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In an interview with the RoundTable on July 1, Dr. Devon Horton, School District 65’s new Superintendent, outlined a Miracles framework that he plans to implement this coming school year at the District. He said the District does not currently have a strategic plan, its five-year strategic plan ended last month, and he wants to start out with a “cohesive approach to improving the District.”

 Dr. Horton said he designed the Miracles framework while he was Deputy Superintendent of Achievement at East St. Louis.  “The Miracles framework,” he said, “is basically a district improvement plan regardless of the condition of the district, whether it’s a high-performing, mid- or a district that may be struggling that needs major transformation. And I think every district can actually benefit from some form of transformation.

”This framework allows us to walk through it strategically with goals that we set in each respective area. And then also make it very personable and create a design that is unique for Evanston District 65.”

Each letter in word Miracles stands for a tenet in the plan:

M – Motion towards equity

I – Improved Instructional Core

R – Relevant and Rigorous Course of Study

A – Attracting and Retaining High Quality Staff

C – Commitment to Accountability

L – Learning Environments That Support Students

E – Establish Expected Targets

S – Sound Fiscal Stewardship

Dr. Horton said he and his team in East St. Louis received an Award of Excellence by the Illinois State Board of Education in October 2017 for “our transformation work in East St. Louis, and what led that work for us was this Miracles framework.”

The results cited at the time included that the four-year graduation rate at East St. Louis Senior High increased from 63% in 2012 to 73% in 2016. In addition, between 2015 and 2017, the percentage of students who met national norms on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test increased from 7.5% to 18.3% in math. In reading the increase was from 12.9% to 24.1%.

The RoundTable asked Dr. Horton if the Miracles framework being planned for District 65 included the 5Essentials for school success identified by researchers at the Consortium for Chicago School Research, and if it included the seven priorities that administrators adopted for the District in June 2019.

A 20-year study found that schools that measured strong in at least three of the five essentials – ambitious instruction, effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, and a supportive environment – were 10 times more likely to improve student achievement in reading and math than schools weak in three or more of the essentials. The District’s five-year Strategic Plan that just ended was built around the 5Essentials.

The Strategic Plan contained five goals to improve high-quality teaching and learning, to build a thriving workforce, to enhance family and community engagement, to provide a safe and supportive school climate, and to maintain financial sustainability. The plan laid out four to six strategies to achieve each goal.

The memo that announced the seven priorities for District 65 last year said they were adopted “to prioritize our work and narrow our focus in order to increase our impact on academic outcomes for Black and Latinx students.”

Dr. Horton said the 5Essentials are woven into the Miracles framework and that the seven priorities are embedded in the framework.

Motion Towards Equity

“When we speak about equity, a lot of times we go right into the gist of how students are being supported in school and how they’re performing academically,” said Dr. Horton, adding, “There’s so many other levels.” He mentioned five things he planned to focus on at District 65.

“Number one is physical integration,” said Dr. Horton. “Do we have our students in the right schools at the right time? And are they supported?”

He gave special education, which has many unique programs and a number of self-contained classrooms, as one example. “Do we have students that live across the street from a school, but then that school doesn’t have the program that family needs for the child? And do they have to get bused across the City?”

Another example is an English language learner (ELL) who is in a dual-language program. He questioned, can they go to the school in their neighborhood, or does the District only offer the dual-language program at certain campuses? He said dual-language programs are only offered at certain campuses.

“So right now, when we talk about physical integration for equity, we can’t possibly think that we’re going to teach and reach all students when we don’t have them physically placed properly.”

“Another challenge,” he said, “and this has been an eyesore in the community for a while, is that we have a Fifth Ward where the bulk or our African American students live, if I’m not mistaken. And we have a pretty high percentage of minority students who live in this Ward, but there’s no school.”

Foster School, which was located in the Fifth Ward, was converted from a neighborhood school to a magnet school as part of the District’s desegregation plan in 1967, and it was closed altogether in 1979.

Dr. Horton said one of the goals is to “make sure we build a viable student assignment plan. And a student assignment plan entails not just building a school in the Fifth Ward, but targeting the word that everyone’s afraid of, ‘redistricting,’ and potentially, the  placement of special programs at all of our campuses. That is something that we will work towards. And that is not something that you get to overnight. There has to be a plan in place before you can take any of this action.

“The second level of that motion towards equity is actually the social emotional engagement. When we begin to talk about Beyond Diversity training, SEED training, social trauma training, training for our adults, secondary training, those things, all of that, must be put in place when you get students physically placed in the right schools.

