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By: Duncan Agnew

Just 12 residents joined the Feb. 16 focus group virtual meeting to get community input on the next District 202 superintendent.

With Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon set to retire at the end of this school year after 16 years leading District 202, the school board recently hired the Alma Advisory Group for $25,000 to assist in a nationwide search for Witherspoon’s successor.

Alma is a school-centered consulting firm that helps districts across the country with everything from professional development for teachers to finding the right people for open positions.

At the most recent District 202 board meeting earlier this month, President Pat Savage-Williams said she and other members selected Alma for the job because of its commitment to centering the voices of students, staff, parents and other community members in the search for a new superintendent. With that goal in mind, Alma has facilitated focus group conversations this week with current ETHS employees, community members and students.

“I really, really want to encourage community members, families and our students to participate,” Board member Pat Maunsell said at the Feb. 7 meeting. “We selected this group, the Alma group, in large part because they put value in really getting an authentic, clear understanding of what the community as a whole wants for the superintendent and for the district. We value that, we picked a group who values that, and now, we need your help to realize that.”

But just 20 people joined the call the Alma virtual focus group meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 16, for community members to share thoughts on the search process and what they want out of a new superintendent. And of those 20, six were Alma discussion facilitators themselves, and two others were local news reporters.

Since Wednesday night’s meeting for community input, some local residents have pointed out that attendance could have been low with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 also holding parent/teacher conferences this week. Regardless of the circumstances, though, 12 parents and community members used the meeting to respond to several prompts from Alma facilitators.

Participants in the conversation agreed that they wanted to see a continued commitment to the equity work at ETHS cultivated over the last decade under Witherspoon, although some parents noted that diversity and inclusion efforts could go even further than they have at the school.

“To be pretty straightforward, the experiences of white kids and Black kids at ETHS are different, and there’s a lot of data that tells us that the outcomes for white kids and Black kids are significantly different,” said David Soglin, an ETHS graduate and the parent of four ETHS alumni as well. “Especially in a town like Evanston, we should be able to close the racial academic achievement gap, and that is on us as a city and District 65 and District 202.”

In response to Soglin, Marion Macbeth, a retired educator who taught at ETHS for several decades, argued that students all have different experiences. Black students and white students may have vastly different high school careers and struggles depending on their own life circumstances, but generalizing the situation would not be fair to the unique problems of each individual, according to Macbeth.

Parents and community members in attendance also expressed optimism about the wealth of resources that ETHS has at its disposal to help the school accomplish its goals.

Several people said they wanted to see more investment in career and technical education opportunities at the high school level. Neil Gambow, the chair of the Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council in Evanston, told the Alma representatives at the meeting that he hopes there is  “more honor paid to work-based learning” in the future.

“Right now, work-based learning, in all honesty, is not part of the fabric [at ETHS],” Gambow said. “ETHS is not very advanced in doing work-based learning programs, and I’m hoping the new superintendent really takes a hard look at how work-based learning can get better, not only for the kids that aren’t going to college, but even for the kids that are going to college.”

Beyond those topics, a few community members also brought up the need for better recruitment and retention of teachers of color, especially Black educators. Over the last several months, during the public comment portion of school board meetings, teachers representing almost every department at ETHS have advocated for new policies designed to hire and retain more teachers of color.

According to those statements provided to the board by department representatives, 17% of ETHS educators are Black and 7% are Hispanic, despite the student population being 25% Black and just over 19% Hispanic.

“One of the things that needs to happen is minority staff retention – in terms of a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective – retaining current staff, but also recruiting a diverse staff so that students can see those who look like them to have a better engagement in class,” said parent and community member Regina Stevenson.

Ultimately, when thinking about the qualities they want in a superintendent, attendees emphasized the need for someone with strong experience, leadership skills, the ability to connect to students and teachers and a long-term vision for the future.

“There’s a lot of undercurrents at the school at all times, but it just seems to me that the other thing the superintendent is going to have to have is a pretty strong sense of judgment,” Gambow said. “He or she is going to be bombarded [with questions and demands], especially when they just get here.”

The school board and Alma are planning to use these community meetings to develop a full profile of an ideal candidate for superintendent, according to Alma representatives at Wednesday’s gathering. They plan to begin recruiting potential candidates and soliciting applications in March before holding interviews in April and making a hire some time in May.

Source: Evanston Round Table