Inside a struggling school
What the state report card doesn’t tell you about Harvard Park
“If you spend any time with these kids, your heart will melt. You look at these kids, some as poor as church mice, and they’re learning, they’re excited.”
Those are the words of Harvard Park Elementary School building principal James Hayes, who is proud of what the teachers, volunteers and administration of the nearly 500-student Springfield school have accomplished in a building where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced fee lunches. Hayes cited above-and-beyond staff dedication, innovative programs and the desire of the students to learn as key reasons why Harvard Park is transforming young lives.
So why does the Illinois State Board of Education rate Harvard Park among the lowest-performing five percent of schools in the state?
“Probably 50 percent of my time here is spent on other duties that you wouldn’t think relate directly to public education,” said Hayes, referring to the holistic approach his team must take to address the social and emotional baggage that many of the students carry with them to class each day. Before these students can learn they have to be made ready to learn, which means everyone at Harvard Park must perform many roles, Hayes said.
“When we interview prospective teachers we ask, ‘Are you ready for it? Are you built for this?’ Here we know for certain you will have to step up and do more,” Hayes said.
Harvard Park School social worker Cara Niemeyer said a lot of time and effort is spent on things many other schools may take for granted.
“It’s that social-emotional learning that kids used to get at home, but we have to teach those things first before kids can be good learners,” Niemeyer said. “You definitely need to learn how to add and read, but if you can’t work with someone that you don’t get along well with, how are you ever going to have a job?”
Springfield School District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill said the “lowest performing” label doesn’t tell the full story of Harvard Park.
“I hate to see any of our schools reach that, but when you look at the demographics and some of the challenges at Harvard Park I think it’s very unfair to deem them lowest performing,” Gill said.
Beginning in 2018, each Illinois school began receiving an Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Summative Designation, a measure of student academic performance and success. These designations are based on mathematics and language arts proficiency as measured by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Test, and also take into account things such as class size, absenteeism and racial demographics. The results are posted in a “report card” for each school on the ISBE website.
Schools can be rated as exemplary, performing in the top 10 percent of schools statewide, or commendable, underperforming or lowest performing. The pre-K through fifth grade Harvard Park joins Springfield’s Graham Elementary, Jefferson Middle, Springfield Learning Academy, Wanless Elementary, and Washington Middle School in the lowest performing category, the bottom five percent of all Illinois schools.
According to Harvard Park’s ISBE Report Card, 44 percent of its students did not meet math and language arts proficiency on the 2018 PARCC Test, compared to 24 percent for all students in Springfield School District 186 and 16 percent statewide. Only seven percent of Harvard Park students met or exceeded proficiency, versus 27 percent for the district and 37 percent in the state.
The average class size at Harvard Park in 2018 was 22, compared to 19 for both the district and state. The Harvard Park chronic absenteeism rate was 39.2 percent; for District 186 as a whole it was 33.4 percent, and 16.8 percent for Illinois. The student mobility rate, which measures the number of students who change schools for any reason, was more than one-fifth of all Harvard Park students last year, much higher than either the district or state.
The ISBE Report Card measured the Harvard Park student population as 54 percent black, 28 percent white and three percent Hispanic. The school’s five percent homeless student population is more than double the district rate, and the 92 percent students from low-income families is much greater than the 68 percent district average.
“The purpose of the system is to identify the schools in the greatest need of additional support,” said ISBE spokesperson Jackie Matthews. “The support process is designed so that each school takes the lead in creating and implementing their local school improvement plan to authentically address students’ needs.”
Matthews said these supports are part of the IL-EMPOWER school improvement process, and for Harvard Park that will mean approximately $100,000 per year for three years to hire outside providers who will help the school work on solutions.
“This year we have had three outside consultants at my disposal that I didn’t always have and probably wouldn’t have if the state wasn’t looking at our test scores and seeing the need,” said Hayes, the principal, who noted that 2018 was the first year of the new ISBE rating system. He added that the true measure of the school’s progress would come during the next two years.
