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One guideline adopted by the District 65 School Board in 2017, after the approval of a referendum that provided an additional $14.5 million in property tax revenues into the District each year, was that there would be one full-time-equivalent reading specialist at each elementary school.
Scarcely four years later, there will be no Reading Specialists at District 65; 18 of the 22 people who began this year as Reading Specialists will be reassigned as either a classroom teacher or an Interventionist; and there will not be an interventionist in every building.
Citing a need to have a “comprehensive intervention plan in place to address learning in reading and math for students who are not yet at grade level,” District 65 is eliminating its 22 Reading Specialist positions and replacing them with 18 Interventionist positions, with a net loss of four positions to provide interventions to struggling readers.
In an email sent at 7 p.m. on March 1, Human Resources Director Beatrice Davis notified the District’s 23 Reading Specialists that their position was going to be “restructured” and invited them to meet on March 4 with her and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley.
The email noted, “Please be reassured that you will be reassigned to a full-time teaching position next year, but it will not be as a Reading Specialist. You will also have the opportunity to apply for an interventionist position if you are interested in this new role.”
Most of these now-former Reading Specialists will concentrate on struggling readers in the younger grades. In an email responding to questions from the RoundTable, Dr. Beardsley wrote, “National research and local assessment data support that [a comprehensive intervention plan] is impacting math learning more than literacy learning as well as a greater impact on learning in K-2 learning.”
The New System of Reading Intervention
The new system of interventions will “create new opportunities to address intervention collectively during the school day with possible intervention blocks as well as work by interventionists and classroom teachers,” Dr. Beardsley told the RoundTable.
At the March 8 meeting of the District 65 Board’s Finance Committee, Dr. Beardsley said teachers with whom she had met were excited about working collectively.
She also said, “Our building leaders are educators; there needs to be increased accountability in the system; we need to get clear about our expectations. So part of this redesign is explicitly looking at District leadership to building leadership around the accountability of our [intervention] systems and structures. And that means that we are paying attention … and revisiting and saying, ‘Is this intervention working for our students, and if not, who’s going to help me work on what the next step of that intervention is?’
“When we look, we see that our reading performance currently is decreasing slowly, or math a little bit more gradually. And when we look at the percentage of students in tier two and tier three [interventions], we know that there’s work we need to do across disciplines, not just in reading.
“And so when we talk about our systems and structures, we’ve got to revisit, ‘What is the right type of intervention for students? Who is the appropriate educator to be delivering that intervention?” And then … we’ve got to continue to cycle through those interventions and say, ‘Has that worked? If not, then what next?’ so that we don’t have students that are cycling through reading support for multiple years without us escalating that type of intervention.”
Students falling behind to the point that they are not reading “proficiently” when they enter high school has been a concern at both District 65 and District 202 for several years. Seven years ago, the two Districts agreed on a Joint Literacy Goal that states, “District 65 and District 202 will ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach 12th grade.”
That goal has not yet been achieved, but the two Districts have agreed on a way to measure whether students entering Evanston Township High School are reading proficiently. The benchmark is a student’s achieving, at the start of freshman year at ETHS, a grade-equivalent score of 8.3 on the STAR standardized test – that is, a reading level of the third month of eighth grade.
The chart below shows the percentage of District 65 students who are reading proficiently, using this benchmark, aligned to District 65’s tests.
Dr. Beardsley told the RoundTable the goal of this new system of interventions is to “improve literacy outcomes which would be aligned to the joint literacy goal.”
To measure the success of the new program, the District will set a baseline at the end of the year, looking at different tiers of its intervention system, and “will track students at tiers 2 and 3 over time, as well as statistics on students that are bridging to tiers that require less support,” Dr. Beardsley told the RoundTable. She added the District will also monitor progress three times each year through the Measures of Academic Progress assessment.
“Silo-ing” vs. “Collectivity”
In announcing the changes at the March 8 Finance Committee meeting, Dr. Beardsley said the Reading Specialists and classroom teachers were operating in “silos” and needed to act more “collectively.”
