Melissa Blount and Roger Williams of OPAL at an Oct. 23, 2017 protest at the District 65 administration building.

The message at a news conference this morning outside Evanston/Skokie School District 65 headquarters was stark. Black students have been underserved and poorly educated for the past 50 years in Evanston, and the situation is not getting any better.

“We are at the point now where we are saying enough is enough.  We need to see some action,” said Roger Wiliams the president of OPAL, the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership.  He says District 65 has failed to narrow the achievement gap between white and black students.

Williams says despite a report on Black Student Achievement that came out in 2016, it has done little or nothing to change outcomes.

“There are no plans, no specific goals or programs in place. “ Williams says,

OPAL’s Melissa Blount says the achievement gap has actually got worse in the past 49 years.  

“A white student today is nearly three times more likely to reach college readiness benchmarks in reading, and nearly four times more likely to reach benchmarks in math,” she said.

The group says the district should hire a black student coordinator to advocate for underserved students, initiate a plan to hire black teachers where vacancies exist and to implement a result-oriented accountability system that focuses on improving African-American student outcomes.

“We will not be complacent while achievement gaps widen, property taxes increase and racial disparity continues for another forty years.” Blount says.

In an interview, District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said he supports and encourages the efforts of OPAL and says it is an important voice at the table.

He says the district shares OPAL’s goals and he has worked hand in hand with the organization to improve outcomes for black students.

He says in the three and a half years he’s been here, he’s encouraged district staff to complete diversity training and the district has done a deep dive on cultural and race issues. He is confident that a better understanding of cultural differences will result in better students outcomes.

OPAL leaders say they also plan to voice their demands tonight at a joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 boards.  The meeting gets underway at 7 p.m. at the District 65 office at 1500 McDaniel Ave.

Join the Conversation


  1. What do whites get that blacks don’t get?

    So someone please explain to me what white students get at ETHS that black students don’t get.

    Consider that there are black student achievement awards, black male student summits, a people of color club and a host of programs specifically designed for black students that white students do NOT get. The ETHS principal and board president are black and there are tons of black teachers and admins. 

    A few years back D202 Superintentent Eric Witherspoon said there were “too many white faces” in advanced placement classes so he eliminated an advanced placement tracking system for freshmen students, allowing any freshmen student regardless of grades to enroll in honors English, history and biology. It was a move specifically to benefit students based on a certain race.  

    These organized activists only want more black teachers, admins and so on. That’s what this is about. It’s seems to be a shakedown of sorts. More and more white parents are opting out of ETHS as a result. Can you blame them? Who is looking out for their children’s best interests? 

    Why is everything about race to these activists? The definition of racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Hmmm…

    1. These activists forget one

      These activists forget one fundamental thing that has the biggest impact on students performance: parents. Parents need to spend time with kids, mentor, teach help with homework.

    2. We want results

      “Al,” to address your subject line, white students get results and Black students don’t. What we want are better achievement outcomes for Black students. We believe all students are capable of the same academic achievement and gains. Yet, even at the kindergarten level, we see metrics that show District 65 is failing Black children. We’ve heard a lot of talk from D65 over the past few years about equity. We’re tired of talk. We want to see real, meaningful results.

      1. Evidence that OPAL’s demands translate to better outcomes
        Alex, I think everyone wants students to succeed.

        I am a bit interested in looking at OPAL’s suggestions for District 65 to address the gap:

        “the district should hire a black student coordinator to advocate for underserved students, initiate a plan to hire black teachers where vacancies exist and to implement a result-oriented accountability system that focuses on improving African-American student outcomes.”

        Could you point to studies that show the effectiveness of a “coordinator to advocate for underserved students”?

        Also, are there studies that show teachers of a particular ethnicity are more effective teachers? (This line of logic strikes me as problematic from a racial reductionist standpoint, but that is what OPAL is advocating).

        What would the accountability system look like? What measures? Who is held “accountable”? What are the consequences for non-attainment? How would such a system control for confounding variables that have nothing to do with teaching but have been found to influence student performance (e.g. socio-economic status, familial stability, etc…)?

