D-158 OKs five-year plan to work toward equity

Plan calls for equitable access to advanced courses, more representation in curriculum, diversity in staff

Three years after a pamphlet containing racist messages was mass-printed and spread through the halls of Huntley High School, Huntley School District 158 is ready to roll out a comprehensive, five-year framework meant to address inequity and improve students’ educational experiences.

The plan, approved last month by the district’s school board, looks to make improvements across five categories, including opportunity and access; curriculum and instruction; professional learning and development; school, family and community relationships; and recruitment, hiring and retention.

Each category has two specific, actionable goals tied to it and each goal has a success indicator designed to hold the district accountable by measuring their progress. Staff and other community members who participated in the plan’s development said it was important to them that the framework be specific and time-bound, rather than simply aspirational.

“We are just at the tip of the iceberg of really getting to do the work,” Huntley High School Principal Marcus Belin said. “We got it on paper, now it’s just time to really start taking some action and moving forward, which is going to be the most challenging part of what we’re getting ready to do.

The framework was created by a group of 40 District 158 board members, staff, parents and other community members from all walks of life also known as the Equity Action Coalition, said Rocío del Castillo, the district’s assistant superintendent for special services.

The idea for the coalition was born out of a smaller group of parents and staff who came together after the pamphlet was distributed to talk about preventing discrimination and promoting diversity in the district, del Castillo said.

The 2017 incident “really struck a cord with a lot of our Black students and it was something that I don’t think anyone was prepared to be able to handle,” Belin said. “It’s still a wound that is still deep even if we talk about it – I’m going to be honest – ten years, 15 years from now, it will still strike a cord with people.”

Valerie McCall said her oldest son graduated before the 2017 incident but that he too experienced racial discrimination at a few of the district schools he attended. All three of her boys did, and their family even dealt with an incident of vandalism to their home.

It was those experiences that led her join the Equity Action Coalition, she said.

“My role as I see it as a parent has been to be their voice because, perhaps, they were not always able to find their voice and to let it be heard with the district,” McCall said. “So it’s very exciting for me to be a part of the coalition and to see these conversations actually taking place beyond my husband and myself.”

More than 100 people applied to be a part of the district’s Equity Action Coalition, which began meeting last fall, del Castillo said.

The district also organized focus groups, facilitated by diversity experts from Northern Illinois University, to hear from Huntley High School students from racial and ethnic minority groups as well as students in the LGBTQ+ community, del Castillo said.

Belin sat in on a few of the focus groups and described them as an emotional rollercoaster as many students were getting the opportunity to share a space with other students of similar racial or gender identities for the first time.

“It gave us the urgency, the urgency to be able to begin to work and push through the work even despite the challenges that we’re facing with [COVID-19],” he said. “We recognized the importance of us needing to get through and develop a diversity plan for the sake of our kids.”

The school hoped to recruit eight to ten kids for each group, but ended up with more than 20 kids in most of the meetings, del Castillo said.

The development of the equity plan began with an in-depth needs assessment, starting with the collection of survey data from parents and staff. The assessment also looked at various metrics for student success such as discipline data, enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and participation in extracurricular activities, del Castillo said.

The assessment’s findings showed that while Latinx students made up 12% of the district’s population, they accounted for only 8% of enrollment in AP courses. Similarly, low-income students made up 11% of district students but only 5% students in AP courses.

The Equity Action Plan calls for the district to dismantle barriers that might be holding minority or low-income students back from taking those kinds of course, which may require some schools to restructure the way that students are screened for advanced placement.

Currently, students often need to have taken honors classes at the middle school level in order to enroll in AP courses in high school, Marlowe Middle School Principal Tony Venetico said.

“Normally, institutionally, we say you have to have had this, this and this before you can do this and we’re starting to throw those things out the window and we’re starting to say why? So what?” Venetico said. “Even though they haven’t had the prerequisite course, maybe their district didn’t provide that to them, so should that mean that, until they get to college, the door is closed to them?”

Equal access also requires the provision of social-emotional support and other support systems to respond to each student’s needs more effectively, according to the plan.

Another aspect of the plans calls for an increase in “culturally responsive” lesson plans and learning materials that highlight different perspectives.

Laura Komos, a former first and fourth grade teacher and current “curriculum ninja” for District 158, said her goal is to “make sure that all of our students are represented and that they see themselves in the work that we’re doing,” she said.

“All too often, the only Black person that students hear about is Martin Luther King and I just think we’re doing a disservice if we don’t broaden their horizons,” she continued.

She said she also intends to ensure diversity and inclusion is part of the curriculum, so that students have the tools to think about the conversations they’re hearing at home.

“I think that we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that these conversations are not happening in the elementary level,” she said. “Students are well aware of things and they’re hearing things at home.”

The plan also highlights the need for professional development and more diversity among the district’s staff.

“It really does start with the teacher, it starts with that person in the classroom who is the leader,” said Craig Jahnke, a special education teacher for Huntley High School.

About 95% of District 158 teachers were white during the 2018-19 school year compared with 75% of the student body, according to data submitted to Illinois State Board of Education.

Finally, the plan calls for the district to take its equity and inclusion work beyond the classroom by fostering community partnerships and providing opportunities for families to learn and grow together.

“We all have stories to tell, and we have to be able to utilize the bits and pieces of those stories to link together for us to be able to create a common platform,” Belin said. “To create a net to catch our students to say, while we don’t understand, we got a ton of people that are willing to wrap their arms around you and help carry you through this.”

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