District 150 needs business, board to clean house

Bill KnightAs Peorians anticipate School District 150 interim superintendent Norm Durflinger’s formal recommendation to the board on changes in staffing, the thought of other changes comes to mind. If administrations in business, government or any human institution sometimes deflect criticism by blaming the victims, District 150 administrators and board have plenty of targets in trying to avoid answering for schools’ situation: students, teachers, parents, the community, taxpayers…

But, again, those are the victims, victims of a school system that seems to continue to make large and small decisions based on administration and board convenience rather than the public interest or the common good.

The administrators are supposed to answer to the board; the board is supposed to answer to the people; the people need a new school board.

Outside politics, business should get more involved.

Durflinger on Feb. 24 notified dozens of employees that their jobs may change or be cut, two days after the School Board’s 6-0 approval of Grenita Lathan as the new superintendent, a good news/bad news outcome. Possible layoffs – which, if the board approves, could start July 1 and include 1st- through 4th-grade teachers as well as administrative staff – is bad news. Lathan, a former teacher, will start this summer, and that could be good news – but the anticipation expressed by board president Debbie Wolfmeyer may be better news – if she’s right.

“We all keep saying we want change,” she told Journal Star beat reporter Dave Haney. “Well, I hope that’s what you want, because I will tell you we’re going to get change.”

Of course, “change” isn’t “improvement.” Removing a car’s flat and replacing it with a worn-out spare with more holes than tread technically changes a tire, but that probably won’t get you very far.

In fact, the most dramatic action by District 150’s board this year – a charter school, closing Woodruff High School, and nine building projects in addition to hiring Lathan – could miss the point, according to a Chicago study and new book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, Lessons from Chicago (University of Chicago Press).

People trying to improve learning in urban schools should look to five key factors which, when working together, work to better student achievement, it says. Taken from a comprehensive study of 390 Chicago public schools over seven years after a 1988 law gave more control to the local level, the five essential supports are 1) school leadership, 2) parent and community ties, 3) the professional capacity of the faculty, 4) a student-centered learning climate, and 5) a coherent instructional plan.

These supports were effective in a wide variety of schools, including troubled ones, according to the authors, current and former researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research, part of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.

In Peoria, Lathan is scheduled to start either June 1 or July 1, says the contract approved Feb. 22. Earlier last month, voters elected another new face, local lawyer Christopher Crawford, to the School Board for a 5-year term from District 3.

In January the board unanimously OK’d a 5-year pact for a new math, science and technology charter school at Loucks School. Set to open in August with 225 students in grades 5-7, the contract provides for annual reports on finances, attendance and discipline for $728,000 – the same funding the state provides, so it’s a budget-neutral pass-through. However, Caterpillar has offered up to $500,000 in matching funds if organizers can raise that much elsewhere. Unlike magnet schools, charter schools open enrollment to any student in the district, but in return for operating somewhat autonomously from some requirements of public schools, charter schools are supposed to produce certain results – with improved learning presumably at the top. Nationally, communities have failed to hold charter schools more accountable than traditional schools, according to a 2004 U.S. Dept. of Education evaluation. Locally, it’s still unclear what expectations or demands will be made of the new charter school.

Cat may be waving a $500,000 pledge before charter-school advocates, but the business community seems generally detached from District 150’s woes.

Jim McConoughey, president of the Heartland Partnership, in a brief interview with the Journal Star, perhaps revealed the reason: “Education is a high priority for everyone — residents, businesses, everybody. Having said that, education isn’t the only priority for the region.”

In September, District 150’s board voted 4-3 to close Woodruff, part of a consolidation that the board claims will save more than $2 million a year. However, much of that could come from staff cuts. With a district-wide student population about half of what it was 30 years ago, it’s not entirely illogical, but what makes little sense is approving a 2009-2010 budget of about $150 million with a $7.9 million deficit (made less dreadful by using other discretionary funds, reportedly “improving” the shortfall to $1.4 million) and by not having a plan to use Woodruff’s facilities.

In the coming year, these Peoria schools will together spend $97 million on construction projects using money raised through issuing bonds: Central, Glen Oak, Harrison, Jefferson, Kellar, Lincoln, Lindbergh, Northmoor and Richwoods.

Also in the future, the number of ex-District 150 teachers could rise. Some will be laid off, but some will be reluctant retirees fed up with the twin troubles of unruly students on the one hand and unresponsive administrators on the other, apparently unable or unwilling to apply consistency to classroom discipline, student achievement or employee advancement, regardless of economic class, race, faith or neighborhood.

Besides internal problems, outside challenges loom large. They range from the effects of the unfunded mandate of No Child Left Behind, a colossal bi-partisan policy failure too focused on standardized tests, to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011, which cuts $1.3 billion from education.

Looking at those five essentials — 1) school leadership, 2) parent and community ties, 3) the professional capacity of the faculty, 4) a student-centered learning climate, and 5) a coherent instructional plan – it seems that Lathan might provide needed leadership. The charter school scheme might address student-centered learning (maybe – and for just 225 kids who benefit from private sector funds that sure could be used district-wide). Closing Woodruff hurt ties to the community and parents (although renovating or building schools could help). The faculty seems capable, but exploited and underappreciated. And who knows about instructional plans or their level of coherence?

Acknowledging difficulties including different levels of family involvement, poverty and crime, Organizing Schools for Improvement, Lessons from Chicago says, “When looking for ways to improve learning in urban schools, leaders should resist the temptation to look for ‘silver bullets’ and think instead about ‘baking a cake’,” writes William Harms of the University of Chicago. “Just as several ingredients are needed in the right proportions to bake a cake, so too are several ingredients — the ‘five essential supports’ — required to boost student achievement.”

The approach has been successful in Chicago, where more than 80 percent of Chicago’s elementary schools showed some gains in mathematics, and almost 70 percent gained in reading, the authors say. Further, schools that were strong in all five essential supports were ten times more likely to show substantial improvement in reading and mathematics than schools that were strong in only one or two of the essentials.

With a new superintendent and a newcomer on the board, the rest of the board should offer to resign, offering Lathan the opportunity to start change – improvement, that is – with a clean slate. And business should mimic Caterpillar’s generosity with the charter school, but not limit their assistance to a couple of hundred kids in one school on North University.

Bill Knight is an award-winning Peoria journalist who teaches at Western Illinois University. Contact him at bill.knight@hotmail.com.

Bill Knight

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