This chart shows the percentage of white, Hispanic, and black students who met or exceeded expectations in ELA on the PARCC exam for the years 2015 through 2018, and the IAR in 2019. Meeting expectations equates to being on track to college readiness.

At the District 65 School Board meeting on May 18, District 65 administrators provided the Board with a memo and short oral presentations on the progress made in implementing the District’s seven priorities for the 2019-20 school year. The priorities were adopted in June 2019. The memo, signed onto by the top 11 administrators in the District, says the priorities were adopted “to prioritize our work and narrow our focus in order to increase our impact on academic outcomes for Black and LatinX students.

“The priorities are built on a deep commitment to educational equity and the learning that is being done to elevate our understanding of bias, racism, and white supremacy,” says the memo. “They build on this work in two ways; by putting our equity learning at the center of teaching and learning, and by applying it to creating new and better systems and structures to interrupt practices that perpetuate institutional racism.

  “This work is also built on our growing understanding of Zaretta Hammond’s practice areas for ‘Culturally Responsive Pedagogy’ and our desire to deepen these practices in our District.”

“The ultimate goal is to narrow … the opportunity/achievement gap for our students of color,” said Dr. Phil Ehrhardt, Co-Interim Superintendent.

Due to the pandemic, no assessments were given at the end of this school year, which would show if the District is accelerating black and Hispanic achievement and narrowing the opportunity/achievement gap. The report focused on steps taken by administrators and educators to implement strategies called for under each priority.

 Background to the Priorities

Administrators presented Ms. Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” and her conclusions to the School Board at their Jan. 28, 2019 meeting. At that meeting, Jamilla Pitts, Coordinator of Social Studies and the African American Curriculum program, and Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said the District was adopting Ms. Hammond’s model, and they presented a report on the work being done to implement a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in District 65.

“The Zaretta Hammond model emphasizes sustaining an intellectually and socially safe learning environment that builds students’ intellective capacity while centering a focus on accelerating learning and increasing independence,” said Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley in their report. “In short, we must create and maintain a safe space for learning and give students the intellectual tools of empowered learners. This is the model for culturally responsive pedagogy in District 65.”

In her book, Ms. Hammond emphasizes the need to develop higher-order thinking skills. “The chronic achievement gap in most American schools has created an epidemic of dependent learners unprepared to do the higher order thinking, creative problem solving and analytical reading and writing called for in the new Common Core State Standards,” she says. “Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brain power. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.”

The District’s achievement reports have reflected for many years that much lower percentages of black and Hispanic students are on track to college readiness than white students, and more are in the bottom quartile than white students.

 “There was a clear need to identify practices, strategies and resources that were perpetuating achievement and opportunity gaps while identifying and accelerating practices that are proven to advance learning and achievement of historically marginalized students, who in District 65 are historically children of color and second language learners,” says the January 2019 report.  

Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley say in that report, “Culturally responsive pedagogy seeks to facilitate critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity for all students while accelerating the learning for students who have been historically and systematically underserved.”

When the seven priorities were presented to the School Board on June 10, 2019, Dr. Beardsley said, the proposal was to ensure that black and Latinx students are given rigorous, grade-level instruction in the classroom, and that the rigorous instruction is not delayed while the children are provided interventions and supports. The interventions and supports must be in addition to and not in place of the rigorous, grade-level instruction.

The Seven Priorities

On May 18, 2020, administrators presented a memo updating the progress on implementing the seven priorities, and a short oral summary of what had been accomplished on each priority in the 2019-20 school year. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Governor’s order shutting down the schools for in-classroom instruction have obviously had an impact.

Priority #1: “Ensure access to grade-level, Common Core State Standards-aligned assignments for Tier 1 instruction that are rigorous and improve learning for black and Latinx students.”

One way in which the District plans to ensure this is being done is to conduct reviews of curricular materials to see where there are gaps and where changes need to be made that will lead “to improved learning outcomes for black and Latinx students.”

