At the Jan. 17 meeting of the District 65 School Board Policy Committee, Shyla Kinhal, director of literacy, said the literacy department has been working “to identify challenges within our current literacy system and to begin to move towards improvement that is focused on deepening educator learning, improving the materials and resources in our system, and shifting educator practice.”

Shyla Kinhal, director of literacy at School District 65.

This school year, she said, the literacy department has engaged in five specific actions “to deepen educator learning and strengthen literacy practices and student performance.” One major change is the district’s plan to select new instructional materials and curriculum for English literacy and language arts for grades K-5. The new materials and curriculum would replace the Lucy Calkins’ curriculum that is currently being used.

Kinhal has been the director of literacy since August 2022.

Shifting resources

Kinhal presented a graphic showing a wide difference in achievement levels between white students and Black and Hispanic students. On the 2022 Illinois Assessment of Readiness, 59% of white students met standards in English Language Arts, compared to about 16% of Black students and 22% of Hispanic students.

 “I think this data sort of suggests a need to more deeply examine our literacy practices, and the need to shift to a new resource,” said Kinhal.

Kinhal said the research shows that it is essential that students be instructed in grade-level work in order to improve their achievement. One of the seven priorities the district adopted in June 2019 is to teach all students grade-level work, with supports, rather than teaching struggling students at a lower level with the idea of bolstering their achievement before exposing them to grade-level work.

“What the opportunity myth showed us is that the single most important determination of whether students achieve proficiency on grade-level work is if they’re given access to engage with that grade level work,” Kinhal said. “It’s not the only thing, but a core part of that – at the heart of that – is really high-quality instructional materials.

“I think the thing that I also really want to underscore is that all research has shown that 95% of students are cognitively capable of learning to read, but right now our national data suggests something really different. And so, I also want to call this out as not just sort of an Evanston or District 65 issue, but really a national issue. And it’s really calling on districts to think about how we need to shift what we’re currently doing in order to make sure that we’re getting closer to that 95%.”

The current curricular resource in district kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms is Calkins’ Reading and Writing Units of Study. In addition, Calkins’ Phonics Units of Study is being used in kindergarten through second grades. Kinhal said, “Reviews of this resource have highlighted significant gaps, including:

  • “Lack of explicit, systematic and diagnostic foundational skills instruction,  
  • “Lack of texts that are appropriately complex for all grade levels,
  • “Overemphasis on reading skills and strategies (materials do not systematically build knowledge for students), and
  • “Lack of high-quality assessment practices to meaningfully assess grade level content.

“Given this information,” Kinhal said, “it is imperative that the district engage in a curriculum selection process to select a high-quality and equitable English Literacy and Language Arts curriculum in grades K-5 and plan for high-quality professional learning to support teachers in making shifts that support equitable literacy instruction.”

Kinhal said the new curriculum should ensure that students learn how to read and that they have the “foundational skills” to be fluent readers, ideally by third grade. She added that students should be excited about reading and be able to read complex texts. They must expand their knowledge of the world and ‘’develop a trove of knowledge to reference whenever they read.” They should read a lot to expand their vocabulary. They should deepen their understanding of what they read through regular reading of complex texts, and the district should offer supports to ensure that all students have access to complex texts and succeed in reading those texts. The district should use culturally responsive texts and instructional practices in the classroom.

”Ultimately, kids should feel really passionate and excited about what they’re learning,” Kinhal said. “But that comes from really being able to attack and understand text. And that comes from really being able to read complex text.

“What research shows is the way that you can read increasingly complex texts is if you know about a topic, so a high-quality curricular resource will have students learning about literacy through topics, and topic-aligned text sets.”  

Quoting author and teacher educator Zaretta Hammond, Kinhal said, “This is the vital equity work: students must comprehend what they’re reading, possess advanced decoding skills, have word wealth, and be able to command all of these literacy skills.”

An English Literacy and Language Arts Curriculum Selection team, which includes classroom teachers, instructional coaches, interventionists and Emergent Bilingual teachers, has been meeting regularly to discuss a process to use in selecting new materials and curriculum, said Kinhal.

Kinhal said there are three goals of the selection process:

First, “Select curricular materials that support a clear and equitable vision of excellent literacy instruction aligned to the research base of Scarborough’s Reading Rope, with stakeholder participation in the process.”