“And I will just say I’m happy to come into a District where that is the norm. That is the expectation that all staff and families are open to being trained and also learning more about themselves, as well as other races. That is a beautiful part about Evanston that I’ve discovered, and that really attracted me to this community.

“And of course, there’s more work to do, but just to have a foundation, that’s huge.”

The third prong of equity is opportunities to learn. “We want to make sure that we can set all of our students up for success, that they can learn to advocate for themselves. They have to learn that if they’re not being treated fairly, that they speak up. We have to teach our students across the board that it is okay to let your adults know that you’re not okay with how you’re being treated, or how you’re not being exposed to a certain curriculum, that is important, and families as well.”

The fourth prong of equity is instructional excellence. “This is where we get beat over the head when we talk about the achievement gap.” He said the achievement gap will continue to exist if the first three prongs are not addressed, so it is important that instructional excellence be within a framework.

 He said that he, the principals, and the assistant principals must be instructional leaders, and they “just can’t leave and say that our teachers are responsible. Yes, they are the most important elements of this work in closing the achievement gap. But we have to support them as administrators. And so the instructional excellent doesn’t exist, if we don’t have a culture of differentiating learning, if we don’t have a culture of writing. Keeping our resources closest to the classroom is going to have the greatest impact for students.”

The fifth prong is to engage and inspire learners. “Students are not going to be engaged and inspired if we don’t put them in position in a right school physically, if we don’t support them socially, if we don’t teach them and support them to be advocates for their own learning, and if we don’t expose them to high-yielding instruction, and the right curriculum.”

He said he thought Evanston was a little bit ahead of the rest of the nation on these issues.

Improved Instructional Core

Dr. Horton said it was essential to make sure that students have “access to grade level, Common Core State Standards, and aligned tasks for tier one instruction that are rigorous and improve learning for all students, specifically, our black and Latinx students.”

This is word-for-word the first priority of the seven priorities adopted by administrators in June of 2019.

One aspect of this tenet, Dr. Horton said, is providing targeted professional learning. “Do we have a professional learning culture, where we all reflect from myself all the way through to the classroom that we know we don’t know everything, and that we’re open to learning? And being open is not the solution by itself. Once we’re open to learning, do we have the right structure and the right framework to provide professional learning for the adults who are leading these schools in these classrooms? So that is the priority.”

Another aspect is instructional feedback. “When we talk about reflection, how often are we giving feedback to our teachers that is productive and giving them feedback that allows them to grow. He said the teacher appraisal system should be used as a tool to improve instruction and not to intimidate or make teachers feel uncomfortable. “It’s about improving their practice.”

Dr. Horton added that students must be prepared to meet rigorous college and career ready standards. “It’s no longer just college standards. It’s also career-ready. We know that in this world right now, there are a lot of successful people that don’t have to go to college, and they do other things. So we have to prepare our students for both options. And that is a priority of ours.”

Relevant and Rigorous Course of Study

 Dr. Horton said another tenet is whether there is a relevant and rigorous course of study, which includes goals and preparation for college and careers.

He said, African American history, including pre-slavery, Latinx history, and LGBTQ history should be embedded in the curriculum. 

He added that it was important to have “interim assessments” that could be administered frequently – within short two-week cycles – so teachers can see what students have mastered, where they are struggling, and then modify their lessons, if necessary, to address the learning needs of their students.

He added, “It is important that we don’t just look at MAP, there have to be other assessments, benchmark assessments” that the District can use.

Dr. Horton said there also needs to be professional development. He asked, “Are we training all teachers across the board, and are we monitoring and providing valuable feedback to help teachers who may not be teaching a special education class, but have students who have IEPs? Do we give them strategies strategically to help them reach those students? I would challenge that. Same thing for our ELL population. Do we have those resources?

“And so that is a goal, and the team has been working on this prior to me joining, but it has really accelerated knowing that we have to get there quicker, so that we can really treat this learning piece for our students as an urgent matter.”

Attracting and Retaining High Quality Staff

 “When we look at how diverse our teaching pipeline is, we are not meeting the mark,” said Dr. Horton. “Have we been intentional about how we’re hiring our staff? And if not, why haven’t we?”

One goal of the District’s five-year strategic plan was to increase diversity of the staff.

Dr. Horton outlined one way he plans to attract new teachers. He said the District is in the process of applying for a grant in partnership with Northwestern University and National Louis University for funding to build an internal teacher residency.

Under the residency program, Dr. Horton said, the District will identify diverse candidates that preferably have Evanston connections, and accept them in the program. The residents will spend four days a week working in one of two of the District’s schools, where they will learn from the best teachers at those schools. “And we will be very specific in working to teach them the Evanston way.

