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Thursday, March 22, 2012 09:40 am

Elevating education

Can Springfield turn around its languishing public schools?


Michael Gaines of Springfield interacts with students at Enos Elementary School during a Real Men Read event in February, featuring community members who visit schools and read to students.

Four years ago, a report on education in Springfield revealed some difficult realities about the city’s public schools. The report highlighted declining test scores, poor attendance, low graduation rates and inadequate college preparation – problems shown to be even worse among African American students.

Since that 2008 report was published by the City of Springfield’s now-dormant Office of Education Liaison, the situation doesn’t appear to have improved much. In 2011, 84 percent of African American high school juniors failed a state reading exam, while 82 percent failed the math portion. Nearly a quarter of all high school students who should have graduated in 2011 instead dropped out.

The disheartening statistics are endless, but that’s not unique to Springfield, says Shelly Heideman, executive director of the Springfield-based Faith Coalition for the Common Good.

“Things are bad all across the U.S.,” Heideman says, referring to low test scores nationwide and statewide. “In every community, it’s the same story. There has to be something in the system that needs to be changed.”

While test scores remain low, the district has undertaken several efforts – both independently and with help from the Faith Coalition – to motivate students, improve parental involvement and communication, and help teachers do more in better schools.

“We can’t just blame the school district or teachers or parents,” Heideman says. “It’s all of our responsibility.”

A third grader in teacher Tandra Jett’s class at Black Hawk Elementary School uses one of several iPads obtained through a grant in September as part of an effort to incorporate technology into the classroom.

District 186 vs. Illinois

Evaluating a school district often involves comparing the district’s standardized test scores with the rest of the state. While students in Springfield Public Schools have consistently tested below the rest of the state over the past decade, the rate at which students in this district pass state standardized tests has increased over the same time frame, from 52 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2011.

But Faith Coalition member Paula Stadeker says standardized tests may not provide an accurate assessment of a district’s ability to educate kids. One common criticism of standardized tests is that they typically don’t account for cultural differences in learning that may affect scores.

“It’s bad in the sense that 84 percent is a lot of kids to not be meeting the standards,” Stadeker said, referring to the rate at which African American juniors failed the state reading exam in 2011. “But we have to look at whether the standard is measuring their true ability in light of their socio-economic circumstances.”

Howard Peters IV, spokesman for the Springfield Urban League, agrees that the low test scores alone don’t tell the whole story. The Urban League co-wrote the 2008 education report and is part of the Faith Coalition.

“If you’re just looking at the numbers, it’s difficult to find a ray of light in there,” Peters says. “But it appears the district is certainly on track to address these issues. These are not the kind of issues you can see changed in a single school year. This is about a strategic plan of turning around our education system, and I think the district has made strides to do that. It’s about capturing students at a young age and fostering a motivated passion for learning.”

Every student from grades three through five at Black Hawk Elementary School gets to use an iPad each day during math, science and other classes.

Challenges and changes

It’s in that long-term mindset that the district and the Faith Coalition are working to improve education in Springfield.

Chronic truancy has long been a source of concern, says district spokesman Pete Sherman, adding that the district has a truancy task force working on solutions. A student is chronically truant if they miss nine school days without a valid excuse. The situation seems to have improved in 2011, when only 369 students were deemed chronically truant. That’s about 2.6 percent of the daily average attendance, and it’s a decrease from 591 truant students in 2010. [CORRECTION: A previous version of the story said students are chronically truant if they miss 18 school days without a valid excuse. However, a change in state law cut that number in half to nine.]

“We have to give kids a reason to want to come to school,” said District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton at a Feb. 25 education summit hosted by the Faith Coalition. To get more kids coming to school, Milton is pushing for a community-wide approach that would increase accountability for students who skip school and the parents who let them do so. Milton wants to implement random city-wide truancy sweeps to round up students who should be in school but are instead walking the streets. The sweeps would use the combined forces of police, firefighters and local businesses to locate and report truants.

“We did it in Flint, and it worked,” Milton said, referring to truancy sweeps in Flint, Mich., where he was superintendent before taking over at District 186 in April 2007. As part of his plan, parents could receive a court summons to explain their child’s truancy to a judge after repeated incidents.

To supplement the district’s efforts, the Faith Coalition formed a committee that plans to talk to students to find out why they skip school.

“If kids aren’t at school, they can’t graduate,” Heideman says. “They end up in low-wage jobs or even in prison. … I know of one student who skipped school for two months. Imagine how much you’d miss in two months, how far behind you’d fall.”

Peters says it’s important to get children hooked on education by the fourth grade, or else they’re in danger of fading from school and eventually dropping out.

“You have to find a way to connect with them so they have their own fire and you’re just stoking it for them,” Peters says. “We have to build competitive, interested and motivated students who go home and get their whole family interested in education. Parents these days have so much on them. It’s difficult to expect a mom to work 12 hours and then come home and help her kids with their homework. It’s about turning little Johnny into the self-starter.”

The Faith Coalition held listening sessions during summer 2011 to meet with district parents and hear their concerns. Among the concerns raised was a lack of communication by the district. Faith Coalition member Susan Eby says some parents felt like teachers “talked down” to them or “talked over their heads.” Eby praised the district for three initiatives already in the works to improve communication with parents.