        I am sympathetic to your concern, but I would like to see more “meat on the bones” to insure that the District doesn’t come up with a half-baked plan not based on evidence.

      2. Maybe parenting?

        Yes I agree all students are capable of the same academic achievements. But maybe, just maybe, like others have said it can come down to influences you can not control like parenting.  How can District 65 be failling at the kindergarten level???  If students are getting the exact same education at that young of an age and one group is doing better than the other, why do you think it is failure on District 65?  Please be specific as I would love to have a better understanding.  Again, maybe parenting/?  Other than that would could it be?  These types of conversations are getttin really old.  

      3. Everyone wants to see results

        Alex, I and everyone else I’ve talked with in my 25 + years wants to see better results for Black, White, Hispanic, Asian etc – all students. I believe and many others believe that all students are capable to demonstrate academic gains and achievement. But what you are missing is that not all kids in Evanston have the same opportunities. And it starts at home.

        There’s a huge difference between and amongst Black students who live in a 2 parent, upper middle income and college educated household. That’s a fact. Black students from this type of background excel at D65 and D202. Look at Roger Williams’ daughters. (Pat Savage-Williams is president of D202 school board) They both excelled at D65 and D202 and one attended University of Iowa and the other attended Washington University in St. Louis. Is that a coincidence?

        In Evanston, there are many different social and economic structures that children grow up in. Some households have cultures that promote education, and others don’t. Some households have financial means and an interest in supplementing their child’s education, and others don’t. 

        The question becomes, what can the community and our leaders do to enable all children to achieve and thrive? What organizations and resources are lacking in Evanston and how can they be provided?

        Programs with documented educational outcomes make more sense than politically motivated programs that have emotional appeal. Unfortunately, both D65 and D202 Boards and Administrations seem to have decided to take the latter path.



        1. Parenting

          As an educator, I wholeheartedly agree.   The crucial part in a child’s life is from birth-5 years old.   If their surroundings do not warrant any type of learning, love, curiousity, and emotional ties and stability, then that is a huge problem.   Further down the road, problems are then blamed on the school systems/teachers. Put the blame where it belongs, and face the facts that some people should not be raising children.  They learn from their surroundings.  Bad parenting has always been a huge issue…and, unfortunately, some parents don’t recognize this, or don’t care to invest in their children’s future.   It’s a shame, but the schools have no control over how kids are being raised before they get to kindergarten.

      4. OPAL Information

        For folks looking for more details on our “demands,” you can find our detailed letter to Dr. Goren here:

        You can find additional OPAL news here:

        I’ll close by saying that it is the job of the D65 Board and Dr. Goren to come up with a plan. We’re taking our time as volunteers to point out that we are tired to talk and that we as residents need to hold our leaders accountable for their failures.

        1. Respect for D65 Administrators, Teachers and Staff

          Alex, have you ever taught in D65? Or attended any of the schools or have children in any of the schools? I appreciate your concerns for D65 students and especially students of color, but I find your approach and tone a little disrespectful towards the educational professionals in our community.

          Sit in on some classes, talk to teachers and social workers and listen and understand the challenges they face each and every day.

          There has been and continues to be a heightened sense of urgency to improve the educational outcomes for Black students in D65. Yet at the same time the number of single parent households, income inequality and other societal factors beyond the control of the schools continues to increase.

          Your desire to hire more Black teachers is based on political motivations and not based on sound educational practices. Show me where it is proven that Black students learn better from Black teachers. In Evanston, we have the ACC program which has small classrooms, taught mostly by Black teachers with a Black principal and a curriculum tailored to Black students, yet the educational outcomes are WORSE than other black students. I agree we need outstanding teachers and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

          Your “demand” for improved literacy for Black students is laudable. Remember, reading and literacy can’t be downloaded from a computer, but requires a partnership between the teacher and the parent. Are all Black students reading at least 30 minutes every day after school? Are you holding the parents accountable? Exposure to language doesn’t start in school and end in school.