 “I’ve built two teacher residences to date, one in East St. Louis, and a second one in Louisville, Kentucky,” Dr. Horton said. “The one here will be even more powerful.”

Another program, called an aspiring leaders’ pipeline, will help retain staff, he said.  “We don’t want to continue to have to go outside of our school district to find our next principals and our best leaders. While we’ve been fortunate to identify some really strong ones, we owe it to our community, and to the school district that we invest in our current slate of leaders and build and develop them.”

Commitment to Accountability

“We understand that currently there are systems that were built and intentionally or unintentionally are not best for all students. So my responsibility and my team’s responsibility, along with our School Board, is to take those systems, assess them, reevaluate, redesign and put systems in place that will work for all students. And that takes time. And not I’m not saying five years, but that takes some really intentional work and some courageous conversations.”

He said, “I think the Algebra Project was one that the District took on a couple years ago.”

He added that when the District is making decisions about the systems in the District, the decisions should not be made based on “what we feel,” but based on “what the research is saying, and what we’re seeing.”

Learning Environments That Support Students

“Right out of the gate I’m going to say the District has been hot and doing really well around pushing restorative practices,” said Dr. Horton. But he added, “There are other components of this culture that we must build. We must begin to look at how we’re designing bullying prevention programming. We also must look at our secondary trauma or racialized trauma support for our students.”

He said it is important to support staff build relationships in the schools, and it is important to have “systems to support our students, we must be preventive, and not reactive.

“I will say the District has been off to a great start prior to me joining, and I would love to enhance that work.”

Establish Expected Targets

“We have to establish expected targets driven by results. Data, data, data. How do we use it? Are we capturing the right data? Are we making decisions that are grounded in the use of our data?

“And this is something that we must continue to put in the hands of all of our staff as they are leading and moving the work in our schools, from surveys to using a data platform that we would love to share with the community of Evanston once we get it off the ground.

“We’re working with this company called Domo, where we can actually take all of our data and integrate it and our RAD [Research, Accountability, and Data] department is excited to be leading that. So be on the lookout for more information on how we’re using and integrating data across multiple, multiple spectrums.”

Sound Fiscal Stewardship

He said Evanston has always been respected for sound fiscal stewardship.

But he asked, “Are we putting our dollars where we speak about equity, LGBTQ, curriculum decisions? Are we putting our dollars in the right place when we say we want these things to happen? Our dollars needs to reflect that, on how we spend.

Standardized Tests

The RoundTable asked Dr. Horton if the District would use standardized tests to measure the progress in improving student achievement and success.

He replied, “Well, I would say for this upcoming school year with us being in a very unique situation – like every school district in the country – I wouldn’t say the standardized assessment is where we want to go as a District.” He added, “Any assessments that we do use, they will only be used to measure and not even measure, but to tell us where our students are performing, where they are meeting the mark or where they’re missing it. That’s really the high priority for our assessment structure. So we’re in the process of adopting an assessment platform. We will be working on the professional learning that needs to take place with this.

“Whether students are remote or physically in school, we need to assess in a cycle of every two weeks, where they are. That’s important. Our teachers use that data pretty well.”

When asked if he would use standardized tests if this was a normal school year, Dr. Horton said, “There’s a place for it no matter how we spin it or look at that. Our students are still going to have to be compared to some degree when you think about college or career opportunities.

“And it’s always a great tool for us to be able to measure how our students are measuring up or comparing to other students nationally. … And we talked about college readiness, career readiness. Those standards are aligned to say that if students are mastering these standards, they are more than likely to do really well.

“There’s research that says both sides of this, there’s research that says the greatest indicator of how a student is going to perform in college is actually their grades. So I don’t want us to cut short opportunities for any of our students by taking that away.”

Going Forward

Dr. Horton said the team at District 65 is currently “talking away” about the Miracles framework now, and he will make the document public by the end of July or early August.

When asked if he planned to implement the strategies that are in the framework for the upcoming school year, Dr. Horton said, “There’s some pieces that will have to be implemented, regardless of whether there was a pandemic or not, and there are other components of this that we that we can delay, depending on how we return to the actual campus.”

He added, that each one of the tenets in the Miracles framework “has goals, smart goals set at the end of each one that we can use, and the seven priorities that the team worked on last year is actually embedded into this framework. So to answer that, there’s not much in this framework that can be delayed regardless of the state that we’re in.”

He said if schools were physically open and there were no pandemic, the District could be more assertive in implementing the framework, “but the bulk of this is just best practice on how we lead the work for Evanston 65.”


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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...