Last week I read retired Dewey Elementary School principal Donna Sokolowski’s letter regarding her perspective and analysis of District 65 in Evanston. Let me share how astounded I was that Evanston RoundTable made the decision to print what seemed to be every word of a long, meandering and obtuse letter filled with personal frustrations aimed at our District Superintendent, new district administrators hired under his leadership and a general accusation that under Dr. Horton’s watch, District 65 is worse than when he began. How soon the tide turns.
When Dr. Horton was being considered for the position of superintendent a small and strong firm vetted him and other finalists. Next, a broad-based spectrum of community leaders representing various organizations were brought in to share their ideas and opinions about qualifications and skills needed for the next superintendent. After this step, there were a round of interviews that ultimately resulted in the hire of Dr. Horton as the best person available for serving District 65 as its next superintendent. Dr. Horton did not appear out of nowhere. There were over 2,000 residents who responded to an inquiry about what they were looking for in the next superintendent. With all due respect, Ms. Sololowski’s letter seeks to diminish the arduous background work done at the highest level of excellence, to bring Dr. Horton into our town.
Next, the letter states, “the new administration started with the assumption that historically District 65 was a failing school district, and they made generalizations regarding racial attitudes and beliefs held in our Evanston community.” Wait a minute. Statistics related to the demographics of the district’s students and their academic achievement and test scores quickly suggests that District 65 has been a failing school district for many of its students and their families. This is not to say the whole district has been a failure. Far from it. There have been some of the most dedicated, proven, hard-working and capable teachers, staff and administrators found in any district. Yet, the fact remains that Black and brown students suffer egregiously lower academic proficiencies and test scores than their white counterparts.
When I arrived in Evanston in 2015, former Superintendent Dr. Paul Goren released a “report card” on the district which was very clear regarding the academic achievement gap between white students on the one hand and Black and brown students on the other. Clearly, the system was failing. Rather than point fingers and contend that it was due to the failed leadership of one, or a few, many of us recognized the problem for what it was; a systems failure, a broken structure in need of significant repair and/or replacement.
It is very clear that Ms. Sokolowski’s emotional letter is animated by feeling a personal affront related to changes brought forth by Dr. Horton. She writes, “At Dewey Elementary School, we felt confident that the depth of our equity work would be catapulted to support the Evanston community.” The issue here is clear; equity work has not been working in Evanston for decades. The atrocious academic gap between white and Black and brown students did not appear in recent months or years. This has been an issue for more than the 20 years Ms. Sokolowski has been a leader in the district.
Next, the letter becomes deeply problematic when she writes, “While I could have continued in my role as principal at Dewey, I realized I could not compromise my values, especially that of honoring all people.” This is a blatant retort to the movement of District 65 seeking to create an equity program that is actually, fully inclusive. Further, this statement possesses what appears to be an underlying “stab” at Critical Race Theory. CRT seeks to re-vision with accuracy, the history, tradition, policies and actions of our nation through the lenses of Black and brown people. Many Americans appear outraged by CRT, believing that it will diminish what the United States has done or accomplished in its years of independence. However, the truth is that just the opposite can and will happen. It is a matter of speaking the truth of history and negating the lies and awful misinterpretations we have lived with, even before 1776.
To suggest that one might compromise their values by staying on in a district that is catching up to the 21st century, and then to write a public letter filled with elements of division, accusations and diatribe against change is a contradiction. One cannot believe she is taking the high road, and then drag the district, its leader and others, through the gutter. The retired principal goes on to then accuse Dr. Horton and the district of not being fair to administrators:
“Administrators were asked not to hire teachers with too many years of experience …
“There was a freeze placed on principal and assistant principal salaries for this school year …
“The number of stressors that administrators have placed on teachers has created a culture of distrust.”
Ms. Sokolowski then seeks to engender the support of teachers suggesting:
“Teachers have been asking for donations for items that should be supplied through district funds.”
Amazing, Ms. Sokolowski then jumps completely out of her lane and puts out a luminous declaration:
“Many questions are being asked about how the district is partnering with community organizations.”
I wonder if Ms. Sokolowski contacted any of the community organizations that currently partners with the District? If she did, she would have found that many organizations are proud to partner with the District as it moves our community closer to achieving its goals through equity justice. Ironically, in her very long letter, the retired principal places three points about children as the last word. Clearly, the letter should have begun with children. As a final footnote to this query, the principal writes in bold print, “Is the School Board really paying attention?”
I end this equally long letter that I’m pretty sure will not be printed with a crystal clear opinion that is wholly my own. Dr. Horton and district administrators, along with members of the school board, are moving us closer to equity justice. This is something new for Evanston, a town that once had a school for Negro children, a YMCA for Negro people and an awful history of racial discrimination in every public sector. This is something new, another strong Black male superintendent, with a strong Black female president of the school board. This is something new, a movement for people of color to break down the high walls of HIStory and to rebuild bridges for OURstory. As for me, I am excited about change and movement forward.
Finally, I am just a local baptist preacher in our town. I have dear friends and church members who are current teachers and former teachers who have given their lives in service to District 65. I know others who I admire and respect who are teachers, administrators and board members. Really, I love everybody. And I believe that the path forward for the District is to have an Educational Summit and/or Town Hall Meeting where concerns of all may be brought forth, discussed, debated, and handled. Evanston is not the United States Congress. We talk to each other. The path forward depends, not on acrimony and accusation, nor a blind support of decision making. Rather, it is a path that is wide enough to include us all. We never have to fully agree on all things. But for the sake of our children, their families and our town, for goodness sake, let’s agree to unite.
Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors
Evanston/North Shore NAACP
Second Baptist Church
These words reflect my own opinion and not the nearly 500 members of our NAACP branch or the nearly 1,000 members of our congregation.