More than 1,000 teachers and other D65 employees at back-to-school convocation.

What a difference a year makes.

Last fall, teachers at Evanston/Skokie District 65 were packing school board meetings, carrying signs calling for respect and hearing their union president talk of a “toxic work environment” and “power-hungry administrators.”

But on Monday morning, two days before the start of classes, more than 1,000 District 65 educators and other employees filled the Quad Indoor Sports gym to cheer their fellow workers and even the administrators who had been the object of such criticism.

“It’s a new day in District 65,” School Board President Sergio Hernandez told the crowd, at the district’s back-to-school staff convocation.

District 65 Board of Education President Sergio Hernandez.

“We struggled,” Hernandez noted, dealing with both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the challenge of having a fully in-person academic year once again in 2021-22. There were additional social-emotional issues among the students, and burnout for some of the teachers.

“I know you’ve been through a lot,” said Superintendent Devon Horton, describing the pressure-packed reality of COVID and post-COVID as “heartbreaking” for teachers.

Superintendent Devon Horton addresses back-to-school convocation.

Discipline problems at Haven Middle School, as well as the noose incident there, added to the mixture of anger and anxiety among the staff. Haven teachers even walked to school as a group for several days, to protest working conditions and the transfer of several educators.

The superintendent said administrators have been paying attention.

“I’ve been to every single school,” Horton said, “listening to what’s been working and what hasn’t been.”

“We made adjustments,” the superintendent told the crowd. “We had to adapt to the disruption.”

“We are together,” Horton said. “We have to be united. It’s critical.”

Early childhood teacher Lexi St. John was among the educators at the convocation. She said the event was “an exciting way to start the year.”

Almost everyone there wore gray shirts with “Caution: MIRACLES in Action” on the front.

“MIRACLES” is a set of District 65 goals and objectives, with each letter in the word standing for a particular aspect of educational progress.

This school system, Horton said, is “unmatched in our commitment to inclusion, equity, diversity and belonging.”

Staffers from each school stood and cheered as their buildings were mentioned, and the workers were thanked for their efforts.

One definitely good sign … District 65 has only four teaching vacancies to fill, out of more than 830 positions, according to Assistant Superintendent Andalib Khelgati. Many districts nationwide are dealing with severe teacher shortages.

Khelgati said the convocation was the superintendent’s idea. “He wanted to honor all of the teachers who are coming back” along with those who are starting, Khelgati added.

While the convocation was upbeat and fun, the hard part starts once classes begin on Wednesday for about 6,400 students, grades K-8, and on Sept. 1 for the JEH Early Childhood Center.

“This is a year for reset,” said Assistant Superintendent Angel Turner.

And the president of the District Educators Council, who had harsh words for the school system last fall, was far more positive at the convocation.

Maria Barroso, president of the District Educators Council (teachers union).

Maria Barroso, who heads the teachers union, offered words of encouragement and support, as she and the leaders of District 65’s other unions spoke to the people they represent.

Later, Barroso told Evanston Now that “we’re in a better place” than a year ago.

“There’s better collaboration,” she noted. “We’re building a bridge, which is a great thing.”

Barroso also added, “I’m here for my membership” in case problems develop.

And when asked if the rank and file is now generally satisfied with the way things are going, Barroso said “yes.”

But she did hesitate a moment before answering.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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16 Comments

  1. Good grief. Mandating employees to come to a large spectacle and “encouraged” to wear shirts with the Superintendent’s pedestrian slogan written on it? This has a North Korean mass games feel to it.

    I guess this explains why I haven’t got the usual welcome email from my kids’ teacher yet. They’ve all been attending a silly rally instead of communicating with parents, getting classrooms ready, and developing lesson plans.

    1. Rhonda are you really suggesting that a convocation to welcome educators and Dr. Horton’s efforts are really being compared to North Korean mass games. Have you read the news and the challenges school districts face? If ever there was a time to celebrate teachers, now is the time!

      1. I think the teachers probably would’ve preferred that the district not cut their pension contributions last year versus having to cheer for themselves. But that’s just my take.

    2. It open with Christian prayer that made the audience gasp and lost the goodwill this was intended to give. Many of those that drove left. However, most of the teachers and staff were told to take busses from their schools. So they had to stay. In district 65 we have diverse group of races, Religions, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we offend one of those groups we offend all of those groups and fall away from inclusion and equity.

