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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 02:55 am

Keep pushing for excellence in education

School reform has proven to be tricky business in Springfield. Leading up to Dr. Walter Milton’s hire as superintendent in 2007, Springfield Public Schools were under growing public pressure to reverse declining test scores, improve failing high schools and eliminate large achievement gaps between black and white students, high-income and low-income students and disabled and non-disabled students. These problems existed for decades in Springfield schools but other objectives, like maintaining high staff morale, creating a positive district image and boosting community support for public schools, took precedence.

Many parents and community members were blissfully ignorant of the state of education in Springfield. With the exception of longtime advocates, both inside and outside the education system, the broader community seemed indifferent to the needs of non-traditional or struggling students.

The advent of No Child Left Behind and its subgroup reporting requirements forced District 186 to publicly acknowledge serious systemwide deficiencies. As the school improvement movement gained steam across the nation, District 186 inched in that direction. Change at the top, with the retirement of Superintendent Dr. Diane Rutledge, afforded the board a chance to more fully embrace reform.

Dr. Walter Milton, Jr. offered a vision of change, spoke the language of reform and offered big ideas to restructure high schools, reconfigure alternative education, increase academic standards, develop career academies and much more. Looking back over his six-year tenure, it is apparent that while Dr. Milton did not achieve perfection, he delivered on many of his original promises.

Soon after his arrival, he shepherded through state-mandated high school restructuring. Along the way, graduation requirements were increased, the acclaimed International Baccalaureate Program was implemented, alternative education programs were restructured, a model public-private partnership with SIU School of Medicine was implemented, a $5.2 million federal school improvement grant to turn around Lanphier High School was secured, achievement scores and attendance rates improved, career academies were instituted, a rigorous college preparatory academy was opened and construction began on two new elementary schools.

Despite these accomplishments, Dr. Milton will be leaving Springfield. Saying that the board denied his request for a contract extension, he noted fundamental policy disagreements as the main reason for his departure. Smoldering board/superintendent tensions burst into the spotlight recently with revelations about a confidential separation agreement. After a year-long buildup, drastic budget cuts and an approaching school board election have heightened tensions.

Maybe it is time for a management change at the top. After all, Dr. Milton’s tenure has exceeded the national average for superintendent stays by two years and a new school board with at least three new members will be elected on April 6. But because March 31 will be Dr. Milton’s final day, we will never know whether he and the newly constituted school board could have unified and continued forward together.

Milton’s departure threatens to dismantle the progress made. District 186 must not completely reverse course. The era of traditional school structures, rigid boundaries and one-size-fits-all instructional approaches are behind us. Filling an $8 million budget hole demands hard choices. But returning to school models that failed to meet the needs of large numbers of children makes no sense. Excellence pushes forward despite thin budgets.

The vote to eliminate Capital College Preparatory Academy is a case in point. Students were selected for CCPA because they were falling behind in their home middle schools. At CCPA, parent satisfaction was high, students were excelling and staff were motivated and effective. Moreover, the school’s student population, comprised of nearly 80 percent low-income students, was further testament to the program’s success.

But the school board voted 4-3 to eliminate the program, dispersing students back to the schools they and their parents chose to leave. This shortsighted action may save money, though the actual savings amount is in dispute, but the longer-term negative consequences of the closure will surely negate any promised savings.

In times of transition, a longing for stability and calm can result in paralysis. A brief period of reflection is in order, but educational progress must not stall. Soon the Springfield community should unify around a vision of excellence in schools. It will need to decide what excellence looks like in practice, safeguarding what works and discarding what doesn’t. Quality education cannot be guided solely by cost considerations and must always serve, to echo a Milton phrase, the best interests of children.

Sheila Stocks-Smith, who writes a monthly opinion column for Illinois Times, has been an advocate for quality public schools in Springfield for nearly 20 years and worked for SD186 and Superintendent Milton for two months before running for mayor of Springfield in 2011. 
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