The District 65 and District 202 school boards gathered for a joint board meeting on Monday, Oct. 24. Credit: Duncan Agnew

At the joint meeting of Evanston/Skokie District 65 and Evanston Township High School District 202 school boards the discussion on Monday, Oct. 24, was about collaboration across the aisle on security and literacy.

In the wake of incidents that occurred last year at schools around the city – including a lockdown due to a gun threat at ETHS in December 2021 and several fights that broke out at Haven Middle School in the spring – both districts have launched new safety programs this fall.

District 65’s new manager and assistant manager of prevention and special response were in place this fall, said Assistant Superintendent of Operations Terrance Little. The two managers have already taken some of the security load off the school administrators’ shoulders, Little said.

“One of the things we were able to do was to actually free up principals’ time,” Little said. “So now they can have more leadership inside their building, have more instructional time to coach their teachers and just spend that time with their school communities.”

Previously, principals took the lead on investigating disciplinary incidents, Little said. Now, that responsibility falls to the manager and assistant manager of prevention and special response.

At Haven Middle School the district has four new family and community engagement liaisons who work individually with students exhibiting a high need for extra support either behaviorally, physically or emotionally, according to Director of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer.

District 65 is also still working to train more teachers and staff in crisis prevention and intervention. The training programs did not take place during the first two years of the pandemic, Palmer and District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said.

“Last year at this time, we had an unbelievable amount of suspensions and disruptions,” Horton said.

Palmer estimated the district had issued between 10 and 15 suspensions by late October 2021. This year, only one student has received a suspension, he said.

“Realistically, suspensions don’t change behaviors,” Palmer said.

District 65 Director of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer (far right) and Assistant Superintendent of Operations Terrance Little (second from right) presented safety updates to board members on Monday. Credit: Duncan Agnew

“Now, there are instances where you’re going to have to suspend [students] … but when we talk about the first two or three months of the school year, it’s about really building relationships, figuring out what’s going on with the behavior and trying to identify the need of the student, as opposed to having them miss instructional time,” he added.

ETHS Superintendent Marcus Campbell and Assistant Superintendent/Principal Taya Kinzie complimented Palmer and Little’s efforts. Kinzie said exclusionary practices like suspensions should only be used as a last resort. Ultimately, strong relationships between staff and students are the best way to prevent violent or unsafe situations, according to Kinzie.

District 202 board Vice President Monique Parsons added that District 65 really sets the expectations for students in terms of their behavior and interactions in school, and those experiences end up translating over to ETHS.

“I just want to say to District 65, I appreciate you moving out of the performative conversation around safety and discipline,” Parsons said. “What I’m hearing, now, is the actualization. You’re actually doing this work. We’re all talking about safety differently than we have in the past, but to really hear it with its intensity about how you’re addressing it, is very much appreciated.”

Later in the meeting, administrators and staff members from both districts talked about plans to increase collaboration on career and technical education, counseling and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a program designed to help low-income students and students of color succeed in middle school and high school.

Seniors in the AVID program at ETHS, for example, recently visited District 65 middle schools to meet students and talk about their goals and aspirations.

Joint literacy goal

One of the topics not on the agenda Monday was the longstanding joint literacy goal between the districts, which the boards first established in the early 2010s.

That goal lays out a plan to have all students reading proficiently by the time they graduate from ETHS, but the pandemic and struggles comparing test score data from middle school to high school have delayed both districts’ progress toward reaching that aim.

Still, several District 202 board members said they hoped to get an update on literacy at the next joint meeting in the spring, which District 65 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley promised to do.

“This board has regularly pushed for some information on progress toward that joint literacy goal, and I hope we’re not losing sight of that,” District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston said. “And I hope we’re going to get a report this spring that gives not just the two boards, but our entire community, some sort of picture of the progress we’ve made, plans for making more progress and what that looks like from a perspective of, frankly, accountability.”

Several representatives from both districts, including District 202 board President Pat Savage-Williams and District 65 board President Sergio Hernandez, also said they saw a need to “rethink” joint literacy goal because of COVID-19 and the biases of standardized tests.

Superintendent Horton said the goal, as it currently exists, has been “a challenge to really make sense of” and “didn’t have true direction.”

Overall, the latest available data shows that just over 50% of ETHS freshmen are meeting or exceeding literacy expectations based on standardized test performance, but that number drops significantly for Black, Latino and low-income students, among others.

“We really need to find some bold approaches and steps and different measures to really get to the core and the root cause of why our students aren’t performing where they should be,” Hernandez said.

“For me, it’s about building those relationships, about providing foundational supports for students and helping families understand those supports and how to navigate the systems in order for their children to be successful … I really think it behooves us to rethink how we measure success in our community.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...