 In a discussion about this priority at a Board meeting on Dec. 6, 2019, Dr. Beardsley explained, “What we’re also looking at is the quality of that work being made accessible for all of our students in the classroom at a Tier I level and what supports and scaffolds are in place to ensure students are productively engaged in academic struggle to accelerate learning outcomes.

 “Do the materials provide the level of consistent rigor for all of our learners to ensure they are having that experience day in and day out and in our classrooms?”

In her update to the Board on May 18, Dr. Beardsley said, “This year the C&I [curriculum and instruction] team was committed to taking a deep look at curricular materials in reading and math, both English and Spanish, with the goal of determining where work needs to happen to adopt or adapt curricular materials to support rigorous standards aligned instruction in these particular content areas. We’re excited to reveal that despite the challenges that the move to remote learning presented, the team was able to complete three of the reviews: middle school math, middle school language and literacy, and K-5 literacy.

“In the case of middle school reading and math, the groups have identified curricular materials to pilot next year. In both cases, the standing committees in the discipline, which consists of educators, supports the curricular adoption with high levels of support. The recommendation will go to our curricular advisory committee later this month and ideally will be shared with you via memo next month. The math memo is currently for seventh and eighth grade.

“In regards to K-5 literacy, the team is recommending adapting our amplification of the materials, as well as looking for more synergy of learning once the full reading, writing and phonics resources are in place in K-2, as well as in 3-5. Those elements are in place next year.”

Dr. Beardsley also said the team is “evaluating all options with a lens for the variety of ways in which instruction may be delivered in the fall … We are very aware of the fact that next year may be a different … can have different elements to instruction. So as we are evaluating our materials for next year, we are paying attention to the ability to deliver those materials in an electronic platform, and we are excited about the fact that our middle school literacy option as well as math option are both built on very strong digital delivery platforms. So that also makes them strong candidates for pilot and rolling out.

“We will also consider our learning environment as we plan the training and implementation for these materials as well as other materials that we will be adopting in the upcoming year,” Dr. Beardsley added.

Romy DeCristofaro, Executive Director of Special Services, said, “We need to also make sure that the curricular materials being used with our students of disability are rigorous and aligned to grade-level standards, with appropriate modifications.

“We’ve identified the most frequently used specialized curriculum and starting in the fall we’ll follow a similar process shared by Stacy to create an outline for educators that ensures major cluster standards are prioritized when supplemental materials are used for our students with disabilities.”

The memo says that administrators also “conducted a literature review of a variety of computer-based assessments including MAP, STAR, Fastbridge and AimsWeb.” This work was delayed due to a shift to remote learning; and the current focus is to develop an assessment calendar for the 2020-21 school year that will support gathering reliable and actionable student achievement data (math and literacy) in an efficient and feasible manner regardless of the learning environment, to strengthen the formative assessments, to identify a social/emotional learning assessment, and to develop a plan for professional learning to implement the assessments.

 Priority #2: “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of cognitively rigorous and culturally responsive instructional practices.”

The stated rational for this strategy is to “build capacity of all educators to implement and monitor rigorous and culturally responsive instructional practices so that all students, especially black and Latinx students, will experience grade appropriate assignments and strong instruction to meet grade level standards.”

Dr. Green said a professional learning model was designed with the goal of building capacity in instructional leadership at the building level, and also to examine the components of the instructional core in an individualized way.

She said they were able to observe classrooms in five schools before the shutdown due to the pandemic. She said this was a critical step toward providing self-paced learning and supports, with common resources for schools to build their collective knowledge about how all students are experiencing instruction for college and career readiness. In addition, she said, the District team wants to get better in collecting evidence of promising practices that are accelerating the learning of black and Latinx students.

Priority #3: “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of restorative practices to create environments that are intellectually and socially safe for learning.”