          OPAL raises important issues and its goals are shared by most people in the community. But if Evanston is serious about addressing the Achievement Gap, we’re going to have to understand the actual underlying challenges confronting our children and hold everyone accountable for our collective results.


          1. Progress is possible

            I’ve taught kindergarten, have a Masters in Urban Education, and have volunteered in early elementary classrooms in D65. I don’t claim to have the answers for D65, but I am tired of watching the Board and Dr. Goren spin their wheels. Progress is possible.

          2. 1 Black Educator in grades 3-5

            Ann- Thanks for sharing. Great research article.

            One of the key points is that if an African American child is assigned an African American teacher in grades 3-5 that it has long-term positive benefits, as in more graduation.

             It says, “Assignment to three black teachers has a slightly stronger impact on educational attainment than assignment to a single black teacher. However, such differences tend to be small in magnitude and statistically insignificant. Accordingly, our findings suggest that exposure to one black teacher has a meaningful effect on students’ long-run outcomes, and that the marginal effect of exposure to a second black teacher is relatively small.”

            This seems like a relatively easy goal- Every child in D65 has at least one African American general education teacher in grades 3-5.

             However, I’m curious if they aren’t doing this already?


      5. You can lead a horse to water…
        … but you can’t make it drink.

        It’s time to stop beating the dead horse of “achievement gap.” Parents are ultimately responsible for education of their children – schools are only there to structure and facilitate that education. “In loco parentis” nonsense ought to end. I guess you could forcibly close the gap by uprooting and relocating children to an entirely new environment – but that’s stuff of cults and science fiction.

        Also, since OPAL thinks that arbitrary gaps can be cured by staff of appropriate race/ethnicity – what would be their suggestion for gap in crime and gang membership? Should we go find some appropriate white or Asian “coordinators”?

    3. “Some 86 percent of female

      Some 86 percent of female black graduates went on with their education, compared with 73 percent of male graduates”

      In the above quote from another article posted today it shows that Evanston seems to be doing very well in preparing black students for college.  In fact they seem to be going to a college at rates higher than Hispanic students so why isn’t that the narrative being pushed.

  2. Agree we need better outcomes for Black & Hispanic students

    The Achievement Gap continues to be a focus in Evanston. No one denies that Black and Hispanic students academically underperform White students on average. Everyone would like to see all students realize their potential and lead happy, fulfilling and successful lives.

    But the underlying issues and causes for this Achievement Gap remain the major stumbling blocks.

    Some people think that Race is the primary cause and that institutional racism in society and both D65 and D202 are preventing students of color from realizing their potential.

    Other people look at the same report Mr. Williams highlights and sees that on Page 8 that 64% of White students, but only 34% of Black students entering D65 are deemed Kindergarten Ready. In addition Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor, presented at a FAN event at ETHS last year and showed there is a stark achievement gap of 2 grade levels in 3rd grade in Evanston. 

    So if we have a significant gap starting in Kindergarten what can we realistically expect our teachers to do? And the gap is very evident in 3rd grade when national testing begins. Teachers in Evanston work very hard to address the different learning styles and wide range of students in their classrooms. In fact, the Superintendents’ Joint Achievement Report for 2017-18 clearly shows that the 4 year graduation for black ETHS students is 88% vs only 75% nationwide. Historical ACT scores for black ETHS students have also consistently exceeded scores nationally for black students and actually are very similar to national averages for all students. Both D65 & D202 and our community should be proud of these results.

    But is it good enough? Of course not. Black students and Hispanic students can and should continue to perform at higher academic levels. However, hope is not a strategy. And neither is divisive rhetoric or strategies based on unfounded educational principles.

    Let’s start with the Cradle to Career initiative and establish goals that the entire community can support like 100% Kindergarten Readiness for ALL students. Let’s get more resources at the ZERO to 5 age range, where doctors have shown the importance of  brain development. Let’s increase the educational performance of students so that by 3rd grade the gap is narrowed. Let’s recognize the challenges that many families and hence their children face as a result of poverty and less financial resources and identify what additional resources are needed.