Asked by the RoundTable to clarify her comments, Dr. Beardsley downplayed the criticism. “The comment on silos is more focused on ensuring we are creating the structures and systems to allow classroom educators, special educators, emergent bilingual educators, and paraprofessionals to engage in conversations focused on supporting students who they may share or who are in shared spaces. We have educators with excellent expertise yet at times we are not combining our efforts in a way that could best support students,” she said.
Examples of operating collectively, she said, “are building school wide or grade wide intervention blocks where students may be regrouped to meet their needs” and “ensuring educators have the collaborative systems, structures and time to collaboratively plan for the academic needs of students within shared learning spaces that are not yet at grade level.”
Dr. Beardsley also said at present, interventionists are not assigned to students in the middle grades. No decision has apparently been made about middle-school interventionists, but she said the redesign “will likely assign one interventionist per middle school, who will provide direct service for students and help to create intervention support and opportunities for students and educators.”
Assignments of Interventionists
Asked at the March 8 meeting whether there would be a Reading Specialist in every building, “because that was one of the referendum promises, Dr. Beardsley said, “So at this point, we do not have a reading specialist in every building, but every building has access to a reading specialist.”
She also said that a reading interventionist could be accessed remotely if a student needed help in a certain area and there was no one in the building to address the situation.
She also said, “It’s an equitable, equitable distribution of reading specialists based on the need.”
Board Comments at the March 8 Finance Committee Meeting
Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “The question I have is about timing in systems change. So if we make that system change now, then every child from now going forward is going to benefit from that investment in tier one instruction. But we have children in our system right now who have not had the experience of that investment.” She said this may not be the most effective place to push the change and asked how administrators accounted for and addressed the difference [in benefits for students under the old and new systems].
Dr. Beardsley said, “That is one of the threats that kind of bubbled up in the slot that we gathered to this system. This system is designed to make sure that we are getting the interventions to the students who need them the most.
“Any time we’re cutting staff that has an emotional response for us. … And I think when it comes to reading specialists, there’s for the folks who the model has succeeded for that is also emotional. And so I think you have these kinds of anecdotal experiences across town that say, ‘This decision is not valuing expertise.’ And there’s that kind of emotional response to it. So the need is really too great for us to do with the intervention structure that we have. So we’re prioritizing, having responsibility across the system, not just in the hands of reading specialists, and that that decision making is all very data-driven about what things are working, and what things maybe aren’t seen as effective.”
Board member Joey Hailpern, who chaired the Finance Committee meeting, said there is a “simplistic question I need to ask one more time. We’re reducing the number of educators in this role, or in this, this old role before the new role, given the amount of need we have in the District? Why not keep the number of full-time employees?
Dr. Beardsley said, “We went into this with a clear understanding of the financial limitations in the District, … and we designed with an eye for financial limitations.
District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said, “We as an institution, value our teachers and our frontline, we know that our classroom teachers are the most valuable. And then we also want to use research like to support decisions.”
John Gallagher, representing the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), said, “I guess my biggest concern about this, and, just thinking about this logically, I’m just not seeing how we can provide more supports for students with less staff.
“And I hear a little bit about, you know, that we’re going to kind of spread it out within the building. But I don’t know teachers that don’t give 100%, so I’m not sure how much more toothpaste we can squeeze out of that container.
“And I just don’t see, based on the information that I’ve heard, that the system is going to be able to overcome the reduction of staff that we’re going to be facing.
“I just want to clarify that if there’s not an interventionist in the building that can meet the needs those students that we can reach out, virtually. And to me, that’s a concern as well; because I know that we’ve done a very good job during this pandemic. But I don’t think this model is as successful as face-to-face instruction, which is why I think we’ve worked so hard to get to face-to-face instruction. So, you know, saying like, well, we can reach out virtually, I’m not sure that that will meet the needs of all students.
“And I am concerned about the equity model of this program, because I am worried that we are going to be not meeting the needs of all the students that we’re currently meeting.”