The report on priorities was signed onto by the District’s 10 top administrators, indicating its importance.
The report on priorities was signed onto by the District’s 10 top administrators, indicating its importance.

This school year, School District 65 is focusing on  implementing seven priorities  that were developed by top administrators of the District and first presented to the School Board on June 10, 2019. The priorities focus everyone’s work on “racial and educational equity, academic growth, and the social and emotional well-being of every child,” Phil Ehrhardt, Co-Interim Superintendent of District 65, told members of the Board at their Dec. 16 meeting.

The seven priorities, discussed below, are interrelated and represent a shift in the way the District is approaching the education of its students, he said.

 “The rationale for this shift was to prioritize our work and narrow our focus in order to increase our impact on academic outcomes for black and Latinx students,” said Dr. Ehrhardt. “The foundation of these priorities is the District’s commitment to racial equity and the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan. The priorities are built on a deep commitment to educational equity and the learning that is being done to elevate our understanding of bias, racism, and white supremacy. They build on this work in two ways; first, by putting our equity learning at the center of teaching and learning, and second, by applying it to creating new and better systems and structures to interrupt practices that perpetuate institutional racism.

“This work is also built on our growing understanding of Zaretta Hammond’s practice areas for ‘Culturally Responsive Pedagogy’ and our desire to deepen these practices in our District. We would not be able to move forward with these priorities without the ongoing work that all educators are doing on a daily basis to understand and implement high quality curricular materials and also provide the best possible learning opportunities for our students. Additionally, it would not be possible without the foundational work that has been done by school climate teams to advance safety and relationships in our schools.”   

Ms. Hammond’s Book

Administrators presented Ms. Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” and her conclusions to the School Board at their Jan. 28, 2019 meeting. At that meeting, Jamilla Pitts, Coordinator of Social Studies and the African American Curriculum program, and Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said the District was adopting Ms. Hammond’s model, and they presented a report on the work being done to implement a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in District 65.

“The Zaretta Hammond model emphasizes sustaining an intellectually and socially safe learning environment that builds students’ intellective capacity while centering a focus on accelerating learning and increasing independence,” said Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley in their report. “In short, we must create and maintain a safe space for learning and give students the intellectual tools of empowered learners. This is the model for culturally responsive pedagogy in District 65.”

In her book, Ms. Hammond emphasizes the need to develop higher-order thinking skills. “The chronic achievement gap in most American schools has created an epidemic of dependent learners unprepared to do the higher order thinking, creative problem solving and analytical reading and writing called for in the new Common Core State Standards,” she says. “Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brain power. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.”

The January report cited data showing that a smaller percentage of black and Hispanic students are on track to college readiness than white students, and more are in the bottom quartile than white students.

 “There was a clear need to identify practices, strategies and resources that were perpetuating achievement and opportunity gaps while identifying and accelerating practices that are proven to advance learning and achievement of historically marginalized students, who in District 65 are historically children of color and second language learners,” says the report.  

Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley say in their report, “Culturally responsive pedagogy seeks to facilitate critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity for all students while accelerating the learning for students who have been historically and systematically underserved.”

When the seven priorities were presented to the School Board on June 10, Dr. Beardsley said, the proposal was to ensure that black and Latinx students are given rigorous, grade-level instruction in the classroom, and that the rigorous instruction is not delayed while the children are provided interventions and supports. The interventions and supports must be in addition to and not in place of the rigorous, grade-level instruction.

The Seven Priorities

On Dec. 16, administrators presented a memo updating the progress on implementing the seven priorities, and  a short summary of what was being done.

Priority #1: “Ensure access to grade-level, Common Core State Standards-aligned assignments for Tier 1 instruction that are rigorous and improve learning for black and Latinx students.”

Romy DeCristofaro, Executive Director of Special Services, said, as part of this strategy, “Teams of educators in the District are reviewing current curricular materials and tools in math, Spanish language arts, and English language arts and in our special education classrooms to ensure high levels of alignment with the common core state standards.”

