Three members of the board of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 read prepared statements at a Dec. 6 committee meeting that stressed a need for less public acrimony and more communication and collaboration between teachers and the administration.
The first few months back to full in-person schooling at District 65 have been marred by public outcries of dissent and complaints about stress, including two protests by the teachers union at Sept. 27 and Oct. 11 school board meetings, and the last-minute cancellation of school on the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week after the president of the District 65 Educators’ Council encouraged teachers to prioritize their mental health and take sick days.
At the school board’s Dec. 6 Curriculum and Policy Committee meeting, board members Sergio Hernandez, Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan and Marquise Weatherspoon each read prepared statements calling for de-escalation of conflict between stakeholders. They articulated a need to take care of educators, with Hernandez announcing that teacher evaluations would be suspended for the current school year.
A few weeks earlier, at the Nov. 15 District 65 board meeting, Superintendent Devon Horton stated, “I’m just going to own this, as the superintendent, that we have not had the most constructive, as a district, change management process.” Horton said that with so much to accomplish, his team had been focused on “kind of, you know, rah rah rah, let’s get it done,” without a fully designed plan for how to best manage changes on the ground level.
‘Chat and Chews’ with teachers
One of the grievances shared by District Educators’ Council President Maria Barroso, in her fall presentations before the board, involved a lack of communication between administrators who were directing change and educators who were tasked with carrying out the changes.
When asked in a recent email exchange with the RoundTable about “Chat and Chews,” Horton said he initiated the program to facilitate face-to-face dialogues between administrators and educators. He wrote that Chat and Chews “provide the teachers access to me and key leadership without barriers,” and that they were not publicly announced when launched a month ago as a means of keeping them “intimate and less performative.”
At the Dec. 6 meeting, Weatherspoon commented on hearing positive feedback from teachers about the Chat and Chews program, and asked for an update from Horton on lessons learned and adjustments to come, based on those conversations. Noting that he had so far visited nine schools, Horton characterized the meetings as “eye-opening.” He continued with an iceberg analogy: “We’re down here in central office and I’m sitting here at the tip of this iceberg and thinking that things are being able to move. And while my team is doing their best to make everything move, hearing from the teachers really just gave a great perspective, how things are working and not working. So it’s been really productive overall.”
Two quickly achieved recommendations cited were adjustments to PowerSchool, the district’s student management software program, and increased accessibility to middle school athletic games via live streams. Horton also noted that given the recent school shooting in Michigan, the district’s safety team will be convening to “reassess and revisit our safety measures in our schools” to ensure that plans can be implemented in the event that they are needed. “We don’t want that to happen, of course, but we want to be prepared.”
Horton touted the benefit of the discussions among teachers, administrators and board members for highlighting “things that maybe a lot of people take for granted, are very simple in theory, but could really be helpful for campuses, like student IDs in the middle school.” From a safety standpoint, he added, ”Imagine, as a teacher, you have 800 middle school students moving through your building; you’re not going to know them all.” Hall monitors have now also been brought to the middle schools, a previously unmet need that was voiced by educators.
Given the ongoing pandemic and staff shortages, teachers have faced a lack of opportunities for professional development this year.
Lindsay-Ryan summarized the situation by stating, “We can’t pull teachers from the building to get the professional development they need if we don’t have bodies to cover their spaces in the building, and that dramatically impacts the professional development and the capabilities of our educators in the long term.”
She described educators’ frustration in not being able to fully implement their teaching plans, and the “profound ripple effect” that results when a teacher steps into a role to cover for a colleague, and in turn the teacher’s role has to be covered too. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that there is no aspect of the district that is able to function at its highest level when we don’t have enough staff to cover all of the basic needs in our buildings,” Lindsay-Ryan said.
Hernandez applauded a practice shared during a Chat and Chew at Lincoln Elementary School, where teachers participated in, and led, a half-day professional development session instead of attending an off-site professional development program or contracting an external facilitator. According to Hernandez, the teachers were excited to have the time to plan, work together and collaborate and they appreciated the administration’s affording them the opportunity “to really express themselves professionally.” He added that he is “looking forward to having that continue as a means to again provide those spaces for educators to collaborate and innovate.”
Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, presented the calendar committee’s 2022-23 and 2023-24 school calendar drafts, which he said were geared to reduce learning interruptions for students and “support sustained professional learning time and prep access across employee groups.”
The calendar committee has representatives from educator groups, principals, administrators, parents and District 202, and Khelghati said the committee prioritized collaboration, including aligning winter and spring breaks with District 202 and incorporating feedback from the community survey conducted last spring.
The first of three big changes to the school year depicted on a slide was the inclusion of two full-day school improvement days, one prior to students’ first day of school and one immediately following winter break.
Khelghati said that these would be nonattendance days for students but a full day for District 65 staff. He said they were made possible by moving away from half-days, but they would require a modification under the state school code. However, he noted that there is precedent for this modification, as the district was “approved for this modification from 2015 to 2020 and has held full-day school improvement days in previous years.”
The second change involved lengthening the fall break by making the Monday and Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday part of a full week off from school – as it ended up being this year.
Khelghati reported that the third recommendation, based on community input, was to continue to have Veterans Day be a full, in-person learning day, to “honor our veterans in person with our students.”
In summarizing the proposed calendars, Khelghati said that the goal was “to be able to offer sustained professional learning and the needed prep time for our employee groups while trying to minimize the disruption to families.”
A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13, to gather feedback from the community and board for consideration and possible incorporation before the calendar application is submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Educator mental health
The strain that the COVID-19 pandemic is placing on educators’ mental health was cited in the cancellation of the two days preceding the Thanksgiving break this year. In the Curriculum Review Document posted with the Dec. 6 meeting agenda, Khelghati reported on a recent meeting between the district’s crisis management team, mental health practitioners and teachers union representatives that highlighted the “need to focus on preventing mental health issues rather than only reacting to them when they reach a crisis stage. The collective opinion of these various stakeholders is that we have a growing issue in this District that should be recognized as such and that resources should be dedicated to addressing it.”
Khelghati wrote that the team acknowledged that multiple issues – from acclimating to normal routines during the pandemic to the impact of social media – take a toll on “the fragility of mental health.” He recommended district participation in a program titled Mental Health First Aid, which aims to teach “how to detect mental health issues and then how to effectively intervene,” including strategies for self-care for staff and students.
At the Dec. 6 meeting, Khelghati said everybody has their own story and no trends have emerged, but added that a focus has to be placed on promoting the normalcy of “taking care of ourselves individually as adults.”
Referencing an analogy made by Horton concerning the airline safety warning that adults should put on their oxygen masks before putting a mask on their children, Khelghati said that actually practicing that essential self-care is another story.
“We’re caretakers as educators, and that’s what we want to do,” he said. “And so sometimes it’s hard to stop … and slow down for that.”