At the April 22 District 65 School Board meeting, Sharon Sprague, Director of the Joseph E. Hill Center for Early Childhood Education, presented a three-year strategic plan to improve student outcomes of students at the JEH Center. The plan was also summarized in a memo prepared by Paul Goren, Superintendent, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and Ms. Sprague.

The plan titled Equity and Opportunity: Preparing our Children for Kindergarten and the World Beyond, contains six goals with ambitious targets, including one goal that aims to double the percentage of JEH students who are prepared for kindergarten from 37% to 74% in three years.

Board members highly praised the 49-page strategic plan, which is available on the District’s website.

The JEH Center

The JEH Center provides educational programing for at risk and special needs students, ages 0-5. At risk is defined to describe a student “who requires temporary or ongoing interventions to succeed academically.” There are five programs that operate out of two centers. The Family Center serves children ages 0-3 in Early Head Start and Home Visiting programs. The Early Childhood Center serves children ages 3-5 in Head Start, PreSchool for All, and Special Education.

About 450 children are enrolled at the JEH Center. The breakdown by race/ethnicity is 39% Latinx, 30% African American, 18% White, 6% multi-racial, and 7% Asian. Seventy-four percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In addition, JEH is responsible for all special education needs for students ages 3-5 in the District. In SY’19 (the school year ending in 2019), the JEH Center screened about 40 students and performed 90 new case-study evaluations. About 195 students have an Individual Education Program.

All early childhood programs are publicly funded through local dollars and federal or state grants.

The Need and Root Causes

The data shows that 35% of students who attended JEH were kindergarten ready when they entered District 65 in SY’17. The percentages were 39% in SY’18, and 37% in SY’19, for a three-year average of 37%. The District defines kindergarten ready as scoring above the 50th percentile on four of five literacy tests on the Illinois Snapshots of Early Literacy (ISEL).

On an overall basis, 30% of all District 65 Black students were kindergarten ready in SY’19, compared to 41% Hispanic students and 61% White students.

Ms. Sprague also presented data showing that students who are kindergarten ready when they enter kindergarten at District 65, do significantly better in terms of meeting benchmarks on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) than those who do not. For example, charts show that 89% of Black students who were kindergarten ready met DRA benchmarks by third grade. In contrast only 52% of Black students who were not kindergarten ready met DRA benchmarks in third grade. (The benchmark to meet DRA is lower than the benchmark to meet college readiness.)

“Students who arrive ready are faring much better than those who are not arriving ready,” said Ms. Sprague.

In addition, the strategic plan cites research showing that there are effects past third-grade. The plan says, “Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are significantly less likely to recover and reach college readiness by the time they finish high school, further limiting the opportunities that are available to them for careers and life beyond college. It is an issue of social justice and it begins well before kindergarten for the children who attend JEH.”

The team preparing the strategic plan identified seven factors that contribute to the disparities in kindergarten readiness. “Our root-cause analysis point to many factors that contribute to this inequity in learning opportunities,” says the strategic plan. They include:

● “Children whose families struggle with economic hardships and the associated risk factors

● Children whose home language is not standard English (as the written form of the language reflects)

● Children who have experienced trauma, the effects of which limit their readiness to learn

● Lack of cultural relevance in curricular materials (windows and mirrors)

● Lack of diversity amongst staff and learning leaders who don’t look like the children they serve

● Need for increased cultural competence of staff

● Tendency to unknowingly hold low expectations for students.”

Ms. Sprague said this data shows “an urgent need for a strategic plan to improve student outcomes.”

The Strategic Plan and the Goals

“Our community has engaged in a rigorous process of strategic planning to guide our program development,” said Ms. Sprague. She said they obtained feedback from JEH teachers and staff, families, and community organizations. Through this process, the team identified six goals and more than 40 strategies to improve the JEH Center’s ability to meet student needs and improve students’ outcomes. The goals are:

“1. Ensure JEH Center is well organized for continuous improvement.

2. Create a culture in which teaching and learning is driven by diversity, equity, and inclusion.

3. Create a climate in which students’ social-emotional developmental needs are addressed and supported.

4. Ensure that all children are individually prepared for kindergarten.

5. Strengthen family and community partnerships to support learning opportunities.

6. Align resources with goals to ensure student success.”

The strategic plan summarizes research supporting each goal, identifies seven or eight strategies to achieve each goal, and sets measures of success for each goal.

For example, for Goal 1, which is to ensure the JEH Center is well organized for continuous improvement, the strategic plan cites research showing that there are five essential elements for school success, three of which apply to pre-K centers: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, and involved families. An extensive study conducted of the Chicago Public School system shows that schools that are at or above the benchmark on three of the essentials are 10 times more likely to improve than schools that are below the benchmark. 

Ms. Sprague highlighted three of the seven strategies to meet this goal, which are to build and maintain strong and effective leadership systems, intentionally build teams to improve staff-to-staff trust, and create systems to support collaboration, including common planning time, common projects across programs, curricular unit study.