Among those improvements is the implementation of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) teams composed of parents from each school. The FACE teams allow parents to have input in district decisions, get involved in projects and share information more easily.

To connect parents with academic and personal support systems for their children, the district has Parent Educators in schools with high poverty rates. That’s becoming increasingly important because the percentage of low-income students has risen consistently over the past decade, to the current level of 67.2 percent. Studies show students from low-income households tend to struggle in school, possibly due to instability or stress at home, inadequate nutrition, overworked parents or similar factors.

The district also has a Parent Mentor who helps parents of children with disabilities understand special education and support services.

To further improve communication with parents, the district and the Faith Coalition are together examining ways to make the district’s disciplinary handbook more clear. The district is also working on website improvements to make information more current and easier to find. Pete Sherman, spokesman for the district, says most of the website revisions will be made this summer.

Kathy Crum, the district’s director of teaching and learning, says the district is constantly helping teachers better themselves through professional development. The district’s Instructional Leadership Team, composed of teachers from various schools, determines which skills are most needed at which schools, providing customized professional development district-wide. That includes topics like cultural awareness to help teachers related to students who may have different backgrounds.

“Any school district that is effective at all has very strong professional learning for teachers,” Crum says. “Basically, what we have to do is constantly adapt what we’re doing to meet the changing needs of the kids.”

The district’s efforts to improve education in Springfield extend into the physical realm, as well. Sherman says $90 million in building upgrades are in the works. The changes will provide several existing schools with energy-efficient central heating and air, new lighting and other improvements, he says. Two new schools will also be built to replace the current Matheny-Withrow and Enos elementary schools.

Dr. Mark Puczynski, a pediatrician at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, reads to students at Feitshans Academy during a Real Men Read event in October.

Help for Lanphier

In addition to the district-wide efforts, one of the district’s three high schools is undergoing intense, targeted changes through a $6 million federal grant aimed at getting the under-performing school back on track. Lanphier High School in Springfield’s north end performed well below the rest of the district and the state on standardized tests in 2011, with only 25 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the PSAE last year. By comparison, 40 percent of students in the whole district passed the test, while 51 percent of students passed statewide.

The Lanphier Transformational Plan, started in June 2011, allows the district to hire three new staff, including an administrator to oversee the plan, an analyst to make sense of student data, and a strategist to train teachers and update curriculum. The grant also pays for professional development courses and provides more pay for existing teachers who take on extra instructional roles in their departments.

Meanwhile, Lanphier students gain an additional hour and 15 minutes of teaching during the school day, more tutoring and an early-warning screening system to identify students needing extra help. The plan establishes a summer leadership academy for Lanphier staff, provides 215 new laptops for students and creates a series of online learning tools to bring struggling students up to speed.

“The main idea is just changing the culture behind the school,” says Hannah Jones, secretary to Lanphier’s transformational officer. “We’re shifting away from ‘This is the way it is and the way it’s going to be,’ to ‘We can do this. We can improve.’ We need to give these kids better opportunities than they currently have.”

Lanphier also has a program that encourages community involvement in students’ academic lives. The school’s “Making the Grade” program invites volunteers to meet with students to review their report cards and encourage them.

Volunteer Barbara Collins of Springfield jokes that she first got involved at Lanphier because she had already raised her two kids and “harassing teenagers about their grades is something I know how to do.” Collins works as a mediator in child custody cases, and says she often sees children not doing well in school because of their life circumstances.

“Perfectly wonderful, intelligent teenagers can get lost at school because of other pressures in their lives,” Collins says. “They don’t necessarily know they can approach their teacher or another adult for help.”

Jones says several of the volunteers have taken the extra step of becoming mentors for Lanphier students.

“A lot of the students are saying they didn’t realize someone cared enough about them to come in and talk to them,” Jones says. “The question we get the most from students is ‘Are they coming back?’”

And they are coming back. Volunteer Robin Daniels of Springfield says he plans to spend all day on March 22 at Lanphier talking with students. Daniels says he is involved in a similar program in Decatur, and this will be his third time at Lanphier.

“Maybe I can have an effect on one, two, maybe three kids, if not the whole group,” he says. “Maybe they would change and do something different with their lives. So many of these kids are growing up in households without their fathers, and they don’t have someone telling them what it means to be a man, to take care of your responsibilities like school and paying your bills.”

Reading to students at Feitshans Academy during a Real Men Read event in February.

Answering the call

When the 2008 report from the city’s Education Liaison was published four years ago, it asked some pointed questions: “Do Springfield residents believe that excellent public education is critical to supporting a high quality of life for the entire community? Will Springfield expect more for its children, or is it satisfied with mediocre, unequal results?”

The school district and the community at large seem to have answered those questions, accepting the challenge to improve the educational environment and experience for all students. While it remains to be seen how effective these changes will be over the long term, there is certainly no shortage of effort.

“We’re definitely making progress,” Milton says. “I’m very confident that we’re positioned to make more progress. With that said, we still have things we have to work on, to improve not only the achievement gap but the opportunity gap. … If we can invest in our young people now, we can reap the profit of them being successful in the future.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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