The six candidates vying on April 5 for three seats for the Fenton High School District 100 school board in Bensenville face daunting numbers.
The district, which is nearly split down the middle with a half white and half Hispanic student population, has been on academic watch for the past seven years. Its state report card shows more than 40 percent of its students are from low-income households and nearly 12 percent have special learning needs.
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State test scores from 2010 show less than half the school meets reading standards under the No Child Left Behind mandate, with figures at roughly 46 percent. In math, just more than 53 percent of students meet or exceed state standards.
To explain what the school board can do to improve student achievement, incumbents Dorothy Lange, Dave Sbertoli and Mabel Umeadi spoke with the Daily Herald. Their challengers, Bensenville residents Anthony Sumner and Laura Wassinger, also offered ideas. Candidate David Hermann could not be reached by phone after several attempts.
This is an edited version of their comments.
Lange: I think we have two major issues, the first being that we've had to cut way back financially because of the recession and state budget crisis. Currently, the superintendent, business manager and principal are going through line items to see what can be trimmed for the third year in a row. We have a balanced budget and are doing well, but we want to be ahead since the state is in so much trouble.
To ease that, we are very proactive in looking for grant money. This is the second year we've applied for a government grant that helps us fund the students who qualify for free lunches. We are also working with an energy auditor to get grant money for updating our light systems.
We also must work constantly on raising test scores. The staff keeps coming up with more creative ideas to boost performance, but it is always a struggle. One new initiative called "Be Real" is fundamental, successful and aims to get kids to school on time and not miss days. The program rewards students for handing in homework on time, arriving on time to class and school with items donated by local stores and bought with grant money. Rewards start small and build up, and it has reached the students we wanted it to reach. Once you get them to school, you can work with them.
Sbertoli: While numbers are important, they don't tell the whole story. This data doesn't show how much each individual student has grown. You might have a child who comes in as a freshman reading at fifth-grade level, and he might leave Fenton reading at 10th grade. We've boosted him five grade levels, but he's still not meeting state standards and, in situations like that, some children are just not going to.
So while we have to consider the individual cases, we also have to communicate with the grade school feeder districts and tap at-risk children as young as we can.
In addition, I am proud of our schoolwide summer reading program Fenton implemented three years ago.
Sumner: There could be some sort of a communication program implemented among all taxing bodies, including libraries, the villages and elementary districts to uplift all students. We need curriculum collaboration that starts younger. And we could couple programs for students and parents with library programs and online learning.
With parents who are not fluent in English, you often see the parents looking to learn from their children. So the more opportunities you give them to learn about the language, the curriculum and what is expected of students, too, they're going to jump on that.
In addition, I would like to see updated computer labs and more technology training in both computers and trades that will better prepare students for the modern world.
Umeadi: Of course I want my own child to meet state standards and, since I make this personal, all of the children that go to Fenton are mine. When we get students from eighth grade, the marathon literally starts. But I am pleased with new programs Fenton has implemented, including identifying high-risk students and getting them into summer school between eighth grade and freshman year.
As part of the curriculum committee I serve on, we have done other work such as restructuring the teachers' schedules to make them more available to help students during free periods, extending math periods for at-risk students, and assigning social workers to follow up with students we've tagged who have academic struggles. And I agree it is key to get parents involved and create outreach to Hispanic parent groups.
Other board initiatives I think will help include a new initiative with the College of DuPage science program that will offer training to our teachers and expanded classes for students.
Wassinger: Fenton's biggest challenge is keeping up with diversity, both cultural and economic, that has increased substantially over the years. It is vital for Fenton to allocate more funds and staff into the ESL program. And there is a Hispanic community group that functions within Bensenville and we need to work with them to reach that demographic however we can.
We must increase their comfort with the school and curriculum or their kids will not improve. They need to know they have an opportunity and a right to expect more for their children.
I also think Fenton should research other communities with a similar demographic that are succeeding and find out what they are doing that works. We have many creative options to partner with community groups to develop programs if we can't fund them in traditional ways. I think there is an opportunity to collaborate with the other local districts to get more for less.