By Nona Tepper
In 2018, the Illinois State Board of Education rated River Forest School District 90 "exemplary," the highest designation possible, which only 10 percent of schools in the state received. In the state's annual test of students' math and reading abilities, River Forest students again scored above the state in every grade level in every subject. All this could be described as "business as usual" for D90.
"We've always been a high-performing district," said Ralph Martire, president of the D90 Board of Education.
Despite the consistent academic accolades, about four years ago D90 realized it had a problem. It wasn't a finance, capacity or resource issue. "We had a couple of experiences with students that happened in a short period of time, where families indicated they felt excluded," D90 Superintendent Ed Condon said. And board members had noticed a consistent disparity between majority and minority students' academic performance. "As you tracked cohorts throughout the years, the disparity got worse," Martire said. D90 had a systems issue.
"While we're fortunate to have a very supportive community, outstanding teachers and dedicated students and families, the reality is that people were having varying experiences with school," Condon said. "If there's any group, any individual, who are feeling this isn't a place for them, that's not OK. Most would agree that for a school to be truly successful, it's gotta work for everyone."
In 2014, D90 formed the Inclusiveness Advisory Board, in an effort to make sure the district considered the needs and voice of everyone in River Forest.
About six months later, the board formed an equity committee — officially composed of two board, faculty, administration, and community members — to study the latest, evidence-based research on how to effectively address the achievement gap. Martire, executive director of the Center of Tax and Budget Accountability and co-author of the state's new evidence-based funding model, who served on the federal Excellence and Equity Commission during the Obama administration, was particularly well qualified to chair the group.
The committee spent a year reading books, journal articles and summaries of best practices for districts to obtain equitable education. They then applied what they found to River Forest, charging D90 with implementing a new instructional pedagogy that would eliminate achievement gaps, diversifying D90's workforce, instituting professional development, adapting more culturally appropriate teaching materials, making the equity committee a permanent standing group, and embedding equity initiatives into the district's strategic plan.
The board voted unanimously to accept the proposals. And the district, under the leadership of Condon, has spent a good chunk of time since then working to implement these mandates.
Which brings us to where we are today.
"This equity initiative — we know it's the way to promote excellence for all kids on any range of the spectrum," Martire said. "So we're really excited about what this will mean for the future of D90 and we think that we will be a leading district in academic performance and equity, not just in Illinois but nationally, in about five years."
After accepting the committee's recommendations, D90 has since implemented a whole new teaching model, named the universal design for learning (UDL). Under the UDL system, students are given more freedom in how they achieve mastery of subjects like math or English, expressing their ideas through 3D printing, songs, essays, or whatever they're most comfortable with.
"It promotes more critical thinking and more problem solving. A lot of what they will do in math, science, history, whatever, is discuss an issue," Martire said. "It's OK to be wrong in your analysis as long as you work it out with your peers. This really gets the kids thinking, hearing everybody's point of view. Suddenly everyone's point of view matters. Suddenly the system cares about and is soliciting your unique input and is valuing your input."
In addition to implementing a new educational framework, the board also contracted with the National Equity Project, a leadership organization focused on correcting biases and academic gaps between majority and minority students. The group was charged with training teachers, administration, and even the board to recognize implicit biases they may hold. The board undergoes this training about three times a year during public meetings.
"That's difficult and can make some people defensive, and that's completely understandable. That said, we still had to do it because a major element of the system is the faculty and administration," Martire said. "People are the most important element of that system. So that was really a crucial initiative started with professional development. There was some natural resistance from the faculty. But we stayed with it and by the third evidence-based session we surveyed our teachers and over 90 percent said, 'Oh my God, I had no idea I was doing that and I want practical tips to be able to better reach students.'"
D90 also did a full review of its human resources records, to find historical and current data on what portion of its staff were of color, along with reasons why employees stayed in the district, why they left, and how the district could better support them.
"We had a consultant look at it, and it was something like a high 80 or 90 percent chance that, if you're an African-American student attending D90 to eighth grade, you'll never have had a black instructor," Martire said. The consultant implemented a competency-based hiring strategy to increase the number of highly-qualified, diverse candidates submitting their resumes to D90. "We have, in fact, diversified our hiring since we went to this. It's somewhere like 30 percent plus have been diverse new hires," he said.
Now the board is in the process of creating a longitudinal online dashboard of student outcomes to monitor how these institutional changes affect student progress over time. The dashboard will be composed of student scores in the annual, state-mandated Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, individual students' performance in class — including grades on assignments and engagement — disciplinary rates, involvement in extracurricular activities and more. The dashboard should be finished and unveiled to the public around February, and will be updated on an ongoing basis.
"It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or Democrat, or conservative or liberal, or somewhere in between. Most people believe that what the American dream kind of stands for is that the circumstances of your birth don't limit the outcomes for your life," Martire said. "So if your educational system is not designed to encourage all students to attain high academic standards, to allow all students to attain high academic standards, you're actually getting in the way of what I think most agree is core to the American dream, to go to where your innate abilities and work ethic will take you."
For their efforts in spearheading this initiative, Ralph Martire and Ed Condon have been named co-Villagers of the Year in River Forest.
Answer Book 2019
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