Editor’s note: For more information about District 65 finances, read our story about the projected budget for this coming year here.
At Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Curriculum and Policy Committee, school board members and district administrators heard updates from several principals at Evanston elementary and middle schools about their priorities for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year.
The principals who spoke at the meeting mentioned plans to increase inclusion and a sense of belonging for all students, expand investments in social-emotional learning and improve communication with families, among other topics.
Many of the principals and board members present Tuesday, June 7, highlighted the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the mental health and wellbeing of students, and they stressed the importance of meeting increased student needs over the next year.
Dewey Elementary School Principal Kimberly Watson, who recently took a short leave of absence, was one of the principals on hand for Tuesday evening’s presentations to the committee. Watson previously had informed Dewey families in an email sent on May 20 that she would be taking a “personal leave of absence.”
“I have always served the Dewey community with the deepest love, honesty and integrity,” Watson wrote at the time. “It’s important for my personal health that I take this time right now.”
Watson’s leave of absence also followed a contentious virtual town hall meeting with well over 100 parents and families on May 18, where she addressed concerns about the school climate, culture and involuntary teacher transfers to new schools for the next year.
But on Friday, June 3, Watson informed families that she was returning to school for the final few academic days of the year this week, and she gave a presentation outlining her goals for the coming school year to the board during Tuesday’s meeting.
“Being a new leader at the school and brand-new to the school district, it’s apparent that there is a need to create stronger community and to increase closeness at Dewey School,” Watson said Tuesday. “The ‘why’ behind this is also that historical barriers keep many families from coming into the school, whether it’s for school events, drop off or pick up, parent-teacher conferences, whatever it may be.”
As part of that goal to expand connectedness and understanding among parents, families, teachers, staff and administrators at Dewey, Watson said she plans to increase her visibility and presence within the building and the community at large. With remote learning during the pandemic, she fell into the habit of conducting her work on a screen and trying to respond to any parent concerns over email, she said.
Board representative Anya Tanyavutti praised Watson for her reflections on how to improve her leadership skills, but also said the district needs to find a way to address “harmful relationships” that principals may experience when working with parents and families.
“I appreciate the focus on communication with families at Dewey, but I also want to acknowledge that there has been some dysfunction and some communications that have bordered on abuse in terms of communications with families at Dewey,” Tanyavutti said. “And we all grow through accountability and relationship-building, so I just want to know how Dr. Watson will get support to focus on increasing and improving communication, but also not necessarily amplifying exposure to abusive behaviors.”
Going further, Tanyavutti added that “there is some inherited culture and climate of dysfunction and abuse” at Dewey that already existed when Watson took over as principal in the fall of 2021.
In response to Tanyavutti, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Terrance Little and Director of Literacy Angel Turner, who just received a promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said they have already had a presence at Dewey throughout this spring and they plan on working closely with Watson to establish protocols for communicating with families and providing regular informative updates.
And despite the challenges that Watson has faced at Dewey, now that many new administrators and Watson herself have a year under their belt, they will be ready to hit the ground running with more preparation and a better understanding of the community, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said.
“I’ll be very honest with you, there is some serious resetting and reestablishing of some damaged relationships there [that needs to be done],” Turner said. “We know that going into next school year.”