She said the teams will complete the review by the end of the school year and then “we’ll define plans to adapt current curricular materials or adopt new materials.”

The stated purpose of conducting this review is that “a clear understanding of the standards-aligned materials and current gaps will inform proactive adapting or adopting materials and tools that support implementation and monitoring of priority learning leading to improved learning outcomes for black and Latinx students.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “This work increases the focus on the grade-level standards, the current instruction and includes instructional coaching and professional learning within and beyond the school day.

“So in addition to doing the audit of materials, we’re still very much focused on the day-to-day enactment of those materials to ensure it is meeting the needs of black and Latina students on a daily basis.

 “This curriculum review is being done in conjunction with priority number two and with the team that is leading the design implementation of professional learning focused on increasing cognitive rigor and culturally responsive pedagogy.”

Board President Suni Kartha asked Dr. Beardsley to explain a little more what is meant by aligning the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards.

Dr. Beardsley said, “the idea of the Common Core is not new,” and “the instructional materials are aligned to  the Common Core,” but administrators want to make sure “the standards are manifested in the types of learning that the students are engaged in.

“What we’re also looking at is the quality of that work being made accessible for all of our students in the classroom at a Tier I level and what supports and scaffolds are in place to ensure students are productively engaged in academic struggle to accelerate learning outcomes.

 “Do the materials provide the level of consistent rigor for all of our learners to ensure they are having that experience day in and day out and in our classrooms?”

 Priority #2: “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of cognitively rigorous and culturally responsive instructional practices.”

The stated rational for this strategy is to “build capacity of all educators to implement and monitor rigorous and culturally responsive instructional practices so that all students, especially black and Latinx students, will experience grade appropriate assignments and strong instruction to meet grade level standards.”

Dr. Green said, “We know that there are critical aspects in the research that are shown to help close the achievement gap, and we’re attending to those. We’re paying attention to all students receiving access to grade-level standards aligned rigorous instruction, deeply engaging classwork, and receiving high expectations from their educators.

“This priority connects both standards based instruction and culturally responsive practices and we’re seeking to build a shared understanding while collecting evidence of how this practice looks and lives within our institutional setting.”

As part of this strategy, the District is planning to develop a high quality instructional coaching model for the district, preview an “N-Word” curriculum, participate in Lurie’s LGBTQ training, SEED and Beyond Diversity sessions, and facilitate principal learning to improve the role of the principal as an instructional leader to monitor grade-level curriculum and Tier 1 instruction.

Priority #3: “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of restorative practices to create environments that are intellectually and socially safe for learning.”

The stated rationale of this strategy is that if school climate teams and staff will implement a restorative philosophy and practices in their classrooms and schools, “school cultures will improve, especially for black and Latinx students.”

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said, “We are really centering the need to create these calm and caring environments where we can accelerate learning. We know that we need these environments to accelerate learning.

“This priority speaks to raise the primacy of a trusting environment, especially for black and Latinx students, by embracing the restorative framework.”

 Dr. Khelghati said the District is developing a belief and culture that relationships and community are at the core of the District’s work; it is strengthening the implementation and use of restorative practices, rather than using punitive discipline approaches; and it is using three restorative practice coaches, the school climate teams, and restorative practice leaders in every school to implement this strategy.

Priority # 4: “Ask students and families directly about their goals and school experiences to inform ongoing strategy development, and adjust as appropriate.”

The purpose of this strategy is to develop and implement strategies that “center the voices of our students and parents/caregivers with exceptional focus on black and Latinx perspectives.”

Joaquin Stephenson, Director of Equity and Family/Community Engagement, said, “In order for District 65’s strategies to make an impact on a systemic level as we strive for both racial equity transformation and the elimination of racial achievement disparities, we must gather qualitative and quantitative data from the voices we serve, first and foremost – which are students, parents, and caregivers.

Mr. Stephenson said administrators plan to ask students, parents and caregivers about their current experiences in school and about their goals in a survey. The survey will be given to all middle school students during the school day, he said, and a survey will also be given to parents and caregivers.

