Four years into their respective tenures, District 97’s Al Roberts and District 200’s Steven Isoye feel that their visions have taken root in their districts.

Both were hired in 2010. Both took over districts that were in a transition and had experienced some turmoil. 

The two superintendents have received contract extensions and salary bumps from their districts — Isoye a five-year extension in 2012 and Roberts a three-year deal the same year. Both talked with Wednesday Journal recently about where their district are going and where they’ve been.

 Equity and achievement gaps

Isoye, the former principal of Maine East High School in Park Ridge, has tried to put race and equity in the forefront of the school’s thinking and practices with respect to student achievement and how staff and faculty do their jobs. But not everyone in the school has fully embraced these discussions, Isoye admitted.

“There’s always a blend. You get the whole mix of where people are at in terms of equity from, ‘I don’t know why we’re spending the time to do this because I don’t see color; everybody’s the same,’ to the ‘absolutely, you’re right, let’s do this,’ to the ‘I’m not really sure about this, let’s talk about it a little bit further because this is a whole new topic.’

“Let’s face it,” he said, “this country has not been a place where we talk about race. I think we think we do but we don’t, and that’s my own opinion and not a reflection of the school. If you would ask me what has happened in the last four years, I think we have made steps,” Isoye said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve made leaps, but I think we are taking steps in our understanding.”

Faculty and staff are undergoing a year-long equity training on the issue, and faculty is discussing the issue in their respective “team teaching” groups, Isoye said.

“All of those groups have gone through the training to talk about and really keep it in the forefront of whatever topic their talking about, to bring up race and how race plays into the different experiences our students are having.” 

Some of that discussion was already going on before his hiring but has increased in the last four years, Isoye said.

Roberts, a veteran superintendent hired from a suburban Detroit school district, said race and equity are also front-and-center in D97. The “buy-in” aspect with faculty, administrators and staff is something Roberts says he has worked for. The equity issue, and its importance, is reflected in how faculty and administrators do their work, he said. 

The high school uses the model designed by educator Charlotte Danielson on quality teaching. Isoye said race and equity do come up in discussions with faculty and staff though not specifically in their teacher-evaluation model. 

Roberts added, “The leader in every building has to believe that [race and equity are] important, and I think we’re there — that’s not an issue. In terms of the Danielson model and what we’re using, we have to help teachers who may be struggling to recognize that this is one of their professional responsibilities under the evaluation model — not in a threatening way but in how can we get better?

“If I’m stagnant as the superintendent, then the district suffers,” Roberts added. “So while people may complain — ‘Oh, he’s got another idea’ — if I didn’t, there would be reason to complain another way, so we can’t be stagnant here and we have to press forward with those strategies. One way is to bring those strategies to teachers and then observe them in use,” Roberts said, noting that the district has brought in outside educators and experts on equity and race to work with faculty and staff.

“As part of the [Danielson] model, there is a part of the Illinois Standards for Leadership that asks, ‘Are you living the mission, vision and values of your system?’ I believe that’s part of the Danielson model as well.”

It’s not about “checking off a list,” Roberts said, but embedding race and equity thinking into district culture.

“We’re not there for everybody yet, but I can tell you we’re getting there. We’ve made some pretty good progress in the last three years, but changing the atmosphere and culture in any organization takes time and hard work. Diversity needs to be infused in who we are.”

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