Meanwhile, Hayes wishes that the ISBE report card took note of other data that shows Harvard Park is making progress in their unique and challenging situation. Comparing the same time periods in 2017 and 2018, Hayes said the total number of student suspensions dropped from 23 to four, office disciplinary referrals went down from 280 to 207, the number of students receiving at least one disciplinary referral was reduced from 171 to 131, student truancies dipped from 361 to 345 and the number of students with no disciplinary referrals rose from 74.13 percent to 76.30 percent.
The Harvard Park experience
Preparing Harvard Park students to learn begins the moment they enter the school building on South 11th Street. The building is designated as “silent passage,” which means students do not talk as they enter. They are calmly greeted by several adults, and then they are to walk, not run, to class. It’s a transition from often chaotic home environments to a learning environment, and principal Hayes said “silent passage” has dramatically reduced disciplinary referrals for morning behavior.
Then teachers like Courtney King take over. She has transformed her third-grade classroom storage space into a meditation room complete with curtains, pillows and a white board where students can be invited to go if they are experiencing issues.
“If they are feeling upset or frustrated, I can invite them to use the room and write their feelings on the white board, tell me what’s going on, maybe draw a picture, because these kids need an outlet since there is so much going on in their lives,” said King, a 25-year-old first-time teacher. “They need that space that’s not outside of my classroom, so they can still hear me teaching, but it just gives them that outlet and a space to be by themselves.”
King serves as mediator in a “conversation corner” of her classroom where kids talk through their disputes with each other. She teaches the Word of the Week, where students learn and practice such concepts as empathy, gratitude, patience, grit, compassion or integrity. And the teacher has established Miss King’s Health Store for her pupils.
“It has healthy food like fruit and I have ‘King Cash,’ which I give out during the day for good behavior,” King said. “At the end of the day they fill out a bank account log and they have the choice to either spend the money at the health store or they can save their money.
“They don’t have a lot of things in their lives that are good outside of school, so I try to make school cozy and comfortable and loving, a place that feels like a home,” King said. “Sometimes we underestimate these kids and you can’t do that, because once you dismiss them you are doing them a disservice.”
Harvard Park performs daily “classroom circles,” something they began before District 186 implemented the procedure in other schools, to talk about student accomplishments and concerns at the end of each school day. A clinician from Memorial Health System’s MOSAIC children’s mental health services program is embedded in the school to provide needed on-site services.
Teachers can send students to a safe seat, a buddy room or a recovery room to head off or deal with behavior issues, where students have to accept responsibility and apologize for what they’ve done wrong. If a student has an issue with a particular teacher, that student may be immediately sent to another same-grade classroom in the building so they will not miss any instruction.
“We have to be innovative to stay ahead of that curve and to meet those needs almost before they become problems,” said Niemeyer, the school social worker now in her seventh year at Harvard Park. “Some of the staff members joke about if we had some extra bedrooms we’d be trying to fill them up with these kids. But the reality is that we are only with these kids eight hours a day so we give everything we can in that amount of time. I see this building sort of wrapping around our student population.”
Special education resource teacher Kara Clark has been an educator for 28 years, 23 of them at Harvard Park. The students call her “Grandma Harvard Park.”
“We provide food for families on the weekends sometimes, we have big things at Christmas and Thanksgiving where we have family outings,” Clark said. “We get to know their business whether we want to or not because they share it with us, they trust us, we have their kids as much as they do sometimes.
“Some days you feel great and other days you feel sad because of the environments they are in,” Clark said. “But you have a satisfaction because you know that everybody in our building has done their best, one hundred percent of their day, to make the students’ day the best that it can be.”
The 40-year-old Hayes has been the Harvard Park principal for six years. He was assistant principal there for a year before that and has held administrative positions at several other District 186 schools.
