Our School Board Is Under Attack for Putting Anti-Racist Education Into Action

In September 2020, Donald Trump issued an executive order targeting institutions that teach critical race theory. I took that personally. As an academic and as a school board president of a district that has taken on the moral and ethical work of educational racial equity, the tenets of critical race theory (rooted in decades of academic research and scholarship) have been foundational in our pursuit of ensuring access to high-quality educational opportunities for every child in our district, with the goal of eliminating the racial predictability of achievement and outcome data. For four years, we have been under attack by anti-racial equity individuals and organizations, such as Fox News and white supremacists, as we’ve pursued what is good for all of the children and families in our schools, rather than a small exclusive subset. I believe it is because opponents do not want to see our model of policy making and leadership in opposition to white supremacy replicated in other places.

The year was 2017; I’d been elected vice president to the Evanston Skokie/District 65 (D65) School Board in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago (a role I maintained for three years until being elected board president in 2020). School Board President Suni Kartha and I, two women of color, were elected on a platform of a commitment to transparency and inclusivity in governing through a racial equity lens. In Spring 2017, two months after the election, a room filled with educators, community representatives, school board leaders, administrators and caregivers — not exclusively, but largely white — packed into a conference room to listen to Sean Reardon. Reardon, a Stanford professor, was brought by the Family Action Network, a local nonprofit that brings thinkers to provide local learning opportunities that are free and open to the public and whose mission is to present “fresh ideas that elevate minds, expand hearts, and make the world a better place.” Reardon came to discuss his meta study of racially disaggregated metrics from every state’s assessment data in the nation. He shared upward of 20 slides along with some meaningful analysis.

On one slide, he noted white students in 8th grade in D65 performed at the 99th percentile on average — among the top in the nation. The parents in the room beamed, and I braced myself. Next, he shared that D65 Black and Brown 8th-graders at the time were slightly below grade level (the 50th percentile) on average, and as I feared, their beaming did not dim; had they heard what I heard? There were some knowing nods, some apathetic stares and some pitying murmurs, but no sign of shame or even culpability at the systematic neglect of Black and Brown students whose families were invested in these schools and their children’s futures. Reardon’s thesis seemed to be that while every school district in the nation has a racialized gap in opportunity to achievement, D65 had “a very striking achievement gap” that was so disproportionate to the income gap that it was an extreme outlier in the nation. He based this assertion on his comprehensive analysis of the districts he studied nationwide. While most districts’ achievement gaps are correlated to access to economic resources, Evanston’s was not.

Reardon showed that the income gap in Evanston is small compared to that of some other cities: very high-resource households (measured by the census) have, on average, an income of 2.5 times that of low-resource households (measured by free and reduced lunch data). In school districts like Atlanta, Berkeley and Washington, D.C. the income gap was much higher — with high-resource households bringing in an average of six times as much as low-resource households. Household income in our country has, unfortunately, historically been a significant predictor of access to and performance on standardized tests, not due to capabilities of the individuals, but because of the access that income provides (supplemental educational activities, reduction in household stress, relationship and access to institutions). Given that the income gap in Evanston is less than half as large as what it is in these other cities, it could be presumed that the gap in opportunity to achieve would be less than half as large as well. It is not. In fact, it is equivalent. We have had to collectively sit with that reality as an institution and as a community. D65 had the worst “achievement gap” in the nation, yet people moved here for “the schools.”

When Reardon presented his data, he explained that it pointed toward a need for three steps in D65 and wherever racialized gaps in opportunity to achieve exist. First of all, he said, it’s important to implement early childhood interventions that increase the number of Black and Brown students who are kindergarten-ready, as the data suggests that the gap started in kindergarten and became more exacerbated over the years until 8th grade. Secondly, Reardon said, we must disrupt resource and opportunity hoarding in the K-8 educational experience to address the fact that the gap was intractable and worsened as students persisted through their K-8 experience. He emphasized it was the district’s responsibility to ensure resources were being equitably distributed racially. Finally, he emphasized that schools must be acknowledged as a common good. Reardon encouraged us to consider: Are schools “good” when they are only good for some students?

