A group of King Arts school parents held a press conference on May 20 to voice concerns and to demand that the District implement four strategies to address the gap. RoundTable photo

 A group of parents whose children attend King Arts school held a press conference outside the Joseph E. Hill Administration building on May 20 to voice concerns about “the persistent achievement and opportunity gap between Black, Brown and White students” and to demand that the District implement four strategies to address the gap.

Abdel Shakur, a father of a second grader at King Arts and co-founder of Black Parents at King Arts, delivered the message, while Charlotte Kovacs and Philina King, co-presidents of the PTA at King Arts, and Ellen Lonnquist, a representative of ONE King Arts, stood by his side. About 35 people were present.

Superintendent Paul Goren, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Andalib Khelghati, King Arts Principal Jeffrey Brown and several other administrators were there to listen.

Mr. Shakur said, “In January, our principal showed us some test score data that showed some very troubling trends in terms of academic outcomes for Black students versus White students at our school.”

Mr. Shakur said 0% of the Black students in four different grade levels at King Arts met college readiness benchmarks on the Winter Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test given in January, while at least 50% to 60% of White students scored at or above those benchmarks.

“For us that was very troubling, not because we are all about tests. We feel like that shows something that’s going on in our school, in our community that needs to change, and it needs to change now.”

The benchmark scores District 65 used to measure college readiness on the Winter MAP tests were aligned, depending on grade level, between the 60th and 69th percentiles for reading and between the 68th and 77th percentiles for math.

Mr. Shakur said parents at King Arts met with teachers and administrators about the need for a “radical change that we all know that we need to have. Instead of a real radical plan of change, we kind of get some things shifted around. … What we’re saying is that is not enough.”

Mr. Shakur said the parent groups have four demands:

• First, change the hiring process and include a focus on racial equity in all the job descriptions. In addition, “Members of the community should be involved in the hiring committees of District 65 leadership.”

• Second, update performance reviews to include clear, racial equity benchmarks. The Superintendent, administrators, and teachers should be evaluated on how well they tackled the opportunity gap. “We’re not saying this is going to be solved overnight,” he said, but, “We need accountability.”

• Third, “At King Arts, we want to implement an African Centered Curriculum with a literacy and an arts focus. … A curriculum that’s transformative for our children’s needs to not only teach them about themselves, but also be taught in a way that affirms them and their lives and the cultures they come from. This type of curriculum is affirmational for all children.”

• Fourth, the District needs to boost professional development with an equity focus and increase staffing resources at King Arts.

Mr. Shakur added, “We need to meaningfully involve parents of color to shape the culture of our schools.”

He said he was looking forward to a prompt response from the District on the demands, saying, “We want to partner.” He added, though, “We need this to happen right now.”

A few hours later at the School Board’s May 20 meeting, Mr. Shakur repeated the demands. Three King Arts parents also urged the Board to address issues raised by Mr. Shakur.

At the Board’s meeting, District administrators presented a quarterly report on the progress being made in implementing the District’s five-year strategic plan that was adopted in March 2015. Some of the strategies of the strategic plan dovetail with the demands made by Mr. Shakur, including hiring a diverse workforce, making the schools a welcoming place, increasing parental involvement, implementing a culturally responsive curriculum and providing a rigorous curriculum.

One week before the strategic plan was adopted in 2015, Dr. Goren summarized data concerning the achievement gaps and said it was a “clarion call” to educators and the community to get behind the schools and make progress toward closing the gap. One overall goal of the many strategies identified in the strategic plan is to decrease achievement gaps between Black, Brown and White students.

Data shows that wide achievement gaps have persisted at District 65 for more than 50 years. The RoundTable has been reporting on the achievement for more than 20 years, as well the numerous efforts to address it.

After the progress report on the strategic plan, Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said this was the second press conference called by parents in two years to raise issues about Black student achievement. She said the results on the Winter MAP test show, “Our Black students are not having the same experience and we’re not meeting their learning aptitudes.”

