After multiple fights in recent weeks sent staff members at Haven Middle School to the hospital, and many parents complained about poor communication from administrators at this week’s Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board meeting, Haven Principal Chris Latting hosted an online meeting with parents on Tuesday night to address concerns about the school’s climate and culture.
In addition to Latting and the Haven assistant principals, Superintendent Devon Horton, Dean of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Terrance Little, Director of Special Services Anna Marie Candelario and District 65 Educators’ Council President Maria Barroso, among others, were present for the Zoom call. More than 250 parents and teachers also attended.
Several parents and even a Haven student spoke, asking for specifics about how officials planned to deal with violent, abusive behaviors by some students. Many brought up the perception that teachers and parents do not feel heard by the administration.
One Haven student told those gathered on the call that walking through the halls between classes, she sometimes feels unsafe. She posed a simple question to administrators: “I just want to know when you think I’ll feel safe again.”
Latting said he could not answer that question for the specific student, but he told her that he hopes she sees change “quite quickly,” and encouraged her to have conversations about safety with her parents and with him and other administrators.
Stefan Dandelles, who has two daughters at Haven, said he wanted to see the administration make more of an effort to address the safety of all students at the school, rather than focusing on the students causing most of the behavior issues. One of his daughters, he said, is scared to go to school every day because she’s the subject of consistent violence and threats.
“I wish I could follow her around every single day to all of her periods to make sure she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder worried about getting jumped,” Dandelles said. “That’s what we’re dealing with, and the school and the administration have not created a safe environment where my daughters can go to school and feel like they don’t have to look over their shoulder, that they’re not going to be physically abused.”
Several parents expressed frustration with what they called a lack of sufficient communication from administrators throughout this year and an absence of willingness to meet with concerned parents and teachers.
“I still don’t trust you all, and it’s not a value being made about you as people. It’s about what it takes with you all as public officials,” said Marlon Millner, a parent of two Haven students. “You work for a public, quasi-government entity called School District 65 in the City of Evanston, so there’s a level of public trust that has to be established. So Mr. Latting, as you might imagine, I don’t trust you because when you started, I reached out to you about issues of race. You’ve never met with me in two years.”
Latting responded by saying that “we can enhance the way we communicate” with teachers and families by being more open and transparent with them.
Superintendent Horton kicked off the meeting by telling attendees that he and other administrators were there to listen and receive feedback from community stakeholders, and he asked participants to remain respectful and cordial with their questions and comments.
Before holding a question-and-answer session, Latting and the assistant principals – Michael Johnson, Denise Gildon and Thomas Smith – spent about an hour presenting strategies for improving the climate at Haven and covering data compiled by the district on behavior referrals and suspensions.
Latting opened the presentation by saying that the school administration must do a better job meeting the social and emotional needs of students and addressing ways that pre-existing challenges faced by students and staff may have worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged social isolation.
“In order to do that, it’s going to be a huge lift,” Latting said. “We have to get to a place where we’re not yet, and those things are going to be more possible when we’re able to collaborate and lean on each other for some support.”
According to Johnson, teachers at Haven have so far this school year logged 2,113 behavior referrals on the Branching Minds platform, a program the district uses to track student behavior and classroom records.
Referrals are categorized according to five different levels, he said, and the first two mostly pertain to minor infractions such as students not being in the right class at the right time. Immediate safety threats, active fighting and other inexcusable behavior would fall under levels three, four or five, with the highest two levels requiring an administrator response.
The presentation also highlighted that 46 students at Haven, representing 6% of the total student body, have been responsible for 72% of all behavior referrals this year. Some of those students have accrued close to 100 referrals on their own, while 26 staff members out of the 87 total employees working at Haven have written 62% of all referrals, according to Johnson.
In addition to the referral data, Johnson reported that Haven has recorded 57 suspensions this academic year, more than any other year since at least 2016 and representing 48% of all suspensions in District 65 so far this year. According to Tuesday’s presentation, 31 individual students account for all 57 suspensions.
Moving forward, Johnson said any teacher reporting an incident in Branching Minds will have to call the parent of the student involved to address any ongoing behavioral concerns. Additionally, starting in the fall of 2022, Haven will have a team of Family and Community Engagement liaisons who will serve as the administration’s “eyes and ears” in the community, Latting and the assistant principals said Tuesday night.
“We recognize how important it is for us to really build relationships, not only with each other, but with our students and our families, and that’s one of the things we really want to ensure is occurring more often,” Johnson said. “When we build relationships with our students and our parents, we have an opportunity to connect with them more, so that’s something that we’re really going to be promoting as we’re moving forward.”
One thing that feels sad to me about the current troubles at Haven School is that it seems clear that this group of 46 to 50 something students are deeply troubled and causing a great deal of the unrest and danger there.
When the principal and his staff shared at the recent Zoom meeting that they recognize the importance of building relationships of trust with parents, I have to wonder…isn’t this rule number 1 of being a school principal? How is it that this rule has not been wholeheartedly attended to for some time now, leading to the anger and frustration on the part of so many parents and teachers at Haven school?
And finally, it feels to me like a commentary on the utter failure of community wide efforts such as “Cradle to Career,” which has been hugely well funded for at least six years in an effort to provide community supports to families in Evanston to help ensure that Evanston’s students succeed in school and in life.
It appears ever thus in Evanston, that community collaboration projects are doomed to failure, in large part because wider swaths of the community never make it to the table to be part of the problem solving, AND due to the seemingly impenetrable obstacle of the two largest stakeholders in such projects, District 65 and 202, usually refuse to consider real, major, systemic change in their own systems. Instead, they love to invite the community’s involvement in making their work easier, but when it comes to looking at themselves and their own failures, they disappear. Even sharing meaningful information with the community, or wholeheartedly embracing projects the collective impact project has developed to help improve school/community relations, get dropped or underinvested by these two huge institutions.
As a former member of Cradle to Career, who joined with a considerable amount of skepticism from previous experience in Evanston with similar projects, I was not terribly surprised, though still deeply disappointed, with the lack of meaningful embracing of change and real cooperation on the part of these two behemoths of power in our community.
And the problems at Haven feel emblematic of this ongoing, generations long problem. Schools must become resources for families and children and must embrace social emotional supports, transparency, and respect in order for things to improve.
The question is, when and how will this happen, at long last?
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