As Ibram X. Kendi notes in How to Be an Antiracist,

The idea of an achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority. The idea of an achievement gap means there is a disparity in academic performance between groups of students; implicit in this idea is that academic achievement as measured by statistical instruments like test scores and dropout rates is the only form of academic “achievement.” There is an even more sinister implication of “achievement gap” talk — that disparities in academic achievement accurately reflect disparities in intelligence among racial groups.

Over the next four years, the D65 board led a vision of policy making through a racial equity lens. We took on every single recommendation on Reardon’s list, initiating changes in outcomes and experiences for our most marginalized students and families. There is a great deal more yet to do, but a blueprint has been laid out, and given the white supremacist backlash, I think it’s fair to say that they feel threatened by our progress.

While this is a broad overview of our road map to change, it is my hope that other school districts will model our process.

Beginning Stages

School Board President Kartha and I began monthly joint meetings with our educators’ union, administration and board leadership to ensure that we could build a culture of collaboration, transparency and inclusivity among the three influential stakeholder groups that impact broader district culture and climate.

The board voted in 2017 to support the administration in adopting an educator-proposed plan to de-track middle school algebra, meaning we eliminated the use of racially predictable testing to create racially segregated “ability” grouped classes, in favor of “mixed ability classes.” We added an “Algebra Excite” class consisting of algebraic support and social-emotional learning content, which reduced the inequities that had been produced by opportunity hoarding via tutoring and hours of caregiver lobbying for placement. This increased access for all students for rigorous math a full grade level above the national average, which, in turn, opened up access to higher level math in high school for Black and Brown students. The program was a success, as measured the following year demonstrating a statistically significant increase in conditional growth on the NWEA MAP Math assessment for Black students from the 70th percentile to the 80th percentile, while sustaining progress and learning for white students (from the 86th percentile to the 87th on the same measurement tool and scale).

The school board also mandated that every employee and board member in the district complete a two-day racial justice training to better streamline our language and understandings. We made access to these training sessions available throughout the community to caregivers and other leaders allowing our community to operate with a shared understanding. (This type of training was targeted by Trump’s executive order.) Additionally, we revised the district’s discipline policy and student handbook to be rooted in restorative practices, treating children’s behaviors as opportunities for learning and repair for children and adults. As we describe on our website, we now act on this premise: “All youth need a chance to learn from their mistakes and put them right. Conflict resolution is an important social skill they will need throughout their lives.”

The Attacks Escalate, But Our Work Continues

The road to these rapid and significant changes was not always smooth. In the beginning of my tenure, one principal faced a public uproar after North Cook News and Fox News published disparaging articles circulating an internal school memo in which he encouraging staff to reflect in racial affinity spaces. Additionally, two D65 schools received anonymous postcards saying “White [N-word]s matter.”

Meanwhile, Trump-appointed Office of Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow sent an unauthorized letter regarding racial affinity staff groups at Nichols Middle School attempting to intimidate the district into ending this work.

Yet we did not let this deter our work.

In 2018, parents from several other local Black families in D65 and I founded an African American, Black and Caribbean parent group. Families in the area also started Next Steps Evanston, a community education program offering free racial equity education opportunities to caregivers and members of the community several times throughout the school year. I have served as a facilitator, adviser and member of its planning committee since 2018 when the group discussed opportunity hoarding, anti-racism and policy change through a study of the book Despite the Best Intentions by John Diamond and Amanda Lewis, who also served as facilitators.

The board also adopted a Racial Equity Impact Assessment Tool and glossary through which to review all policy, to prevent unintended negative consequences, and to increase the specificity of our policy-making to improve experiences for our most marginalized.

