Evanston Township High School hosted an in-person evening Open House on Aug. 30 for parents and students that included sessions within racial affinity spaces, facilitated by the ETHS Latinx Staff Caucus, the Black Staff Caucus and the Asian Middle Eastern Staff Caucus, as well as an anti-racist session facilitated by racial and social justice trainer Christine Saxman.
During the event, attendees received free boxed meals from local restaurants in the ETHS Cafeterias from 6:30-7 p.m. before going to one or more of the four sessions, held from 7-8 p.m. in outdoor spaces on the school’s 65-acre campus.
Earlier in the day, teachers participated in the daytime portion of the Open House by sharing introductions of themselves and their classes using slides, videos, and other virtual formats that can be accessed at any time and show how the block schedule looks in their students’ classrooms.
In keeping with health protocols for more than 4,000 ETHS students and staff members, masks were required indoors, and classrooms were not open to visitors in an effort to support minimal disruption as teachers build their classroom communities and connect with students in the first weeks of school, according to Open House FAQs on the ETHS website.
In interviews with the RoundTable, many parents said they attended the evening Open House to learn more about the activities and opportunities available to their students. Most of those who attended the staff caucus sessions also said they welcomed the chance to engage in conversation within their affinity groups.
Comments from attendees who participated in the anti-racist session were varied. Some said the affinity groupings aligned with the district goals to further the adaptive work of creating a sense of belonging for all ETHS students, while others were critical of the administration’s decision to meet in racial identity groups.
“Generally, I did not know about the multiple caucuses that they were organizing here. I received an email about the Black Caucus,” said Alisha Yates, who is an ETHS alumna and parent of an ETHS freshman.
“I’m just trying to get my son involved. Because of the pandemic, everybody’s been locked up, and I just want him to be exposed and to develop more social habits, besides the phone and video games.
“When I was here, this would have been nice. I’m sure it wasn’t around, but… times have changed and the need for these things has developed. So yes, I think this is a great thing that they’re doing,” said Yates.
ETHS parent Unissa Bryan said she attended more than one affinity group at the open house.
“I like to diversify my experience… Tonight’s Open House – where it’s dinner and an open conversation – is a great opportunity for people to get engaged and to learn about one another in a more comfortable situation,” said Bryan.
“We did think it was helpful. We thought it was very supportive. We’re leaving [the Asian Middle Eastern affinity group] a little early to go to the anti-racist session,” said Belinda Chen, who attended the open house with her daughter.
Stephanie Kulke and her son, who is a freshman, picked up boxed meals in the ETHS South Cafeteria. She said they were there to attend the anti-racist session, held on the Band Field at Lake Street and Dodge Avenue. Kulke is also the parent of a graduate of the Class of 2021.
“Even though I have been here for the past four years, I’m here to find out about how they’re doing things differently this time around… I feel like the school has been keeping us so informed about the safety protocols. I really trust the information we’re receiving,” said Kulke.
When asked how she felt about the racial affinity group sessions and the anti-racist session, Kulke did not hesitate.
“I think it’s a really cool idea… I feel a lot of us have been immersed in this, since George Floyd’s murder, and before that. It’s good to be on the same page with the administrators and the kids,” she said.
Not all those who attended the anti-racist session agreed that it was a positive way for students and families to begin the transition to the school environment after more than a year of being apart.
“It was okay. My son has homework, so we need to leave a little early,” said the parent of an ETHS junior.
“I felt like it was pretty ambiguous, what the facilitator was saying,” an ETHS junior told the RoundTable.
“It was kind of boring. It would have been more interesting if the facilitator had said, ‘What could we envision, if the world was a better place, with more racial equity?’”
According to information in the ETHS Open House Day FAQs, “Open House Day 2021… offers context for prioritizing the social and emotional well-being of all students who are humanized in their racial identity. Recognizing a sense of loss experienced by students during the past year, ETHS is supporting staff caucuses in rebuilding community within students’ and their family’s racial affinity spaces…
“Acknowledging that many families are blended, engage in the space that feels most comfortable for you.”
Facilitator Christine Saxman offered attendees the opportunity to make comments during the anti-racist session.
One parent said the anti-racist session was “the opposite of humanizing.”
The parent of a freshman said, “I would have welcomed the opportunity to meet with the entire group of parents and students before breaking out into affinity groups,” adding that she understood the importance of creating safe spaces within identity groups.
A week before the event, ETHS Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell talked with a reporter from the RoundTable about the decision to offer spaces for conversations within racial affinity groups.
“One of the reasons that the staff caucuses decided to host [affinity groups] is in response to the racial violence of the last 18 months. The death of George Floyd. The death of Breonna Taylor. The death of Ahmaud Arbery. The death of nine Asian women in Atlanta. The disproportionate COVID exposure and deaths for Black and brown folks.
“The caucuses are saying, ‘We should come together and help each other heal, because we lived the trauma in a different way’… If you identify with a certain experience, that experience will resonate with you, but anybody can come to any group,” said Dr. Campbell.
As the open house concluded, a parent who attended the anti-racist session said the information that was sent to parents “felt very formal. But getting here, it feels much more informal, and we’re much more able to talk and think through things.
“I’m very happy I came – just trying to get a better understanding of how the school is bringing humanity into the classroom. That’s what they said they are doing this year. I think race and equity is a part of that. And so, understanding this component is different than maybe what I would have experienced a few years ago,” she said.