital improvements.”

Board Discussion

Board members had a limited discussion of the 2018 Report. Board member Lindsay Cohen said she would like to see how the District will measure progress of each of the strategies, with the equity overlay.

Board President Suni Kartha said she has been hearing from teachers that they need more time to process what they have learned in the Beyond Diversity and SEED training sessions. “So I was happy to see that was heard and incorporated into the daily process,” she said.

Ms. Kartha added that Board members have asked administrators to explore how to measure social and emotional learning, and she did not see that reflected in the report.

Mr. Godard said the District was working with Northwestern University to develop measures that might be predictive of high school success and has started exploring what is available to measure social and emotional learning. He said he will report back to the Board when he has a better sense of what is actually feasible in terms of measuring non-academic skills.

On a different topic, Ms. Kartha said the latest suspension report showed the District was trending “not in the direction we want to be trending both in overall suspension incidents and particularly disproportionality.” The Board had an extensive discussion on that issue.

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...