In 2019, the board transitioned from our relationship with the superintendent at the time and embarked on a specifically anti-racist search process for a new superintendent with significant community engagement. At the end of that search, the board selected Devon Horton, who began his tenure with the district by adopting a framework of change called the MIRACLES framework, which emphasizes “motion towards equity,” seeks to “improve instructional methodology,” pursues a “relevant and rigorous course of study,” affirms a “commitment to accountability,” prioritizes “learning environments that support student success,” seeks to “establish expected targets driven by results,” and aims for “sound fiscal stewardship.”

That year, the teachers’ union requested collaboration with the administration to carry out D65’s first Black Lives Matter at School Week. The frame of the content for second grade that week focused on how to notice when people are being treated unfairly. It also emphasized how we are the same and also different, sought to help students to understand the intersecting oppressions facing Black women and emphasized demonstrating the ability to respect oneself and the rights of others. We also adopted an LGBTQ+ equity week. The efforts to do so were supported in partnership by the District Administration and District 65 Educators’ Council. The week-long LGBTQ+ curriculum celebrated and affirmed LGBTQ+ identities with a stated goal of “fostering a deeper sense of allyship within our schools and the creation of a welcoming, inclusive environment for every child and adult.” The curriculum content introduced children to the concept of using affirming pronouns for self and others and fostered awareness of and appreciation for different family structures. The district’s commitment to this equity work pre-dated an adopted curriculum mandate at the state level.

The board also dedicated a public meeting to hear from our community about having police, known as school resource officers (SROs), in schools. We requested that the administration end our school day relationship with the local police department, and allocate additional resources to schools to support the mental health needs of children and families rather than police those needs. We approved funding for de-escalation training for staff and appointed special services assistant principals to better facilitate students’ specialized needs as a preventative intervention rather than policing crisis behaviors at each school.

2021 saw the district’s early childhood program — which serves primarily Black and Brown students and families who receive special education services — more than double the number of graduates who were evaluated as kindergarten-ready, a predictor for long-term dissolution of the gap in opportunity to achieve.

Our district hosted a panel and discussion on adopting a resolution to read a Native Land Acknowledgement and Acknowledgment of the Contributions of the Enslaved prior to all of our meetings, and reviewed a proposal for a comprehensive rewrite of our social studies curriculum to be accurate, inclusive and affirming of the histories and contributions of the marginalized — pre-colonialism up to the present time.

That same month, D65 Caregivers of Color — a multiracial and multiethnic ad hoc collective of D65 caregivers who were activated to respond to the racism that was being expressed in some of the school board candidates’ campaigns — organized a march against racism spurred by comments from candidates that Black Lives Matter Week at School shouldn’t be taught because it could hurt the self-esteem of white children (a comment that ignored the benefit to everyone of eradicating racism and the harm that has been done to children and families of color by not doing so). One candidate said, “I’m a big believer that you have to experience things [racism], and I worry that if you tell children how to think or what to think, you’re gonna miss that experience [of racism],” thereby ignoring the terrible harm associated with racist experiences. The D65 Caregivers of Color implored our peers and community members to vote and volunteer to get out the vote for anti-racism for the safety and well-being of our children and our entire community. More than 50 caregivers and children marched 2.3 miles to the polls for a multicultural, multilingual rally and press conference, and then shared food and water supplied by local volunteers and vendors as an act of care.

However, D65 also faced some of the most vitriolic community conditions we have seen in recent years. In addition to Trump’s executive order to bar federal funds from going to institutions that teach critical race theory, resistance to the district’s anti-racist changes has included letters from Trump’s office of civil rights commissioners, death threats and hit pieces in the media. Moreover, the 2021 D65 board vice president’s car and personal belongings were ransacked and card with a homophobic message was left behind.

But after a brutal municipal election cycle, wrought with instances of racism, the three racial equity incumbents handily won seats on the D65 school board on April 6, 2021. Their electoral win confirmed our communities’ support for governing through a racial equity lens and rejection of external efforts to undermine and intimidate.

Institutional-level racial equity educational reform lives on to fight another day in D65 and as a replicable model for districts across the nation.