By several measures, alums of District 65’s Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Education Center (JEH) seem to be at least on par with their private-school peers in some areas as they enter kindergarten, said Sharon Sprague, Director of Early Childhood Programs at the Hill Center, at the Jan. 31 District 65 School Board meeting. While the academic scores decreased during the pandemic year, measures of social-emotional learning showed most students’ needs being met.

Long-term assessment, however, is not possible at present, because the District changed the tests for its incoming kindergartners in the fall of 2020 and has not provided data that would show how the scores on the new test correlate with the prior tests.

At the outset of her presentation, Sprague said, “I just wanted to remind everyone of the unique demographics of our early childhood center. All students at JEH must demonstrate risk factors for future academic success in one or more criteria in order to be selected for admission to our grant funded or special education programs. … We have a larger than typical distribution of students receiving special education services.”

Demographics of the 257 students at JEH break down as Black, 30%; Latinx, 30%; white, 22%; Asian, 7%. 

Currently, she said, 33% of the students at JEH have an individualized education plan (IEP) – about the same as in 2020, when 33% of the students had an IEP, and 2021, when the number was 34%.

“Additionally,” said Dr. Sprague, “this year about two thirds of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and all Head Start students meet free- and reduced-price-lunch requirements.”

Sprague reviewed the six goals of the strategic plan for the District’s early childhood program implemented roughly three years ago and updated Board members on what has been done and areas that still need improvement. Taken together the goals envision a collaborative approach to teaching by a diverse staff, a culturally competent curriculum that prepares preschoolers for kindergarten, and adequate resources allocated to achieve the goals.

The JEH team has created “effective leadership systems” that underscore the need for collaborative practices; allocated common time for planning; and rely on data collection, review, and analysis.

The team continues to “work to further diversify our workforce so our students and families see themselves reflected in their learning leaders,” she said. JEH also “provides trauma-informed classrooms through the implementation of research-based programs.”

Family engagement, which was problematic at best during the lockdown, has increased. More parents are attending teacher conferences and volunteering is picking up.

Sprague presented data from various tests and surveys to demonstrate the furtherance of each goal.

5Essentials for school improvement

JEH assessed progress on Goal 5, strengthening family and community partnerships, through results on the state-mandated 5Essentials survey. The “essentials”– effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction – are considered to be leading indicators of school improvement.

Parents who took the most recent 5Essentials survey showed increased satisfaction in three areas: involved families, 62% in 2021, up from roughly 58% in 2019 and 59% in 2020; effective leaders, 42% in 2021, up from 40% in 2019 that was followed by a dip to 26% in 2020; and collaborative teachers, 40% in 2021, compared to 19% in 2019 and 17% in 2020.

The 5Essentials data indicates “that we are moving towards being ‘organized’ for continuous improvement,” Sprague said. “Despite operational and systems setbacks brought on by the global pandemic, we are moving in the right direction and need to maintain focus to continue this growth.”

MAP test for kindergarten literacy

JEH used one of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests to assess kindergarten literacy.

JEH Alums in kindergarten

In three categories, a lower percentage of JEH alums who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2022 met or exceeded standards than did JEH alums entering kindergarten the year before: Listening Comprehension, (42% in 2022 vs. 68% in 2021); Phonetic Word Recognition (75% in 2022 vs. 84% in 2021); Picture Vocabulary (52% in 2022 vs. 71% in 2021); and Phonological Awareness (69% in 2022 vs. 82% in 2021).

Sprague noted that 2020-21 was “a school year during which two-thirds of our students were taught remotely all year and engagement issues were an ongoing struggle.”

There are no standards to assess the category Sentence Reading Fluency, so both cohorts were shown at 100%.

While the report offered a comparison of the recent results on the MAP tests given in the fall of 2020 and 2021 to the results on the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL) given in the fall of 2019 and prior years, the District did not provide information showing that the tests are comparable, that the benchmarks used to assess whether a student met expectations are comparable, or that the District is currently using a metric to measure kindergarten readiness that is comparable to the one it used in the fall of 2019 and prior years.

On Feb. 1 and 2, the RoundTable requested this information from three separate divisions at District 65, but no information has been provided. Last year, the RoundTable requested similar information, but none was provided.

In the fall of 2019 and before, the District viewed children who scored above the 50th percentile on four subtest of the ISEL as “kindergarten ready”

JEH and other Pre-K experience

Comparing outcomes on the same MAP test between kindergartners who were JEH alums and kindergartners who had other Pre-K experiences (“non-JEH alums”) showed that a greater percentage of the non-JEH alums met or exceeded standards. The differences were generally less than 10 percentage points: in Listening Comprehension 51% vs. 42%; in Phonological Word Recognition, 83% vs. 75%; in Phonological Awareness, 80% vs. 69%. In the category Picture Vocabulary, the difference was higher, 67% for non-JEH alums vs. 52% for JEH alums.

Again, there are no standards to assess Sentence Reading Fluency, so every child was deemed to meet or exceed standards.

Adding tutors and social workers

To achieve Goal 6, aligning resources with goals to ensure student success, JEH has added 3.6 academic skills tutors and increased the number of social workers from 1.6 FTEs to 2.4 FTEs. The added social work support “has helped to provide better MTSS [multi-tiered system of supports] social emotional supports,” Sprague said.

She also said JEH is “shifting our resources in special education, creating staffing distributions that allow us to move more students into inclusive settings.”

Overall, in working to improve kindergarten-readiness, Sprague said, “We have been conscious to disaggregate our data across racial/ethnic groups to watch for any signs of a developing achievement gap.”

Two-and-a-half years into the three-year strategic plan, she said, data about JEH preschoolers and alums “indicate that we have begun to provide outcomes for our JEH alums.”

Board members praised Sprague for her work and progress, citing previous community efforts such as Cradle to Career and Evanston Community Foundations “Every Child Ready for Kindergarten” that emphasized the importance of early childhood education.


Goals of District 65’s Strategic Plan for the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Education Center

1. Ensure JEH Center is well organized for continuous improvement.

2. Create a culture in which teaching and learning is driven by diversity, equity, and inclusion.

3. Create a climate in which students’ social-emotional developmental needs are addressed and supported.

4. Ensure that all children are individually prepared for kindergarten.

5. Strengthen family and community partnerships to support learning opportunities.

6. Align resources with goals to ensure student success.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...