Members of the District 65 Board spent about an hour on Jan. 25 discussing ways to follow the data on early childhood academics presented by Sharon Sprague, Director of Early Childhood Programs at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Education Center (JEH).

They complemented Dr. Sprague on the report, the progress on implementing the goals of the 2019 strategic plan for the center, and the students’ achievement. Their questions centered on ensuring sufficient support for Latinx students at JEH and for all students transitioning to kindergarten, tracking students’ progress into the primary grades, and, most immediately, the transition to hybrid learning, now set for Feb. 16.

Board Vice President Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan asked about transition plans to kindergarten, particularly in light of any gaps created or not filled by remote learning.

Transitioning to Kindergarten

“How do we need to prepare kindergarten teachers for whatever gaps that that may exist and what we are able to deliver in this more remote setting? I think that’s going to be a really critical piece, to make sure that they recognize that the kids are not necessarily coming in with all of the pieces that they may have before. What kind of supports do we need in place?”

Dr. Sprague responded that at present, preparation for the transition to kindergarten is focused on special education students and how they will react once return to the classroom.

“One of the things that we’re all very concerned about, just in terms of having students come back to our building in a couple of weeks, is around students’ functional and social, social, emotional experiences [and] abilities with one another learning to interact, understanding how to do school.

“A lot of students are missing that very important aspect of preschool education right now. …  So we’re just very mindful of that as soon as we enter the building, and really have a lot of supports in place to try to shepherd them through that transition. School is going to look different than it did in the past, it’s going to be a lot more structured, which may or may not be easier for the children. We’ll find out.”

While some students have had supports at home, which strengthened the school-family partnership, others have not been able to engage fully in remote learning – “so there will be gaps there,” she said.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan added, “I think we want to have some more proactive strategies for kindergarten teachers about what kind of onboarding they’re going to need to do, because there might be some of those [new kindergarten] students that don’t ever have that in person instruction before coming to school.”

Dr. Sprague said, “And I think additionally, it’s a discussion to be had with school leaders, as well, because the leaders are going to set expectations for the teachers and support the teachers. And if we need to shift the focus slightly in the early days or months of kindergarten to help accommodate for this, they need to be aware of this as well.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said ensuring the students will be socially distant “is counterintuitive to how early childhood works. … School is not going to look the same as it used to.”

He added, “The kindergarten teachers should know how to receive all of the wonderful things and build on the wonderful things that have happened in early childhood right now.”

Sufficient Supports for Latinx Students?

Mr. Hernandez also asked whether the strategies in place for Latinx students are sufficient. “Do you need additional support to make sure that we are closing the gap, particularly for Latin x students?”

Dr. Sprague responded, “I don’t know that we need additional support at this point. … I think that math instruction in our Latinx classrooms maybe wasn’t the main focus for all of them. And now that we’re taking a look at this data, and we’ve done so much study around the fact that math is a tremendous equalizer. … I do believe that our team has the tools they need, and they have the skill. And they definitely see the need at this point. And I think with leadership support and guidance, they will do the work.”

JEH is not eligible to implement a two-way immersion program such as the District has for grades K-8, Dr. Sprague said. The younger children, she said, receive about 90% of their instruction in Spanish.

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said, “In Evanston, we have a long now a long history of Latino families living in this community – four or five generations now of families that are solely speaking Spanish in the homes. That number is decreasing, and so I’m curious if that could potentially have an impact on the scores that we’re seeing tonight.” She said some of the tests are given in Spanish even though children might be speaking more English at home.

Referring to the data from fall of 2019, which showed Latinx children not meeting outcomes in two subject areas of social-emotional learning, Board President Anya Tanyavutti  said, “I wonder asked if you all talked at all about the subjectivity of the assessment, and if that was a factor in how those outcomes were showing up.”

With subjectivity in assessments, the findings can easily bleed in to bias, Ms., Tanyavutti said.

Dr. Sprague said, “This is an ongoing issue around observational assessments – that you have to have pretty clear rubrics about what it is you’re looking for, with strong checklists and identifiers of behaviors that you might be looking to observe.” She said the two areas of social-emotional learning in which the Latinx students lagged “were chosen because the leadership teams, both the school climate team and the school instructional team, looked through the assessment and tried to identify areas that we might be able to observe in remote learning.”

She said there are some Latinx students who have historically performed well, in social- emotional learning. “So we don’t consider it to be an area of crisis at this point, but it’s an area of concern that we want to watch and monitor.”

In answer to another question from Ms. Tanyavutti, Dr. Sprague said the diversity in JEH staff extends to decision-making roles. She said although there has been an increase in Black staff members, “we haven’t had an opportunity to increase Latinx leadership in the administrative team. … But I think that’s something to keep in mind.

De-Privatizing Classrooms

Board member Soo La Kim said, “As someone who has done a lot of faculty development. I’m always thinking about that, how do you develop a culture of continuous improvement. The practice of de-privatizing is so important.”

De-privatizing classrooms, a concept that originated several years ago, promotes the idea that a classroom is a public space where ideas and accountability are shared. Teachers and others may discuss their classes and their own performances in their classrooms.

Ms. La Kim added, “I see Dr. Horton putting things in place to do that, at the K-8 level as well. But the opportunity for educators to really get feedback and work together and have eyes in the classroom, right, not just struggling on their own or working on their own, but working in that really collaborative process. So I just wanted to highlight how important that piece of de-privatizing the classroom and really thinking about the classroom as a public and social space.”

De-privatizing is “a gift that COVID gave us,” Dr. Sprague said, “because suddenly everybody was thrown in the water trying to figure out how to swim, keep afloat. … Nobody had the sense that they knew it all anymore. Like there was nothing. And everybody was ready to learn from one another. So really gave us an opportunity to start this culture. And I would say people loved it. … I think now that we’re understanding the motive [and] the value of it, people are going to be more motivated to try to figure it out.

Following JEH Students Through District 65

Ms. La Kim also asked about plans to track the present cohort through third grade. You mentioned how important that third grade those third grade assessments are to continued academic success.

For a story on Dr. Sprague’s presentation, click here.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...