    In Evanston, 1/3 of the adult population has a 4 year college degree and a graduate degree; lawyers, doctors, MBA’s, masters, PhD’s and another 1/3 of the adult population just has a 4 year college degree. With 2/3 of the adult population having a 4 year college degree of higher, this is 2 times the national average, the Achievement Gap becomes much more understandable. In addition, another societal trend across our country is the increasing wealth and income inequality. The wealth and income inequality has led to an increase in the Opportunity Gap. 

    These gaps are serious and very complex and need substantive and well thought out policy solutions, not the continued empty rhetoric ever present in Evanston.

  3. Let’s start with a clean slate

    If we are not reaching the desired goal after all this time and effort and expense, we must acknowledge that what we are currently doing is failing.  So two things need to happen:

    1.  All current supports and programs need to conclude no later than the end of this school year.  With the level of dissatisfaction over the dismal state of the results, there should be no surprise that the community wants to start anew.

    2.  We need a panel of experts to start from square one and plan a comprehensive system to put in place by late August, 2018.

    If any current support or program is to be retained, it must have a proven record of academic success. For example, the academic results of the Afro-Centric Curriculum Program have been lackluster at best so that program should not be retained.

    We need to put our financial resources and our children’s future into supports and programs that have been proven to help students achieve academically.  Feel-good programs and lip service will not do what needs to get done.  Piling new supports and programs on the failure that we already have is foolish. 

  4. Closing the gap
    The only way I know to get good at something is to do it a lot. The students who are good at reading get that way because they do a lot of reading. The students who are good at math are doing a lot of math. The under performing students are doing less. In order to close the gap these under performing students need to do more of whatever they are behind in. Therefore the school system should provide summer school, after school, or weekend classes for this group of students. Does anyone know if these opportunities are currently available for the grade school students? If not they should be.

  5. Prevent Gap from Forming Through Early Language Training
    The longest run study on the achievement gap was conducted by Hart and Risley. Their one key finding, was that the amount of language heard from 0-3 is directly correlated to later academic success.

    Children from low income homes(as defined by receiving government assistance) heard, on average 30 million fewer words than children where parents were college educated by age 3. This difference translated into “being behind in kindergarten.” According to several prominent language researchers, such as Dr. Laura Justice at the University of Ohio, children’s language skills in kindergarten is directly correlated to reading comprehension in fifth grade.

    According to PBS statistics, African Americans represent about 55% of low income members in society, the highest of any racial group. There are definitely historical reasons for this. I would recommend the PBS series: Race: the Power of an Illusion for anyone who says that racist practices ended long ago.

    In my opinion, we can study the past so that it doesn’t repeat itself. However, when it comes to closing an achievement gap in the current, we have to focus on what is tangible and what is proven to work.

    Focusing our attention on a language gap has research support, and there are measurable, tangible, cost-effective, pretty easy ways to improve it.

    Bill Gates, for example, contributed a large amount to a group called “Providence Talks” that is teaching parents to increase the amount of interactions at home from 0-3.

    Dana Suskind at the University of Chicago with her 30 Million Words project is doing the same in Chicago.

    Professor James Heckman at the University of Chicago also talks about the achievement gap as a problem improved by early intervention. He has lots of information/research on the economic benefits of intervening early.

    A few years ago(before my family moved to Europe and then returned), I worked as the early intervention speech- pathologist at District 69 in Skokie. I wrote a grant to fund an early intervention parent-language training program for the district. We received a grant from the parent-community to fund the program, so it didn’t cost the school district any extra money. Skokie 69, one of several districts in Skokie, houses a variety of socioeconomic and racial groups. It might even be more diverse than Evanston 65, but don’t quote me on that.

    At district 69, were the first public school in the country to use the same technology as Providence Talks and 30 Million Words Project.Our ultimate goal was really to reach the kids who weren’t yet in our doors.

    Here is information on Skokie. Included in this link is my grant proposal, research to support the language-gap.