Ms. Sprague said the JEH Center was rated “partially organized for improvement” on the SY’18 5Essentials Survey, which is administered by the Illinois State Board of Education. One measure of success is that the JEH Center will be rated “well organized” on the SY’22 5Essentials Survey.  

For Goal 2, which is to create a culture in which teaching and learning is driven by diversity, equity and excellence, the strategic plan cites research that learning gaps grow because schools do not teach Black and Latino students to be independent learners, and schools underestimate what disadvantaged students are intellectually capable of doing. In addition, the strategic plan acknowledges, “If young people are exposed to images of African American academic achievement in their early years, they won’t have to define school achievement as something for Whites only.”

Two of the strategies highlighted to achieve goal number 2 are “prioritize hiring teachers and other employees of color,” and “consciously work to present counter-narratives to the historically white dominated narratives of academic professional and leadership success.”

The measures of success include improved performance on the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and improved ISEL kindergarten data disaggregated by race/ethnicity.

For Goal 4, which is to ensure that all children are individually prepared for kindergarten, Ms. Sprague highlighted three of seven strategies in the plan:

“Develop a culture of data driven instruction and high expectations for every student

Support staff through additional training in foundations of early literacy and early numeracy instruction through purposeful play and intentionally curated play activities

Complete curricular study of The Creative Curriculum project-based learning units …”

Ms. Sprague emphasized, “Just because I say we are going to have a focus on pre-academic and making sure our students are arriving kindergarten ready, we’re going to do that in play and curative play activities because we know that’s how our students learn best. If they just think they’re having fun, that’s how they’re going to learn.”

For measures of success, Ms. Sprague said the target is to increase from a three-year average of 37% being kindergarten ready to 50% being kindergarten ready in SY’20, 65% being kindergarten ready in SY’21, and 74% being kindergarten ready in SY’22.

Board Comments

Board Vice-President Anya Tanyavutti said, “There’s so much research, and I’ve talked a lot about Richard Rothstein’s book about the Black/White achievement gaps. He highlights significantly the role of early childhood starting from birth and the role that that plays in addressing the gaps in opportunity to achieve.”

She asked how the District is using its 0-3 programs to close the opportunity gap. She also noted that opportunities may not always be accessible to some families because of social or economic barriers in the community. She asked what the District is doing to remove barriers and engage parents.

Ms. Sprague responded that the Early Head Start program at the JEH Center offers a “very enriched program for students and provides them a lot of opportunities that parents may not be able to provide at home.” They also have a lending library that sends books home with students in the 0-3 program so children have books at home. “We are going to be doing more of that,” she said.

In terms of helping parents overall, Ms. Sprague said the District has Family Support Advocates at the Family Center and Family Engagement Specialists who are in regular contact with families, trying to make sure they provide supports for them, including through the Home Visiting program.

She said they are continuously inviting families to many types of events at the JEH Center, at which the District provides programing around social and emotional learning, and explains the importance of talking, reading, and singing to children to help develop early language development. She added they encourage parents to tell other parents to come to events at the Center.

She added that the District partnered with the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative to develop a Parent Activity Guide, and the center offers workshops for parents on different sections of the guide.

Ms. Tanyavutti suggested that the District have “a targeted outreach for the population that we know may be prime to having an opportunity gap in District 65 and have a thoughtful process of engaging those families early.” She also suggested that the District inform parents about “the opportunity gap and how critical it is to access and pursue opportunities early on in order to address a social ill in our institution that we’re trying to address.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “We know the research is really clear on early childhood and how we have this narrow window of time to really make an impact in the way they develop. …

“It’s really important that we try to keep our eye on the prize in making sure that  child development is front and center in a holistic way, and we will see dividends in regard to test scores and all that other stuff we really care about.”

Board member Candance Chow said the plan is “very thorough and very complete” and that she appreciated that the staff had done a root cause analysis. She cautioned, though, “We may be trying to do too much and then lose the impact we need.” She noted that there were about 42 strategies identified, and that Ms. Sprague highlighted about three for each goal. “These are all good,” she said, “but which of those good things are the biggest priorities to get to the root causes?”

Ms. Chow also asked what does the Board need to do to promote implementation of the plan.

Ms. Sprague said many of the strategies fit together. She added, “The real foundational goal is number one because we need to be organized for continuous improvement if we are going to do any of this work. If we can get goal number one right, the rest will fall into place.”

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “This is really inspiring. You almost started explaining how learning in your school is play and you put a completely professional front on childhood education. … The goals are all people driven. The goals are all aggressive.”

Board President Suni Kartha said the plan is impressive. She suggested they also break out the kindergarten ready data by IEP status, and that they continue to collaborate with early childhood providers.

Ms. Kartha added, “Play-based curriculum is what is recommended by early childhood experts.” She said she appreciated that Ms. Sprague made the point at the beginning of her presentation that “play is the work of children … and how kids learn.”

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...