“It’s not policy, procedures or programs, it’s the people and the talents, emotions and gifts they bring to those policies and programs,” Hayes said. “Finding those people, those superstars, who can do those things and just letting them run with it is the key.”
“That kid, no matter what his problems are, can go to a teacher and that teacher can then become a champion for that kid’s life,” Hayes said. “Once we started tapping into the people we saw dramatic results.”
Superintendent Gill shares Hayes’ feelings about what is happening at the school.
“When you visit Harvard Park you see amazing things going on. I’m impressed with the power of the classroom teacher and all of the team that surrounds the students every day,” Gill said. “They really are a set of teachers that care deeply about their school and want to see it go to the next level.”
“Yes sir!” responded the group of approximately 20 Harvard Park students who were seated on the gymnasium floor listening intently to a school volunteer speak plainly about life and the future.
“What is education?” the volunteer asked three times.
“The key!” the students replied each time in unison.
James Johnson is known throughout Harvard Park School as “Real Talk.” Staff and teachers identify students who may have unique challenges or need extra assistance with a social or emotional issue, and Johnson reaches out to them to have a “real talk.” Group “real talk” sessions have recently been added, and they sometimes feature guest speakers.
“We started having issues with kids at a young age and I was finding it more difficult to reach the older kids,” Johnson said. “So if I reach them while they’re young where you can still mold them, maybe I can stop some of that behavior before it gets out of control.
“When I grew up the community raised us. And that’s the sad thing, we have gotten away from a village raising kids,” Johnson said. “Everybody is afraid to say something to kids now. I come here and this is my village and I’m going to teach these kids the right things, the right way, and pray that one day they will make the right decisions and become somebody.”
Johnson asked to volunteer at Harvard Park five years ago and looks forward to every school visit.
“It’s great when I peek my head in a classroom and these teachers say that these young men are doing great,” Johnson said. “It’s like day and night from the moment I had a talk with them to the moment when I come back and check. That’s the best feeling in the world because you’re reaching them.”
Parents and guardians wait on the west side playground each weekday afternoon to pick up their children when Harvard Park dismisses. Some knew about the ISBE “lowest performing” rating for the school and others did not, but the responses one recent day on that playground were similar.
“I don’t agree with the assessment,” said Melissa Liechty, whose son is in the second grade. “He’s doing excellent in this school. He’s been to a couple of schools since he started and this one has been the best.
“His teacher is a lot more understanding. He’s kind of a special needs child, and she’s giving him the support that he needs,” Liechty said.
Dela Montany has a daughter in kindergarten and two nephews and two nieces who attend Harvard Park.
“It surprises me to hear that. They (ISBE) should come check it out and do what they can to help them out if they think they’re lower performing,” Montany said. “The school is close by, they’re nice, there are always activities, if you need something you can just call and they will do their best to help you out.”
Britney Taylor’s son is in the second grade. It is his first year at Harvard Park.
“I just don’t think they give certain schools the credit that they need,” Taylor said. “I have another son that went here a few years ago, and I like the school so far. They interact with the kids a lot. They tend to all of his needs, and he has quite a few.”
Jastine Delgado attended Harvard Park as a child and now has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in first grade there.
“My son has an IEP (individualized education program, for children with special needs) and they have done a lot to help him get through the past year and a half,” Delgado said. “My daughter, she does good. But I think it kind of varies with children and their home lives, especially if they’re not really getting any help from home.”
Superintendent Gill said Harvard Park is an example of a school that has adapted to meet the needs of its students and families, and that’s not something the ISBE report card measures.
“The scores do not take into account families who are living under stress or are having an adverse experience going on in their lives,” Gill said. “These things can take a toll on students in school, and we have really become a place where social-emotional learning is almost equal in importance to academic learning.
“The very best thing you can do is empower teachers to give those great ideas and structures to help change their schools and then to support them along the way,” Gill said. “They know the students the best and they are the ones who have the relationship with the students.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.