“We will disaggregate data and focus on race as a primary society constructed identity. As we examine the presence of the role of whiteness in acting on the conditions, we will ensure that our strategies will be refined and implemented in a way that honors, with exceptional focus, on black and Latinx perspectives.”

Central administrators will use the data to implement changes in strategic planning and to strengthen student support systems, said Mr. Stephenson. By using the data in this way, he said, achievement of black and Latinx students will increase.

Board member Rebeca Mendoza asked if students were involved in preparing the questions to be included in the student survey. She added, “It would be a great opportunity to allow students to voice how we are doing. I would love to hear that.”

Mr. Stephenson said the survey would be given to all fifth- through eighth-graders in the District. He said he had contemplated obtaining input from a focus group of students about the questions to include on the survey, but after hearing Ms. Mendoza’s comments, he said he would try to gather input on the questions from a wider group of students. He added that he would provide the Board with the survey before it goes out. He said the student survey would go out to all fifth- through eighth-graders.

Priority # 5: “Create structures and processes to support consistent and effective two-way communication with staff about district-level decisions and actions.”

The memo presented to the Board states, “We believe that if we create systems to support department leaders to proactively identify specific opportunities to solicit and include two-way communication from staff about District decisions and actions, then our staff members will feel more valued by leadership and feel that their input is meaningful to the decision making.”

Kylie Klein, Director of Research, Accountability and Data, gave some examples on how this strategy was being implemented this year, including in the re-design of the annual Achievement and Accountability Report.

Priority #6: “Foster a culture of collaboration and trust that authentically engages staff to increase student achievement for black and Latinx students.”

Beatrice Davis, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, said the District plans, among other things, to dive into chapters 6 and 12 of Robin DiAngelo’s book, “White Fragility,” to examine how whiteness impacts relationships with students, staff, and families, and how it impacts planning, instruction, and decision making.

 The rationale of this strategy is that “Centering race in professional practice and instruction, while allowing for self-reflection, will improve the educational experience for black and Latinx students.”

Priority #7: “Engage in long-term financial planning to ensure we have the necessary funding for our priorities on the instructional core.”

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Operating and Financial Officer, said, “We all recognize it’s very important to plan to properly allocate the resources that we have in the District to fund all the ideas and goals that my colleagues have expressed.”

Mr. Obafemi said it was essential to be good stewards of the District’s financial resources to make sure that over the long-term, funds are available to provide the curriculum supports necessary for students to achieve. He added that programs should not be started if the District did not have the ability to fund them over the long term.

Board member Candance Chow raised a question about the allocation of resources to the schools that serve many students who reside in the Fifth Ward (e.g., Kingsley, Lincolnwood, Willard, and Orrington). A recent report showed that these schools received the lowest amount of funding on a per pupil basis. She asked how the budget for 2020-2021 would provide adequate funding for the low-income students of color who attended those schools.

Mr. Obafemi said the District’s funding is based on student needs and that schools with high percentages of students with Individual Education Programs (IEPS) or who were English language learners (ELLs), received more funding on a per pupil basis than other schools. Mr. Obafemi said that in developing the budget for the next school year, administrators would make sure the programs are designed to take into account the equitable needs of all segments of the community.

He added that when the administration does the site based reporting in October next year, they will include race as one of the variables, in addition to IEP and ELL status.

Ms. Chow asked if race would be taken into account for the 2020-2021 budget. Mr. Obafemi said, “When funding programs for 2020-2021, we can make sure the programs are developed with a racial lens, and equity lens in the development of these programs. This will capture funds. The budget funds the programs.”

Educating Parents

Board member Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan asked if there is any plan to educate parents about what the District is doing through these strategies and how they impact the students.  Referring to behavior incidents, she said parents may want more punitive measures if they do not understand the District’s restorative justice program.

Mr. Khelghati said it is part of the work that is happening in the schools. He said Joyce Bartz, former Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, may take on a role of helping to educate parents.