Second, “Build a team of champions who can support communication and build investment district-wide.” She said, “I keep getting emails of more people who want to join the committee. So, it is big, and it is growing. And that’s really exciting because the more voices we have in the process, the better. I do have dates sort of mapped out for when I’ll be having family webinars and a couple of in-person engagements just to make sure families understand and are invested and have a voice and what’s the change that’s about to come.”

Third, “Develop an intentional adoption and implementation plan – including what it will take to use and support the materials well to set teachers up for success.” Kinhal said selecting a resource is important, “but it’s also about what happens after the resource is selected in terms of support, building teacher capacity building, school leader and instructional coach capacity. It’s really part of a system to make that change. And we can do that best when we know what resource we’re using.”

Kinhal said meetings have been held with instructional coaches, principals, interventionists and teachers to advise them “where we are in the process” and to solicit feedback on a draft “ELA [English Language Arts] Instructional Vision.” A draft screener to “review curricular resources has been developed,” and five possible curricular resources have been identified to review: Wit and Wisdom, Fundations and Geodes, CKLA, EL Education and MyView.

The next steps include engaging in deep reviews of the instructional materials, meeting with additional stakeholders (families, teachers, etc.) to solicit input and meeting with literacy expert(s) to inform curriculum selection.

Under the timeline, the plan is:  

  • In February and March: review the materials, host a family webinar and coffees and conversations on the literacy changes, solicit feedback on the top two choices, decide on the new curriculum by the end of March and develop pathways for adoption of the new curriculum.
  • In April and May: procure materials and plan for implementation, host a family webinar to communicate the decision, develop goals for implementation in years one and two, identify roles of school leaders and develop a professional learning structure.
  • In June/summer and in the school year 2023-24: train instructional leaders and teachers on the new curriculum, determine plans for assessment and grading, solidify systems for school leader and teacher learning, observe work in action and track trends and solve problems.

Only two District 65 School Board members attended the policy committee meeting: Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan and Soo La Kim, both of whom are members of the policy committee. Lindsay-Ryan asked a question that had been submitted before the meeting by board member Joey Hailpern: whether a curriculum existed that filled the needs of District 65, and if the committee had considered “taking the best components of existing systems and making our own hybrid version of that, rather than having to choose one that is already in existence.”

Kinhal said, “No curricular resource is perfect. So, anything that we choose we’ll have to adjust for the District 65 context.” She added that the district might use one resource for the word recognition strand and another resource for the language comprehension strand. “I think, ultimately, what we want is the best resource for people. And if that means we’re leveraging different pieces from different places, I think that’s fine. What does happen, though, is that it can become a little harder for professional learning to feel as sort of aligned. But it’s possible. And if that’s the right choice for the district, then we just have to plan for that with intention.”

Stacy Beardsley, assistant superintendent of curriculum & instruction, said, “When you’re taking together different pieces, and putting them together, it becomes complicated. So, we’ll have to wade through those things.”

Kinhal added, “I think starting with a really core resource and using it with enough integrity to really understand how it should feel first is somewhat important. And then start saying, ‘OK, where did that feel off? How? Why? Where?’ And then start to make decisions from there in terms of adjustments.”

The RoundTable asked Kinhal after the meeting if the district considered implementing a pilot at one or more schools to test out the new resource or resources before selecting it and implementing it on a district-wide basis.

Kinhal responded, “Yes, most of our schools are using trial materials in at least one grade level. These include various curricular materials that support the development of reading, writing and speaking skills with an intentional (but not exclusive) focus on foundational skills in the earlier grades. Schools have been using one of three different trial resources during their ELA block. These materials will be reviewed by our K-5 ELA Committee using our evidence-based screener to help us identify the curricular resource we will adopt for next year.”

The RoundTable also noted that the district at one time had 45 reading specialists, and it phased down that number to about 20 as of a few years ago, and then the district decided to eliminate all reading specialists and replace them with interventionists. The RoundTable asked if the district might use reading specialists again under the new plan.  

Kinhal said, “In the past seven years, the number of interventionists in the district has been between 20 and 25. We did close the reading specialist job description (which was an intervention role with a focus solely on literacy) and simultaneously opened interventionist positions. These interventionists can provide interventions across content areas and are able to be responsive to school and student needs. 

“At this point, it is our goal to partner with the interventionists in our schools and ensure they are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively support students in meeting standards aligned goals. This will include leveraging the instructional practices and shifts from the selected curricular resource to provide high quality instruction to students who are not yet on grade level.”

