Going into the first day of school for Evanston/Skokie District 65 students this Wednesday, the district is working to “bring back the love for learning” and “rebuild trust with all stakeholders” during the coming academic year, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Angel Turner told board members during a curriculum and policy committee meeting Monday afternoon.
Turner and Director of Schools Lydia Ryan led a principal’s retreat in June and conducted “listening tours” with administrators at 15 of the district’s school buildings. Those tours essentially offered principals and assistant principals the opportunity to develop a working relationship with Turner and Ryan and to request support going into the next school year, according to Turner.
At the principal’s retreat and the “School Leaders Revitalization Week” held last week for principals and assistant principals across the district, Turner said she and other central office administrators particularly focused on the importance of individual building leaders coaching and supporting their teachers and staff throughout the year, rather than simply delegating work or telling people what to do.
For example, one of the district’s priorities during both workshop weeks involved “re-norming and establishing shared expectations for communication,” she said.
“Being in the role of director of literacy last year and having the opportunity to do that work, but also do some observation, we experienced a lot of racial issues that came up, and we did not equip leaders with the tools in their toolkit and the strategies to engage in racial healing,” Turner said. “So that was really a primary focus for us. We did some really, really heartfelt and touching work with leaders.”
Many of those issues that Turner referred to especially impacted Haven Middle School, where a number of fights and violent encounters between students and staff damaged the culture and climate in the building throughout the year. Then, in May, Haven teachers and the Evanston Police Department found three nooses hanging from a tree in a recreational area outside the school, which led to a police investigation and a widespread outcry against the racist imagery rooted in America’s history of lynching.
Given the year that many students and teachers experienced at Haven, Turner said a key priority for the district this summer was to change the attitude and culture surrounding the middle school. For instance, staff members helped “rebrand” Haven by repainting parts of the school and installing new lights, she said.
Plus, the district held a back-to-school picnic party last week for Haven students and families, where they had an opportunity to meet their new Assistant Principal Elisa Lopez, whom Turner praised for already connecting with community members before school even started.
“It was just a big deal,” Turner said of the back-to-school picnic. “The energy felt great, and I think what touched my heart was the student ambassadors that the school had, the parents and families that spoke up [about] how they were very appreciative to be in the school and immersed. I feel like we’re on a really good start.”
Curriculum and Policy committee members Biz Lindsay-Ryan and Anya Tanyavutti said they were excited to see how the work of Turner and her team will make a positive impact this year, and Lindsay-Ryan also encouraged Turner to extend the collaborative efforts with principals to teachers, families and students as well.
Teachers and staff officially started work Monday morning with an opening day convocation and celebration at Quad Indoor Sports, and Tanyavutti said the district’s preparation for the year over the summer really translated to Monday’s event.
“I felt like the enthusiasm for the school year was palpable at the convocation this morning, and I’m sure that a lot of that has to do with this level of readiness that our leaders are feeling and the way that they’ve been able to translate the relationships that they’ve built to relationships with their teams and their buildings,” Tanyavutti said. “That’s always a promising start.”