    The problem as I see it with solely race-based solutions is that they have little research-support to show that they are working to make our students better readers, writers, and mathematicians. Honestly, if any of you out there do have some, please share it because I haven’t seen it.

    I would encourage the OPAL group to look into early-intervention (as in before pre-school) solutions. Instead of focusing on an achievement “gap,” what about looking to prevent a gap from forming in the first place?

    I would be happy to volunteer my time to give you some support if you are interested in all the above-

    Jennifer Preschern, MA CCC SLP, MA Learning Disabilities

    1. What about our current students?

      I can’t speak for the entire OPAL Board but I think we would agree with you about those critical early childhood experiences. We are not out here opposing anyone’s 0-3 initiatives. That said, we’ve chosen to make our focus the children who are currently in the district and while they may or may not be prepared they deserve an educational system that is going to support them. As I said above, progress is possible.

      1. National Problem

        Hi Alex:  You keep saying “progress is possible” however it is my understanding that the Gap is a national problem, not merely confined to Evanston.  Give that this is the case there must be other communities that are trying to deal with this problem.  Are there any examples where this problem has been successfully addressed?  If there are then Evanston can copy these examples.

      2. What specific changes do you want?

        Alex, I agree progress is possible. And I hope it happens. But hope is not a strategy. What specific changes at D65 do you and OPAL want to see? I think we’d agree we all want to see improved educational outcomes. But how do you propose to make this happen?

        How is it that the current “educational system” isn’t supporting students of color? 

        Yes, it’s true that the educational outcomes differ significantly on average when aggregated by race, but is that “causation” or “correlation”? What are the reasons for this disparity in outcomes?

        Since you’ve taught kindergarten and have a masters in urban education you’ve got a more informed perspective than many others, so what do you think should be done?

        When you’ve volunteered in D65 schools you’ve probably experienced some kids coming to school without having eaten breakfast, or without their homework done, or experiencing trauma or other psychologicial issues. Some students in my kids’ classes were absent from school a significant amount of time. Who are you going to hold accountable for these unexcused absences? Is it the teacher’s responsibility to get those students fully caught up to their peers?

        I raise these questions because as you likely know, educating students, any student, is a very challenging endeavor, and educating children who grow up in poverty or from families with less resources is even more challenging.

        I’m proud to live in Evanston where there are an incredible array of organizations that are trying to help those in need. 

        Indeed, progress is possible, but what changes do you want and who are you going to hold accountable?


      3. Go to the OPAL website
        I previously posted links to OPAL’s letter to D65. I suggest folks looking for more specifics start there. I’m also happy to have in-person conversations with folks interested in our work. That said, there are only so many hours in the day and I’m not going to write a policy platform in the comments of Evanston Now. Perhaps in the future our Board can offer an Editorial.

      4. Ideas

        Hi Alex-

        I think we can all agree that we want students in Evanston to do well. My question to you is why do you feel that focusing on race is the solution to better achievement? For example- From reading the article, it says OPAL  feels hiring black teachers will improve achievement.  Why? From your research and observations, what evidence is there that this makes a difference?

        From what I understand, ETHS has been receiving consulting from  the Pacific Educational Group, which teaches critical race theory, for several years.  Has this made any measurable impact on student achievement? 

        I personally have not seen the research to support the above nor seen evidence that PEG-type approaches is working to close the achievement gap- As your group stated, the gap is actually getting bigger. If our community is to get behind more of the same type of approach, what evidence do we have that it will work? I don’t mean this with any disrespect for you or your viewpoint- but I basically I’m just asking you to support it with evidence. 

        From my 20 years of experience working in many settings- from wealthy Highland Park to housing projects in Chicago to an International school in Austria-  I can honestly say that I have never seen a school or teacher that does not want to support students, regardless of skin color.  

