D65 takes steps to improve kindergarten readiness, close opportunity gap


Patrick Svitek/The Daily Northwesetern

The Evanston/Skokie District 65 Education Center, at 1500 McDaniel Avenue.

Gabrielle Bienasz, Reporter

Evanston/Skokie District 65’s Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center hired new staff, increased outreach to parents and added training for staff to improve the racial disparity in kindergarten readiness as part of the district’s continued effort to address the opportunity gap.

These initiatives were part of a three-year strategic plan introduced in April 2019. It includes goals such as hiring a more diverse staff, implementing the curriculum in a “culturally responsive” and consistent way and sending staff to additional training. It does not require additional funding.

JEH director Sharon Sprague said the district has also been working to increase engagement with parents. Attendance at the parents’ open house this year more than doubled — from 81 adults to 250, out of a student body of 300.

“There’s a real sense of urgency here,” Sprague said. “We’re doing a lot.”

Gaps in kindergarten readiness tend to follow a student throughout their educational career, according to NU Prof. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who studies childhood development at the Institute for Policy Research.

In 2015, 54 percent of white students in District 65 met English and language arts benchmarks on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, while 28 and 27 percent of black and Latinx students, respectively, met those same standards. In 2018, those numbers decreased, with 15 percent of black students and 20 percent of Latinx students meeting ELA benchmarks.

“It is hard to remediate; it is hard to catch up,” she said. “If you end up losing a little bit at the starting gate, and losing a little bit every year, that adds up to a lot of gap.”

One of the recommendations in the three-year strategic plan was to hire more teachers and administrators of color, “so our students and families see themselves reflected in their learning leaders,” according to the plan.

Sprague hired three new teachers this year, two of whom are Latinx. She also added four new teachers’ assistants, three of whom are black and one of whom is Asian. JEH also hired an black administrator.

District 65 officials have honed in on early childhood education to ameliorate the racial opportunity gap, board president Sunith Kartha said.

Kathra noted students at JEH were performing well on in-house assessments that come with the curriculum JEH uses, but this was not translating to state tests of kindergarten readiness.

“While I think we have a really great program, we weren’t necessarily seeing the results through kindergarten and beyond that we wanted to see — so what could we do?” she said.

Sprague said her main job is to mitigate that issue, particularly for students of color and low-income students, who make up roughly 70 percent of the JEH’s population.

To do that, Sprague said she has to find a balance between supporting teachers and staff and pushing them to the next level.

“Challenges always come down to lack of time and then lack of resources,” she said. “(There are) moments when I just feel like, ‘Okay, we’re trying to do too much, too fast,’ so trying to keep that balance, keep the tension just right so that we’re doing as much as we possibly can without overloading the system to the point where it fails.”

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