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Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:01 am

Maintaining the momentum

Lanphier High School working to sustain its transformation

As Lanphier High School faces the end of a major federal grant, the school’s leadership is working to prolong the improvement there even after the money dries up.

Long stereotyped as Springfield’s worst high school, Lanphier has worked to transform itself over the past three years, enabled by a federal School Improvement Grant that expires at the end of the current school year. Although the money will soon disappear, the team leading the transformation hopes to continue the programs even in the midst of district-wide budget cuts.

Situated northeast of Springfield’s downtown, Lanphier has the highest rate of poverty – 64 percent – out of the city’s three public high schools. Almost one-fifth of Lanphier’s 1,200 students have a disability, and about four percent are homeless, which is double the statewide average of two percent.

Around 2010, Lanphier was ranked in the bottom five percent of Illinois schools for standardized test scores, graduation rate and several other measures, according to Brandy Stubblefield, Lanphier’s learning strategist. Lanphier applied in 2010 and 2011 for the federal School Improvement Grant, which is designed to help turn around underperforming schools. When the school was awarded the grant in August 2011, it received the first installment of several million dollars that gave the school access to resources it never had before.

Among the new resources were several rounds of professional development for teachers, online learning tools for students and new data systems for tracking students’ progress. Those resources helped Lanphier transformation officer Kay Dimon and her staff set up several new programs to support teachers, encourage students who perform well and help at-risk students.

Much of the hope for Lanphier’s future rests on an intervention program funded by the federal grant and designed to keep students from failing out of school. Tammy Wilcox, the school’s data manager, now collects and analyzes student data to flag possible dropouts before they happen. When a student receives poor grades, misses a lot of school or starts behaving badly, he or she is referred to Lanphier’s “Pride Team,” which is composed of teachers who tutor and mentor students. The Pride Team specializes in finding out why a student is having trouble with school or home life, then works to find a solution. That may sound simple, but the program is highly structured, and the teachers have each taken extra professional development courses preparing them to handle troubled students and difficult situations.

Under the current program, students who perform well are encouraged with prizes and privileges, and students who need extra help can join small groups geared toward improving math and reading skills, emotional health, attendance and other problem areas. Thanks to the federal grant, Lanphier also offers a summer school program that helps incoming freshmen prepare for high school, as well as “enrichment” courses that offer students an opportunity to learn skills outside the usual curriculum. For example, one group of students started an anti-bullying campaign for a course on civic engagement.

The extra programs required the school day to be extended, and many teachers have put in extra hours planning, meeting with students and filling out paperwork that allows the school’s intervention program to work.

In 2012, the first year of Lanphier’s transformation grant, the school posted large gains on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, the standardized test used to benchmark high school juniors. Although only 35 percent of Lanphier juniors were deemed to meet or exceed the state standards for reading and math in 2012, that represented an increase of nine percentage points from 2011. The improvement earned Lanphier the designation of most improved school in the state from the Illinois State Board of Education. For 2013, the combined reading and math score for juniors dropped slightly to 31 percent, but Dimon is hopeful the school will post gains again for 2014. Lanphier continues to struggle with chronic truancy and a high dropout rate – common problems in high-poverty schools.

With the Springfield school district facing the possibility of $5 million in budget cuts, it seems unlikely that Lanphier’s programs will receive much financial support after the grant ends. Tammy Wilcox, the data manager, and Brandy Stubblefield, the learning strategist, will likely return to their prior teaching positions at the end of the grant, and expenses like further professional development and consultations with outside education companies will likely disappear. Still, Dimon is hopeful that having research and programs in place will allow Lanphier to continue those initiatives which don’t require extra money even if the district is unable to provide funds.

“I have never seen a group of people who are so committed to doing what’s best for kids,” Dimon says of Lanphier’s staff. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Lanphier at a glance:

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