Jamilla Pitts, Program Leader for the African Centered Curriculum (ACC) program at Oakton Elementary School, provided the District 65 School Board with a summary of the program on May 6. The Board was also provided with an update on the program in a memo prepared by Dr. Pitts; Deborah Osher, Assistant Principal of Oakton; Michael Allen, Principal of Oakton; and Stacy Beardsely, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.

 The ACC program was approved by the School Board in June 2006. Ten years later, an ACC team selected an African centered pedagogical framework developed by Peter C. Murrell, Jr. to strengthen and enhance the program design and delivery.

Some Background on the Program

“This framework shifts the focus from the curriculum content (what is taught) to the instructional approach (how students are taught),” says the memo. “Murrell asserts that accomplished teachers of African American children have a belief system that views teaching and learning as a joint activity.

“The lion’s share of the curriculum is prescribed by the District,” but the curriculum does include African centered concepts as part of the curriculum, which is delivered primarily in the morning routine.

“While the ACC teachers plan with State and District standards as instructional goals, the content and materials often include figures and events from the history of people of African descent and the African Diaspora,” says the memo.

Dr. Pitts summarized the demographics of students who have enrolled in the ACC program during the last nine years. In the 2018 school year, she said, a total of 92 students were enrolled in the program, for an average class size of 15.3 students per class.

Of the students enrolled, 79% were Black, 11% Hispanic, and 7% White. A large percentage of the students come from lower-income households. In 2018, 79% qualified for free- or reduced-fee lunch status, and 25% were homeless within the definition of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Some Successes in Achievement

“Even though we face lots of different challenges in the program, we do have some bright lights or moments of success we’d like to celebrate,” said Dr. Pitts. The memo presented data showing the percent of ACC students scoring above the 60th percentile on the Winter 2018 MAP test. 

Overall, 24 of the 61 ACC students in second through fifth grades, or 39%, scored above the 60th percentile in math. In reading, 19 out of the 46 ACC students in third through fifth grade, or 41%, scored at or above the 60th percentile in reading. 

Scoring above the 60th percentile at these grade levels indicates a student is on track to being college ready at the end of high school, said Dr. Pitts. 

Dr. Pitts told the RoundTable “the numbers are small so we are careful not to draw conclusions. We intended to show that there are students in the program who are doing well.”

Dr. Pitts also presented data showing that the percentile rank of eight students – who had each participated in the program for three or four years – grew by more than 15 percentile points in reading or math in 9, 12 or 24 months. Four of those students grew by more than 30 percentile points. 

“Some of the children have multiple and complex situations, so we’re really excited that their participation in the program is getting this kind of growth,” said Dr. Pitts.

The memo contained three recommendations to strengthen and enhance the program: enhance recruitment of students; stabilize the flow of enrollment, such as by fast tracking enrollment by siblings and establishing reasonable parameters for in-District transfers; and provide professional learning and curriculum development regarding the African-centered pedagogy.

Ms. Pitts said the District has already been working on each of these areas.

Administrator and Board Comments

Dr. Allen said, “There are a lot of positive aspects that I witnessed in my first eight months on the job at Oakton. I’m very excited about the direction we’re going. … We’re trying to mobilize and prepare for what’s coming next and I’ve been excited about recruitment efforts and parents reaching out.”

Dr. Osher said when people visit the ACC classrooms they see a positive vibe. “It is that sense of community, and it’s a sense of that cooperative learning. We work as a group, and if one student isn’t succeeding, then all don’t succeed.”

Referring to the high percentage of McKinney-Vento students, Dr. Osher said, there is a higher need for additional resources, because many of those kids come in – not that other schools do not have it as well – but with high trauma needs, and it’s compounded also in the classrooms at a higher level. Those needs need to be addressed before actual learning can take place. Our teachers do a really good job with that. A classroom might only have 14 kids, but when you have high needs, that 14 might feel like 30.”

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti and Board member Sergio Hernandez asked if some of the things learned in the ACC program could be integrated into the District’s curriculum at other schools.

Dr. Pitts said they were celebrating certain results, but added, “I don’t want to draw correlations that are not necessarily supported by some parameters. … We’re still in the process of learning.”

She added that they are still “teasing out” what is different about the ACC program “that is contributing to success.” She said, though, “One of the things we have a lot of confidence about” is the benefit of “teachers working together and looking at student groups over time.” She said this practice is supported by research, and administrators are considering how to incorporate information about this practice into professional learning at other schools.

Dr. Allen added that teachers in the ACC program make a larger commitment than other teachers. “They’re giving up planning time not only to meet for vertical alignment, but they’re actually going into each other’s classrooms and it’s part of an unconscious commitment.”

Board President Suni Kartha said, “Oakton deserves all the accolades that it’s getting and deserves to have a better reputation within our District, and so I’m glad to see that maybe it’s starting to get the recognition that it’s due.”

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...