Other initiatives

Kinhal summarized four other initiatives the literacy department is undertaking this year to improve reading instruction and student achievement.

First, LETRS Training: The LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) is a two-year professional learning course focused on evidence-based literacy practices being offered in grades K-3. Educators from three schools are engaged in this professional learning.

“It’s a big deep investment,” said Kinhal. “People kind of refer to it as a college course almost.” She said the first year is really all about word recognition, and how to help kids crack the alphabetic code. “So, teachers are spending all year long learning strategies on how to do that.”

Hailpern submitted a question asking how the district could expand this program to include more teachers. Administrators said they decided to implement the program in only three schools because of the complexity of the professional learning involved and “to try to go full scale as a district would have been a flop for us.” They said the program has been successful and it is now spreading, and it will be offered at additional schools.

Second, Improving Reading for Older Students (IROS): IROS is a professional learning course created by Achieve the Core that is being offered in grades 4-8 with a focus on learning about how to propel reading progress, considering how to support students in rebuilding their academic confidence and gaining practical skills for how to implement these ideas to support students in regular classroom settings.

“Improving Reading for Older Students is really great for teachers in grades four to eight around how to help all kids tackle complex texts meaningfully,” said Kinhal.

Third, Trial of Instructional Materials in K-5: The Literacy Department is supporting the implementation of trial materials through professional learning opportunities focused on understanding the instructional shifts embedded in the materials.

Fourth, Aligned Literacy Professional Learning Offerings: There are several other literacy aligned work from other district departments including Biliteracy Squared with the Multilingual Department and literacy intervention professional learning with the Individualized Education Services Department.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...

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  1. Thank you Larry Gavin for another in-depth article on D65 happenings that likely would not get any publicity otherwise. I also appreciate the responses from Shyla Kinhal to further elucidate the thought process here. It’s clear that this is taking a lot of work and analysis on her end.

    Having said the above, I do have a couple of concerns with all this:

    1.) It seems that D65 is changing its curriculum for math and/or reading ALL THE TIME. Haven’t they gone through like three different math curriculums in recent years or something ridiculous? This doesn’t give enough time to actually assess if the curriculum is working, and gives both teachers and students whiplash as they keep changing things on them, probably impacting consistency and growth. I have no opinion on if the Lucy Calkins’ literary curriculum is “better/more suited” or not, but feel that D65 should give some curriculums time to mature rather than changing on a whim all the time.

    2.) One thing I have noticed with D65 communications is they are often full of jargon, theory, and extremely abstract when they should be CLEAR and CONCISE when the intended audience is the public/parents. There is almost an attempt to “sound smart” from administrators/board members, rather than actually informing constituents and being transparent. In my experience in the scientific community, people that try to “sound smart” but cannot explain things in a clear manner don’t usually know what they’re talking about. So, either some of these individuals don’t know what they’re talking about, are poor communicators, and/or are intentionally trying to obfuscate. All of those are undesirable. And I’m not advocating for hiring a communications team….And I’m not talking specifically about the responses here as this was a different forum (and I thought , but it brought to mind emails to parents and the like (e.g. in a communication on a 3rd-grade activity, there was a very wordy and dense message including the need to “vet material through a less colonial lens.” Do administrators actually want to communicate clearly to parents and the public? It’s not a scholarly paper). The inability to communicate clearly and be transparent is a potential concern.

    Finally, while I appreciate the efforts to increase the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards, I find the complete lack of EVER mentioning or trying to grow the percentage of students exceeding standards to be telling. Certainly, additional resources/support for students struggling should be deployed as those are the students that need the largest lift. But that doesn’t mean that D65 should be complacent with having its student populace being “average”/meeting standards, we should want to drive for academic EXCELLENCE, and be looking to get as many students as possible into that category. The attempt should be for every student to reach his or her full potential, with of course, additional resources dedicated to those behind, but also not neglect those that are “at” or “above” standards — those students should continue to grow so as to prepare them for a life of academic and career excellence in a variety of disciplines. The goals set forward by the board/administration is ALWAYS about meeting standards (which have recently ben lowered…), never an attempt to increase the percentage of high-achieving students in the district. And the Evanston demographic has a large percentage of students/families that SHOULD be high achieving if compared across other districts with similar characteristics. Again, this shouldn’t be the primary focus in my opinion, but at least should be on the radar…