        As a teacher, I have also found some value in diversity trainings. For example did you know that African-American students often tell narrative stories in a different manner than Caucasian students do? There is a difference in oral storytelling tradition by culture. Bias is also present in IQ testing. For example, one of the questions on the WISC IQ Test was “who is Christopher Columbus?” Many immigrant students didn’t get that one- not because they’re not “smart.” In addition there’s a lot of research to support the children need to see themselves in books to make connections to text- so incorporating multi-cultural themes is a good idea. From my viewpoint, many Americans are too Amero centric and we would all be better off at expanding the definition of multicultural to include the world-but that’s a different topic of discussion. I’m not advocating eliminating diversity training for teachers, but I don’t think that focusing only on race is the solution to make kids better at school. 

        Some say school- itself is the problem & therefore we should change it. For example, the Afro- centric curriculum. However I have also not seen any evidence that this works to close the achievement gap. We could talk about moving to an Europe/Austrian education model where there is no standardized testing at younger grades & therefore no academic “gap” by race because society simply isn’t measuring for one.  Students go to different high schools by interest & not everyone is trying to go to college because college is viewed as unnecessary for many jobs. (Plus there isn’t such a big rich-poor divide to stress everyone out.) But again this would require moving outside of our American centric view point, and is probably beyond the immediate abilities of our community or OPAL group. 

        So what could our community do now? What about providing support for before and after school for students who struggle? One of the biggest differences that I’ve observed from wealthy families to poor families, aside from the language gap, is opportunity to extra curriculars. If a child in a wealthy family is struggling, the family will often hire a tutor or provide the student with extra help at home. Other families are not able to provide this due to financial resources and/or time. Would it be possible for Opal to provide wraparound services with the school to provide tutors and academic coaching to students for free after school? What about working with Northwestern and/or high school kids to improve on a “big buddy” type program. Or what about working with religious organizations to provide volunteers for this? Or maybe gathering donations  to pay people to do this- basically leveling the after-school opportunity for all. 

        I could also help you with this idea. Before Skokie, I provided consulting for By The Hand(BTH) club for kids- an after school program providing support for Altgeld Gardens, Cabrini Green & Englewood. BTH is having some amazing results taking kids metaphorically “by the hand” and walking them to a better path. BTH is getting the measurable achievement gains that OPAL wants.

        1. Is summer school on option?

          Hi Jennifer:  You seem very knowledgable on this subject so I hope you will adress the follow question.  You mention the possibility of organizations like OPAL providing out of school support for underperfoming schools on a voluntary basis.  My question is should the schools provide this?  That is should D65 provide some combination of summer school or after school programs for underperfoming students?  Or do they already do this?  Of course us taxpayers will have to pay for it, but if it works it might be worth it.

          1. Summer School

            D65 has doubled the number of students having access to enriching academic and personal development experiences in the summer since 2014 and has done that at half the cost of what the program used to require, with better outcomes in terms of reduced summer slump.

            These have been done in partnership with Family Focus, YMCA, Foundation 65 and others to ensure our students don’t see summer school as a punishment but opportunity to grow and learn in a fun environment. Thanks for asking.

            And regarding the plan for educational equity that is said to be nonexistent based on OPALs requests and discussion here. There are a set of holistic strategies, plans and accountabilities in place through both the Equity Agenda and the Districts Strategic Plan.

            This work began over the past 2-3 years and will need to continue to address the long-standing gaps in opportunity that exist. Moreover, as others have highlighted these are issues of race and poverty over generations and institutions that most definitely need to change.

            In the first two years of the district’s strategic plan significant improvements were being made for all students but most noticeably our black and brown students.

            We took a backwards slide this past year which is deeply frustrating. We need to look at why that is and double down on what is working (early literacy intervention, focus on students in the bottom quartile, and investment in culturally responsive instruction as well as increasing home/school partnerships).

            There is no one person or position that will solve what’s in front of us. It’s hard work, work of the whole community pulling together not at odds with one another in providing support for teachers, administrators, students and parents.

            Our black and brown students outperform national averages for all students – they have huge potential – and yet there is a gap in opportunity to achieve.

            There is a plan and there is much work being done. If you disagree with the plan, then offer alternatives and evidence as to why those alternatives are more likely to succeed. It seems like we are having conversation on two completely different planes and I hope the two come together to move forward.

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