Upwards of 40 teachers showed up at the monthly working meeting Monday of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board to protest the adoption of a phonics-based pilot program for reading instruction proposed for three district schools.

The program is a product of Innovations for Learning (IFL), an Evanston-based nonprofit organization that Superintendent Paul Goren worked with before he was hired by the district last year.

The pilot, offered at no charge to the district, would be financed by an $85,000 grant and targets phonics and reading fluency for readers at the kindergarten-through-second-grade level at Walker Elementary, Oakton Elementary, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Literary & Fine Arts School.

Goren introduced the topic by disclosing that in “a prior life,” he served as an unpaid volunteer on the advisory board of IFL and was, therefore, familiar with the organization.

“I’ve never been compensated, nor would I receive compensation,” he said, “and I no longer serve on the board or advisory board as I have in the past.”

The pilot, he explained, would be conducted over two years at the three schools, at no cost to the district either year, and that there is no agreement for any further work beyond the pilot.

He said the administration has been concerned with the reading scores of students in the early three grades that indicates they are not achieving “at levels that will help them later on.”

He said teachers need “tools, frameworks, and guideposts” that will help them increase the reading skills of the youngsters in those grades.

He declared that it was “important for the district to be open to innovating” and that the pilot was an effort to discover keys to helping teachers do their jobs better.

But the teachers and parents who spoke at the meeting were not convinced.

Their first concern was the lack of research data that would indicate that the IFL technique would be effective “with our district’s most fragile children,” said a teacher from Oakton.

She also said that IFL’s previous attempts have been at schools with high class sizes, a number of at-risk students, with teachers who have had a minimum of training and support.

“This is not the case for District 65,” she declared.

A parent at Walker School with experience in raising funds for nonprofit organizations was skeptical about the grant, which she cautioned could be “a gift that eats,” due to the amount of time that would be required on the part of teachers and others to implement the pilot.

Evaluation costs alone, she said, would exceed the amount of the grant and that she was wary about “using our kids as guinea pigs.”

Because the program is digitally oriented, requiring a significant amount of time of students in front of a computer, a parent at King Arts said “I hate when my kids use screens.”

In defense of the program, Asst. Superintendent John Price noted that providing support in word attack and fluency is hard and that differentiation in “teaching students when every child is in a different place is extremely difficult.”

He asserted that the district has not “provided our teachers with the tools to help them meet this need.”

Board members, in response, were reluctant to dismiss an opportunity to innovate and pilot a program that would help the district meet a critical need, but they were also reluctant to dismiss the concerns of a sizable number of teachers.

Board Vice President Richard Rykhus noted that “every person in this room is here because we have the intention of doing what’s best for the kids.”

He acknowledged that, perhaps, the board and administration had not sufficiently involved the teaching staff in the process, but added it was essential for all parties to have “a united conversation” before they proceed.

His concern was echoed by Board President Tracy Quattrocki, who assured the protesting teachers that “we really do want to honor your concerns.”

No action was taken on the proposal, as the monthly “working” board meeting is designed to enhance discussion among board and administration on district matters.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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  1. Seems odd

    Dr. Goren has developed very involved processes for the strategic plan and principal selection.    It seems odd that he would introduce a pilot with no process for parent and teacher input.

    I think the teacher contract specifies how teachers shoudl be involved in curricular initatives.

    It appears he is adopting a Chicago Public Schools model.  Good luck with that.


  2. Phonics Pilot

    Why do Board members and District administrators think it's a good idea to put 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds in front of an iPad screen to receive instruction from an online volunteer that they are entitled to receive from their classroom teachers and specialists face-to-face? And let me guess: minority children from families who qualify for free/reduced lunch would be overwhelmingly represented in the pilot and are its intended targets? Maybe that's why they didn't seek teacher input or ask too many questions.

    It's also interesting to note that one of the studies on ILT (conducted in 2006-2007 by researchers from National-Louis University) was funded by the Spencer Foundation when Paul Goren was senior vice president of that foundation…which should raise additional questions.


  3. Doing the same thing over and over again?

    Looking at reading scores at Oakton School, there has been little to no progress in improving reading performance for students there over the last few years. So we are failing a sizable population there.

    Do we keep doing the same thing over and over again with an expectation that there will be a different result?  This program should be given a limited tryout as it sounds innovative and engaging.  This is a tool that could help with differentiation given the broad range of student reading skills.


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