Plaintiffs, schools prepare to make case before judge

Plaintiffs, schools prepare to make case before judge

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign school district officials and representatives of its black students will tell a federal judge this week about the successes and the work yet to be done to meet the goals of the district's consent decree case.

Though they might not agree on all the issues, both sides say they hope the testimony in Thursday's court hearing will help the community understand the consent decree and what it means for students and teachers.

"We're closing the achievement gap by raising the performance level of all of our students," Superintendent Arthur Culver said. "I hope the public can understand that even though this has been difficult, because of improvement at the school district, it's going to improve the quality of life for all citizens in the community. And in the end it will make the community a much more attractive place for people to come because of a great school district that has success."

Imani Bazzell, who represents the black community on a district committee dealing with equity issues, agreed.

"I'm hoping the judge coming to town and holding this hearing will allow people who are serious about understanding what's going on to get a good sense of what this thing is," she said. "This isn't about some quest to get some special favors for black kids. This is about creating excellence in our schools, and equity is a byproduct of that."

The school district is operating under a federal consent decree – an agreement to eliminate racial disparities in student achievement, gifted education, special education and discipline, and to integrate the schools better.

U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade, who is overseeing the case, called this summer for a status hearing, saying he was concerned about the district's schedule for compliance.

A number of people will speak on behalf of the school district.

"We're going to make sure we highlight areas where we have made progress, but we're also going to acknowledge areas that are more challenging," Culver said. "We have made significant progress, we have systems and structures in place to accelerate that progress, and I hope the judge and the public leave feeling confident we can get the job done."

Deb Foertsch, president of the teachers' union and a fifth-grade teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary, will speak on behalf of the district's teachers. She said she'll focus on "the commitment of Champaign teachers to equity in this district, to teaching all of our kids to the best of our ability."

She'll also talk about how changes have affected teachers, such as the realignment of the elementary curriculum and the requirement for more record-keeping. She said the collective bargaining agreement reflects many of the changes necessary to meet consent decree goals, including the collaboration time for teachers to talk about students' needs.

"Changes in our curriculum have been huge," Foertsch said. "We have new measures of assessment to determine whether kids are learning. But just as important as that is having time to meet and to study some of that data and to really talk about individual kids and say, 'How can we help this kid become more successful?'

"I want the judge and the public to see how big this is in the lives of teachers, how hard we've worked, how far we've come, and to know that addressing the goals of the consent decree, being fair to all of our kids and giving all of our kids the absolute best education we can provide, that is what the teachers in Champaign are all about."

School board President Margie Skirvin will discuss the board's role and its ultimate responsibility for meeting consent decree goals.

Skirvin was on the board when the consent decree was reached and when the district's equity plans were developed, and she's watched the process all along. The biggest change she's seen is the focus on equity.

"I've seen the whole district focus itself on the goals of the consent decree," Skirvin said. "The things being put in place are really beneficial for all the children. This has made the district a stronger school district. I'm pleased we get a chance to present some of this information.

"We know we have more to do and we're running out of time. We can feel the urgency, too. (But) teachers are working so hard. I really don't want to lose the fact that people are working so hard for our kids. I really want that to come through. We're not done, but we're not coasting along."

But Skirvin expects to hear criticism of the district's efforts Thursday.

"I don't expect to be patted on the back," she said.

Culver agreed the presentations largely will focus on areas where the school district is struggling.

"I've been preparing principals and the administrative team to understand that even though we've made a lot of progress, that's not what the focus is going be at the hearing from the plaintiffs' point of view, and the (court) monitor," Culver said. "The plaintiffs and monitor look at this from an auditor's perspective.

"They don't come in to give you accolades. They look for deficits or areas that need improvement."

Carol Ashley, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case – black families who filed complaints against the district over mandatory busing of black students and other issues – expects to focus on many of the issues raised in a court document she filed early this month.

One of the main concerns was ensuring the district is establishing interim steps that will allow it to reach its objectives and allow its progress to be measured.

She is also concerned with making enough progress in the three years left in the decree to accomplish its goals.

McDade will not hear open public comment, but he allowed community members to submit written statements to the court, and he might permit some limited comment at the hearing from select individuals.

Bazzell has requested to speak on behalf of Care3, a group of individuals and organizations supporting the district's equity goals, of which she is a member. As of last week, she didn't know if she would be able to do so.

She'd like to talk about her concerns for the racial climate in the district and community, and share how University of Illinois professors and students are looking at how a pre-K-8 lab campus could help the district achieve its equity goals.

"This isn't about just pointing fingers at the district and saying, 'You haven't done this, you haven't done that.' I have no interest in that," Bazzell said. "This is the community I live in, these are the public schools, and ultimately it is my and everyone else's responsibility to accelerate this process and ensure the educational equity goals have been reached."

She also wants to hear assurance from McDade that the programs and policies the district has put into place won't disappear after the consent decree ends, and "we don't revert back to status quo once the court is not watching anymore."

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