Last Monday night’s downpour did not deter around 50 educators from making their voices heard at the meeting of Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s Personnel, Building & Grounds and Finance Committee.
District 65 Educators’ Council (DEC) President Maria Barroso served as the group’s spokesperson Oct. 11, as she did at the Sept. 27 Board meeting, beginning her allotted three minutes with: “I am Maria Barroso, the DEC President. Again, I am here to state that District 65 continues to be a toxic working environment.”
Chief among the grievances that she shared were increased workloads related to curriculum changes, educators feeling micromanaged and an increase in discipline issues at school.
As the timer chimed, Barroso closed her statement with, “On the surface, our existence is only useful at times. And we are with the students all the time.” Thunderous applause from the gathered educators and shouts of encouragement ensued, as the teachers collected their signs and exited the meeting.
The RoundTable followed up with Barroso on Tuesday to learn more about the ongoing conflict and what DEC hopes to achieve with its presentations before the Board. “We’re trying to gain the respect that they need to have for us, in order to be able to advocate for our working conditions to be doable, bearable,” she said.
Barroso said she felt that decisions are being made for educators without consulting them or seeking to hear their voices.
District’s curriculum audit
The recent curriculum review, conducted by Curriculum Management Solutions (CMSI), and the subsequent changes to the curriculum are a prime example, according to Barroso.
At the Sept. 27 Board meeting, Dr. Jim Ferrel from CMSI presented an update, noting that it is a curriculum deficit audit and hence “on the surface, it’s going to look bad, because we’re going to say, ‘Compared to best practices, this is where you’re lacking.’”
A clearly defined, written curriculum emerged as one of five focus areas (with vision and accountability, consistency and equity, feedback and productivity the other four), based on “a review of documents, policies and protocols, classroom visits, interviews and survey responses from 265 teachers, 670 parents and 27 campus administrations.”
However, Barroso pointed out the audit was performed in the spring, essentially in the thick of the pandemic when some classes were hybrid and some were remote. Thus, a true traditional school year was not observed. According to Barroso, “The validity of that data collection is questioned a lot, because I don’t know if the directions were clear to principals, and to everybody, what was supposed to be submitted.”
In addition, Barroso said that educators did not have a seat at the decision-making table as curriculum plans were finalized over the summer and shared with administrators who then “told us educators over the summer, this is what we have to do.”
In accordance with established Board meeting protocol, no immediate response was made to Barroso’s comments at the meeting. But in a statement released Thursday, Superintendent Devon Horton said the curriculum and instruction analysis was “conducted by a well-respected research-driven curriculum audit organization” and “We have a window of opportunity here, with the pandemic as a catalyst, to redesign and organize so that we can lead systemic change.”
Dr. Horton acknowledged the adjustment can be difficult but that each stakeholder has a major responsibility to address the instructional system. He added that the “processes that DEC leadership have publicly expressed concerns about are all a part of our efforts to disrupt the systemic racism that has prevented positive outcomes for all students.”
In her comments to the RoundTable, Barroso said that Evanston is an amazing community and she is thankful for the education that her daughters received in the District, but added that they were in school “during a time where the educators weren’t so micromanaged.” Although she supports the goal of achieving equity in the level of rigor across all District schools, Barroso cautions against the nationwide trend toward excessive student assessments rather than the development of “critical thinkers, and happy humans that contribute to society.”
In his statement, Horton wrote that instructional materials are designed for a “typical” classroom that in reality does not exist and that “lessons need to be adapted to meet the needs of an educator’s classroom who may have emergent bilinguals, students with IEPs [Individualized Educational Plans] and 504s [accommodation plans], students who have significant unfinished learning from last year, and/or students well above grade level.” He said that educators have to adapt based on the needs of their students, which “is the opposite of micromanaging and forcing a scripted curriculum.”
Managing school conflicts
On Monday night, Barroso commented on an increase in learning environment disruptions, and later told the RoundTable that “there definitely is no restorative practice when an educator and a student have had a conflict. And that needs to happen.”
Barroso said she felt that the anti-bullying initiatives, though welcome, are ironic given that “many of my educators feel like they’re bullied themselves, with having to do the work, having to do the extra work and not feeling like they have a voice.”
In his statement, Horton said the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program was implemented this year to adopt a more holistic approach districtwise. In addition, he wrote that last year’s Restorative Practices program rollout was impeded by the pandemic and added, “In full transparency, it was not implemented with fidelity and is still an area of focus and growth in the District.”
Horton added that the “District recognizes that time is of the essence in making sure that all schools have educators that are confident and empowered to fully support students through Restorative Practices. The District is addressing the concern expeditiously.”
In her conversation with the RoundTable, Barroso said that there is a growing trend of educators leaving District 65 or planning to do so, despite their family connections to the community or their many years of teaching in the District. According to her, the Board has to acknowledge that educators “need to be able to enjoy coming to work, and not being so overworked that they lose the passion and the inspiration to want to continue, because they’re so overworked.” The loss of long-term educators is particularly detrimental, she warned, as they play an important role in mentoring new educators.
Calls for dialogue
Acknowledging that the Board manages a single employee, the Superintendent, who in turn manages all other District employees, Barroso said, “We’ve had Board people in the past that have been much more teacher-friendly.”
She invited the Board to have an open discussion with DEC executives and said that in the aftermath of her speech at the Sept. 27 meeting, “only one person reached out. But I don’t want to talk to just one, I want to talk to the collective.”
Horton’s statement included a list of meeting opportunities that are available to DEC representatives and said that the DEC president has rejected invitations to attend the six “Collaborative Calibration Visits” with school principals that have occurred thus far this year.
Extending an invitation to work together, Horton closed his statement by writing, “Ultimately, all groups are working towards one goal and that is to provide the best learning environments and opportunities for all students. Across the district, there are compassionate educators, administrators, parents/caregivers, and community members that will continue to do their best for our students. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman described how teams move through these stages as forming, storming, norming, and performing. Our district development is no different. We are looking forward to collectively getting to the norm and performing our greatest efforts, together, as a team. Looking forward to building that bridge together.”