She added, “I don’t feel we’ve gotten, as of yet, a specific plan that details what we are deploying or rolling back on, what direction, what is our path to go forward to address those urgent needs.”

Administrators met with King Arts parents in a town hall meeting at the school on March 19, and administrators summarized many things the District is doing to try to increase achievement of Black students. King Arts parents said what the District is doing is not working.

In a follow-up letter, Dr. Brown listed seven things the District would be doing for the balance of the school year to address Black student achievement, and he listed 10 strategies for the upcoming school year. Administrators and King Arts parents also met on April 12 and May 2, and administrators summarized plans.

Mr. Shakur’s remarks, however, make clear that the three parent organizations at King Arts do not feel the District is making the radical changes needed and not acting with urgency.

At the Board meeting Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said the District provided increased coaching supports for teachers at King Arts during the spring, and administrators are now evaluating whether the coaching had a positive impact. The school has identified increasing social and emotional learning at the school, and administrators are taking steps to ensure that will be done effectively, she said.

“We are working with King Arts staff on a summer program that focuses on supporting students in younger grades,” Dr. Beardsley said. “There are 42 registered for that six-week program that will mirror some of our other summer programs.

“Curricularly, what we’ve really been looking at is what supports do we need to put in place for individuals at each grade level to allow the curriculum to have the full impact on success for those students.

“We have not initially considered making the shift to ACC because we can see that with the curriculum program we have, we can see it working across a variety of schools and across a variety of demographics so we’re trying to figure out what are the right supports that we need to put in place at King Arts. We want to learn from the coaching work that we did this spring as well as the coaching work we did throughout the year at King Arts to see what is the right solution around curriculum and instructional support for the next year.”

Dr. Beardsley said administrators are working on a report on how to address the issues at King Arts and it will be presented to the King Arts community on May 29. Some of the strategies have already been shared with King Arts parents, she said.

LaTarsha Green, the District’s Executive Director of Black Student Success, said she did a “collegial calibration” visit of King Arts. “So with a group of seven of us, we engaged in classroom observations, interviews with staff, and then just building operations in order to identify, obviously, some kudos for things that are going well, but some quick wins for the short term, intermediate term for planning and some for long-term planning.”

She said they wanted to take a look at the school with “some informed fresh eyes.

“We identified over seven particular focus areas. From those seven focus areas, we want to see the administration to get real granular with their School Improvement Team about which one of those seven could be lifted and followed all the way through.

“In order to do something well with implementation, you need to kind of narrow that focus and be very concrete with what you’re looking to see.”

Dr. Goren said, “And so they can actually work on these plans now, and not wait until late summer or next fall. There is the urgency of now.”

“There’s the urgency of now,” said Dr. Green. But then there is the reality of phasing in and getting buy-in of stakeholders and participants. It is important the school feel “empowered in its own improvement.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said it was “refreshing in some ways to hear about the thoughtful way of engaging with folks in thinking about systems change.” At the same time, she said, the Winter MAP results came out in January, and “Folks feel like their children are not being paid attention to.”

She questioned why the ACC program was not being considered because the District’s curriculum did not seem to be successful for Black students in other schools.

Dr. Beardsley said, “The ACC is a single-strand model, and we need to strengthen and understand the model.” She added that the District has committed to implement culturally responsive teaching practices across the District. She said, “There is a strong intersection between some of the elements of ACC work and culturally responsive teaching.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “I 100% agree with the assessment that we can look at our data and say there are things we are doing in our District that are not working for Black students.” She added, though, that administrators are trying to work in multiple lanes. “We’re trying to strengthen the ACC program and trying to implement a culturally responsive pedagogy.”

On the urgency, Dr. Goren said, “Ultimately, I own it. I respect the voices of the community members as I heard this afternoon.”

He said, though, “I have deployed a lot of my senior resources around the table to work closely with Jeff Brown [the Principal at King Arts] and to work closely with Estelle Edens [Assistant Principal at King Arts], and to support them, and how do we move from where the school is at to where we need to be. We’ve also been doing some work with some teachers there as well.

