About 1,300 teachers and staff from District 65 gathered at the 65,000 square-foot Quad Indoor Sports for a spirited convocation Monday, Aug. 22, preparing for the start of school.

The Chute eagle takes its place among teachers of Chute Middle School at the District 65 convocation on Aug. 22 at Quad Indoor Sports. Credit: Richard Cahan

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss were among the leaders addressing the audience, and both brought messages of unity.

It was a rousing multi-visual event with music, awards and slide shows. Members of the huge audience represented their school with T-shirts and signs, and everyone stood up, danced, cheered and hoisted signs as the roll call of schools was listed.

In his address, Horton, superintendent since 2020, spoke of the special challenges the district endured during the pandemic. He also acknowledging that there had been infighting but pushed heavily for unity.

“What I’m learning as a leader,” he said, “it’s critical that I don’t get caught up in all of the negative things that’s happening because there’s so many magnificent things happening in our professional life and also in our personal life.”

Superintendent Devon Horton (right) honors Kingsley Elementary School Principal David Davis and others at the convocation. Credit: Richard Cahan

“When I saw what teachers went through in the last few years and our staff, it was heartbreaking,” he said. “Teachers across the country, leaders across the country, school systems, let’s be honest we took the burden of this pandemic. We started fighting, forgetting what’s going well. And I want to say to you, everyone in this room, that we are together.”

“I can’t do this job without you,” he said facing a sea of staff members as well as the many members of District 65’s Educators’ Council (DEC), the union that represents roughly 800 educators.  “Our team, our wonderful board, can’t. And I hope you know that you can’t do without us. We have to be united because it’s critical.”

The on-screen photographs started with pictures that appeared to date back to the 1800s. The pictures then evolved to show transformation and school diversity over time. Horton said, in Evanston, that “we’re leading, it’s unmatched, around our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

“Our schools don’t look that way,” he said referring back to one of the older pictures. “And its critical for us to understand that every single person – including the teacher, the para-pros [para-professionals], the students, the parents that have some connection to these classrooms – that the culture matters. And how we teach, what we teach, it’s all connected.”

‘Beating heart’ of the community

Biss, speaking before Horton, emphasized the importance of the connection between city and schools, “because the truth is that we are one, the city and school districts, we work hand in hand. We serve the same people and we believe in the same values.

“We, at the city government, with the  power to tow your car, we like to think of ourselves as kind of control in this town,” he said. “But the truth is the beating heart of this community is our schools and we are here to do everything we can to help you be the great organization that you are.”

He said that went with the district’s push to reestablish a neighborhood school in the city’s Fifth Ward. “We as a city are here to work hand-in-hand to provide whatever support you need,” he said. “That is critical for our shared value of racial justice. And we are here to thank you for taking that critical step.”

Biss also referred to the the special challenge the pandemic posed for the school district as students returned to the classrooms again.

“Doing that now, helping our young people who lost so much,’” said Biss, and “figure out how do we integrate into life together in a healthy and constructive and loving and supportive way is the most important thing our society is doing now.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. Suzy Schultz,

    Thank you for looking into the prayers at the convocation for D65 staff
    Yes, some legislative bodies have some kind of prayer. However, I have worked in 4 different public school districts in Illinois for most of the school years since 1991. Not once did the first day back to school for staff involve prayers. This is very atypical for a public school. And in my opinion completely inappropriate and a violation of church and state.

  2. Can we stop with the negativity and bickering already? Let’s give our educators a chance to get the school year off on the right track. And in terms of the speaker who offered the “prayer”, I was not in attendance, but an earlier article in this publication listed the three speakers (Mayor Biss, Superindent Horton, and the Rev. Michael Nabors, a beloved member our community and local leader of the NAACP).

    1. Dear Kristine, Thank you. I prefer to think that people are talking, discussing and figuring things out at our site. We want people to feel comfortable doing that here. It is why we ask people to give us their full name. Our job is to then provide facts and answer questions for that exploration. And sometimes, yes, our job also means holding respected community members who are in power accountable. We try to do all of it with respect. That is not easy as we are living in an era when asking a question can be interpreted as disrespectful. But disrespect is not our intent. We also look to our readers to hold us accountable. The question was asked here if the prayers offered were in accordance with our Constitution’s separation of church and state? Our answer is we have no idea but we will ask those who do. We do the best we can to try and answer questions and get it right. When we make a mistake, we tell you. Speaking of mistakes, yes, Mayor Daniel Biss and Superintendent Devon Horton spoke at the event. But Rev. Michael Nabors did not speak. Instead, it was Minister Spencer Nabors, also from the Second Baptist Church. Our earlier article was in error. Susy Schultz, editor

  3. My hope is that teachers, staff and students feel supported this year. However, the proof will be in the actions of the district. Many are still reeling from the events of last spring and the ripple effect from those incidents and district decisions are still reverberating through our community. The consequences don’t stop at the district doors. It’s going to take a lot more than a pep rally to heal this community. And let’s keep the prayers out of a conversation that requires meaningful action.

  4. Hey Evanston Roundtable, will you be submitting a FOIA for the prayer they read and the costs of this event? I will do it if you don’t.

    1. Dear Tom, We do not need an FOI request for the prayer as we have the transcript. One of our reporters, taped the remarks. We are asking a few experts about it and will be reporting back to the community what we find. Having been a reporter for several decades and covered stories about the separation of church and state, I respect and understand your concerns and those of many others who have called and written to us. But I have also covered the openings of various legislative bodies and different governmental events that have a benediction given as a matter of course. And I’ve not heard complaints. We are not experts at the RoundTable about where the lines are here. That is why we are reaching out to people who know better. And again, we will report back whatever we find. Thank you, Tom. Susy Schultz, editor

      1. Thank you for the thoughtful response!

        I think my argument is not necessarily that benedictions at the start of a legislative session or school year are necessarily bad or against the rules. Maybe there are separation issues but I think it’s minor. I think the issue here is the hypocrisy. District 65, its administration and Board are putting themselves out there as prioritizing *equity and inclusion* above all else. I find it hard to reconcile a Christian prayer/benediction with this mission statement.

        The district gets a lot of heat about the equity position as prioritizing some students over others based on race, religion, or other criteria. This move certainly doesn’t help make their case.

  5. How are you not reporting on the Christian prayer service that happened at this convocation? Now we’re allowing faith leaders to speak and pray over our teachers?? Appalling. And Biss, who never wants to get involved, is suddenly at this event and is ok with what he witnessed? We have lost all control of this district and listen up tax-payers…our property values will decline because of this nonsense.

  6. Why aren’t you mentioning that they prayed at this kickoff.
    People in the crowded We’re appalled and they were looking at each other going what in the heck is going on here!
    Illinois specifically has a moment of silence law for prayer at school. You’re allowed to pray To whatever God you want or none at all in silence.
    But this was not what happened today. We went to Christian church this morning. This was incredibly offensive to many people in the crowd. We have an incredibly diverse staff. As we have an incredibly diverse student body.
    After that most of the crowd did not pay attention to anything else that was being said.

    1. For a district that spends all their time preaching about “equity” and “inclusion” I’m not sure how they can reconcile doing a prayer at this event.

      1. Tom Hayden makes an excellent point about equity and inclusion. If that is the goal then we must include everyones values not just those of our Superintendent.