The stated rationale of this strategy is that if school climate teams and staff will implement a restorative philosophy and practices in their classrooms and schools, “school cultures will improve, especially for black and Latinx students.”

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, shared a middle school teacher’s perspective, relating to this priority:  “A successful Restorative change that has occurred in the building is the shift in mindset from immediate punitive measures to hearing and seeing a child for his/her individuality and getting their side of the story. I can attest to the change in students by the way they react to situations that would have normally set them off-task for the rest of the day. Students that have had restorative conversations and participated in sharing circles are more verbal about what happened, talk about their role in the situation, and are able to calm themselves down to a point where they can continue through the rest of class.”

Dr. Khelghati said this approach would not have been possible without the professional learning and the implementation of restorative practices at the schools.

He identified some priorities for the next few years, which include: develop continued cycles of learning that connect adult learning to showcase our restorative practices, equity, social and emotional teaching; prioritize parent training opportunities and involvement around communication; grow peer mediation programs at all middle schools and also include circle facilitation; draw on the restorative practices framework to support the changes in schooling as a result of the pandemic, both virtually and in person.

Priority # 4: “Ask students and families directly about their goals and school experiences to inform ongoing strategy development, and adjust as appropriate.”

The purpose of this strategy is to develop and implement strategies that “center the voices of our students and parents/caregivers with exceptional focus on black and Latinx perspectives.”

Joaquin Stephenson, Director of Equity and Family/Community Engagement, said an equity survey that was planned for the spring had not been given due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As an alternative, he said, the District is partnering with Panerema to give an equity survey, which is research based. “This will give us a vetted and reliable tool to gather student voice (grades 5-8) and parent and caregiver voice within District 65,” he said.

He said that Panerema offers equity and inclusion surveys to help school districts gather student perception in areas such as diversity and cultural awareness.

Priority # 5: “Create structures and processes to support consistent and effective two-way communication with staff about District-level decisions and actions.”

The purpose of this priority is: “We believe that if we create systems to support department leaders to proactively identify specific opportunities to solicit and include two-way communication from staff about District decisions and actions, then our staff members will feel more valued by leadership and feel that their input is meaningful to the decision making.”

Kylie Klein, Director of Research, Accountability and Data, gave some examples on how this strategy was implemented this year, including the development of documents related to the roles and responsibilities of departments, and preparing guidance materials to support a rapid transition to remote learning.

Melissa Messenger, Director of Communications, added this strategy was used in shaping the hiring process of the new principals at King Arts and Haven Middle School.

Priority #6: “Foster a culture of collaboration and trust that authentically engages staff to increase student achievement for black and Latinx students.”

The rationale of this strategy is that “Centering race in professional practice and instruction, while allowing for self-reflection, will improve the educational experience for black and Latinx students.”

Beatrice Davis, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, said one thing the District is planning to do is to elevate racial equity, and foster collaborative trust to accelerate the outcomes for black and Latinx students

She said, “Moving forward, we’re going to continue to look for opportunities to embed this priority within other structures so that collaboration and trust continue to be a focus for all of our work.”

 Priority #7: “Engage in long-term financial planning to ensure we have the necessary funding for our priorities on the instructional core.”

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Operating and Financial Officer, said, “We are focused on doing the work required to ensure that our District continues to manage our financial resources with discipline and prudence … The Covid-19 pandemic has created a situation where the District revenues for the coming year are going to be challenged.”

On the revenue side, he said he is looking for opportunities to manage expiring investments in a way that can generate maximum returns while avoiding the loss of principal. On the expenditure side, he said, “We are aggressively monitoring all non-direct instructional expenses to reduce costs and achieve operational efficiency wherever possible.”

Mr. Obafemi and Kathy Zalewski, Business Manage, recently presented a budget update to the Board, with a plan to balance revenues and expenses for the next school year. Revenues for next year are now projected to be about $4.4 million lower than projected on Feb. 3.

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...