“There’s been some behind-the-scenes processes that perhaps haven’t shown, or we have not shown to the degree to which we’ve been doubling down in our work at King Arts and tripling down in our work at King Arts and we’ll continue to do that. And I appreciate your comment on systems change process. When we change things at the school we want them to stay, so that kids can perform better, can do better.

“We’re trying to build a set of strategies in collaboration with the families that will stick at the school.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said the vision and plan needs to be clear. She said she is not clear on “what is the systemic challenge that we have identified?

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “The parents are telling us exactly what their children need. … We need to trust children’s’ parents as their first teachers. … I know we have these grander visions around racial equity but at the core of it is that we really have to acknowledge … these injustices and this educational miscarriage, not just here in this District, but across the country, particularly for marginalized Black and Brown communities.”

Referring to the expansion of the Two Way Immersion program, he said, “I can see systems change is possible, we’re trying. … We really need to be able to communicate with parents and be responsive to their needs. … This is something that we as a District really need to work on.”

Board member Joey Hailpern said he echoed what Ms. Tanyavutti and Mr. Hernandez said. He added that the 5Essentials Survey data show that only 59% of staff feel like their school leaders communicate clearly with them, and the percentage is 41% for District leadership. He said the quarterly reports on the strategic plan needed to be clearer. He asked how the District is ensuring that strategies are being implemented effectively.

Dr. Goren said, “The grade-level expectations are at the highest levels for all kids, especially kids of color, especially kids who have been marginalized.” He added that a lot of good things are going on, mentioning STEM learning in the schools, and the YEA festival which took place the prior weekend.

He added that the District may be doing too much. “And if that’s the case, where do we go with priorities. Perhaps we need to do less, and we need to do less better.”

Board member Lindsay Cohen said, “We’ve heard that maybe we’re doing too much before, been hearing it for two years now.” She said, “It’s challenging to get a [strategic plan] report like this which just lists all the great work that’s been done, but there’s a lot of stuff being done and not a lot of progress being made and not a lot of outcomes.” She said she would prefer to see a report that showed progress toward a goal than a list of things being done. She thought the Board should discuss the format of the report to make it more illuminating for the Board and the community.

Dr. Goren said the quarterly report covers the goals in the five-year strategic plan, which he said is built around the 5Essentials for successful schools. He said, “If we are successful in three of those five areas, we will raise student achievement – especially high quality teaching and learning, a thriving workforce, and safe and supporting school environment. If we have parent involvement, excellent teachers and excellent principals, and really the most rigorous curriculum we can offer, the research has shown we can move forward. That’s the spirit of this.” 

When asked, Board President Suni Kartha said the Board would have a conversation about doing less in a meeting in early June. Dr. Goren said he will come to the Board with a proposal on June 10 identifying what his team thinks the District’s top priorities should be for the next school year, and then after getting more input from the Board and the community, come back with a master plan for next school year.

On May 21, Dr. Goren sent a letter to King Arts staff and families. He acknowledged that “The concerns of King Arts families are real and their demand for action is warranted,” and “[a]t the end of the day, we all want the same thing – significantly better outcomes for students of color and the overall educational experience that they deserve.”

He said his administration has used information about the gaps in achievement by race in Evanston to create “a robust equity agenda” and “to create a specific actionable plan to address student achievement in the short, medium, and long term.” He said, “We will also consider the demands presented yesterday and how they intersect with the plan and work already underway across the District. We are committed to continued collaboration with King Arts educators and families to ensure the necessary follow-through and progress monitoring.

“We are working fast to address equitable outcomes for students of color at King Arts and for students across the District. I recognize that for families whose children are not receiving the opportunities needed to reach their maximum potential, that this isn’t fast enough. While I am confident in the actions underway, we must hold ourselves accountable, myself included, to ensure meaningful and lasting change for the children of this community. We continue to appreciate the push from families who are advocating on behalf of children.”

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...