      1. It goes to show the shallowness and opportunism of the equity and inclusion messaging. I am not yet convinced the Board or the Administration actually values equity or inclusion, it is just a set of words they can use for political gain. When the rubber hits the road, I think they show their true colors. I can list a handful of things that would be pro-equity that the Board and Administration have done in the past few years:

        – Ending of the Free Lunch Program (it was a federal program, but the District didn’t even try to keep it going, surely they could’ve found a way). This was a major lift for equity!
        – Slow-rolling the Fifth Ward School – The fifth ward has needed a school for decades the Board/Administration has taken their sweet time arranging for this to happen. I understand new construction takes time but this is getting ridiculous.
        – Overcaution regarding the post-COVID return to school last year. Evanston was one of the last districts in the region to finally go back to school post-COVID, effectively punishing low and working class folks who don’t have time for private or home schooling.
        – Allocating more than 1% of the budget toward Equity programs and consultants, yet showing almost no results other than some hastily done curriculum (the content is all public) and expensive litigation/PR related to that Teacher that sued.

  2. It’s unclear to me how having a large rally is an effective use of district funds, especially given rapidly declining enrollment and likely coming funding cuts. This appears to be nothing more than a political stunt by Horton and Board, 3 of whom are up for re-election in the Spring of 2023.

    Angela Blaising pointed this out in the last election but the board has been far too cushy and lacked transparency with district administration, which is going to make things ugly when the Union contract is up. Don’t forget – it’s the teachers union that cancelled school last year during Thanksgiving week by calling in sick, and sticking it to Dr. Horton. They carry a lot of power here and probably the support of the parents, at this point.

  3. No mention in this article about the fact that district staff were led in a religious prayer and transphobic JK Rowling was quoted. Way to go, D65.

    1. Wait… what? There was a prayer administered at this event? The same school district doing a lengthy stolen land pledge at the beginning of every board meeting is doing a prayer at an event with teachers? Authors totally buried the lede here

      1. A very lengthy, very uncomfortable prayer delivered by a pastor, ending with a full-blown “amen.” Many staff members walked out and refused to return. This was unfortunately very early on in the program and the district lost all credibility with a high percentage of the staff after that. I didn’t know we were encouraging prayers in public school now but apparently in D65 we are. So disappointing.

        1. Thanks for the info. I’m going to see what kinds of information I can find on this. It’s upsetting to see D65 taking advantage of that recent SCOTUS prayer-in-school ruling so quickly, especially given it is something the christian nationalist right has wanted for a long time.

  4. Spectacle indeed! All of us district staff were forced into this ridiculous super-spreader event when all of us have much more important things to do for our students and families than to listen to overpaid, do-nothing administrators read speeches from a sheet of paper about how great they are! Administrator jobs have doubled! So many new admin, too many new positions, and all making six figures! And for what?? To give all of us more work??? Let US teach the children reading, writing, and arithmetic without all the political nonsense! No one sitting around me is happy with this place. So many walked out and left before the end. That should have spoken volumes but these administrators will never listen because they only listen to each other. Too many egos in Evanston! No no no to this board, no no no to these administrators!

    1. Dr. Horton and the Board has finally done what people thought was impossible: united the parents and teachers union!

  5. Halloween vocabulary parade: canceled. Holiday sing: canceled. Valentines Day celebration: canceled. Birthday celebrations: canceled. Camp Timberlee: Canceled. 5th grade ‘Picnic’: canceled. So why would a prayer be given at the beginning of the convocation for Evanston’s public schools that teachers and staff were required to attend? Apparently religion, exclusion, privilege is only aimed at parents and students.

  6. I trust my elected officials and it seems that Evanston D65 is still a place where teachers want to teach as there are only 4 vacancies. Other districts around the country are facing massive shortages. I personally do not see an issue here. Happy to continue supporting our schools – D65 and D202!

    1. There are more than four vacancies unless you don’t think paraprofessionals or a Librarian count as educators, twenty teaching vacancies posted alone. All one has to do is look at the careers listing for our district to see that a few schools are opening tomorrow without key staff. There are several reasons – educators leaving education for a different career path, educators leaving the district for another district brought on by the current climate.

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