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updated: 4/25/2011 11:26 AM

Suburban teachers pay for controversial Blue Ribbon conference in Grayslake

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  • Park Campus, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade building in Round Lake, where Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc. will stage an education conference starting Thursday.

       Park Campus, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade building in Round Lake, where Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc. will stage an education conference starting Thursday.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • South Carolina-based Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc. has been selling tickets to an education conference this week at Grayslake Elementary District 46's Park Campus in Round Lake.

       South Carolina-based Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc. has been selling tickets to an education conference this week at Grayslake Elementary District 46's Park Campus in Round Lake.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer


Educators from four states are expected to descend on Grayslake Elementary District 46 this week for a two-day conference staged by a controversial South Carolina consultant.

Park Campus in Round Lake will be the primary venue for the sessions organized by Bart Teal's Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc.

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District 46 Superintendent Ellen Correll said she's excited to host the Blue Ribbon Schools Blueprint for Educational Excellence National Institute on Thursday and Friday. Some Lake County schools will be represented.

"Given the financial constraints many districts are facing, hosting this conference allows us to provide quality professional development for our entire staff and the opportunity to collaborate and network with staff and administrators from other districts across the region," Correll said.

Teal, who didn't return messages seeking comment, is known for giving publicized Blue Ribbon Lighthouse awards to some schools that hire his company -- without publicly noting the financial connection. District 46's Prairieview School in Hainesville touts the award on a monument sign off Route 120.

School officials can collect the awards at December conventions, held in 2009 and 2010 at Walt Disney World in Florida. Three District 46 buildings have received what Teal calls his highest Blue Ribbon Lighthouse status.

District 46 officials have defended the Blue Ribbon relationship since it began in 2007. They point to creation of a data den to monitor reading progress at Meadowview School, a miniature kindergarten technology laboratory and several other ideas from the consultant.

The agenda at this week's conference includes opening remarks by Teal, school tours, vendor exhibits, data-driven instruction and technology integration.

Keynote speakers are 2008 South Carolina Teacher of the Year Ann Marie Taylor and Minneapolis psychologist David Walsh, considered an authority on the effects of technology on children's health and development.

Correll said District 46 classes will be in session Thursday, but children are off Friday because it previously was designated a teacher institute day.

Correll said at least 100 educators from Illinois, New York, Florida and Wisconsin will join District 46 staffers at the two-day conference. Any costs or revenue for the district won't be known until after the gathering, she said.

Teachers with approval to attend the conference include those from Millburn Elementary District 24 and Libertyville Elementary District 70. Blue Ribbon is selling tickets through a link on District 46's website, with prices at $119 for an individual instructor and $100 per person on a team of 10 or as "friends and family."

Millburn teachers each get $500 per year in public money to spend for professional development, but what they select must align with school improvement goals, officials said.

Three Millburn Central teachers are to attend the Blue Ribbon conference, while substitutes at a cost of $510 will cover their absence for the two days, Superintendent Ellen Mauer said.

"That's their choice how they spend it," said Millburn Central Principal Jason Lind. "I still approve it as a principal to make sure it's not totally off base."

Lind, who will take over as Millburn's superintendent this summer, said the district often gets solicitations for workshops of various types, which are posted on the school bulletin board or distributed via email to teachers.

"Some are good, some are not," he said of the opportunities. "Some are hard to tell until you get there."

District 70 teachers can receive up to $200 this year for professional development and are expected to share what they learn. Workshops must be approved by a committee of an administrator and at least one teacher.

A fifth-grade teacher from Copeland Manor School will be the sole attendee from District 70. A substitute will be brought in at a cost of $85 per day.

Principal Erik Youngman said Copeland's staff this year received professional development in a variety of subjects, including interactive whiteboards and iPod Touches. Blue Ribbon's sessions fit Libertyville's goals, he added.

"If they provide what they're saying, it should be beneficial," Youngman said of the conference.

Meanwhile, Teal's Chapin, S.C.-based Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence has the U.S. Department of Education's attention. The federal government gives annual Blue Ribbon School awards at no cost as part of the No Child Left Behind initiative.

In a January interview with the Melrose Free Press in suburban Boston, Aba Kumi, director of the federal Blue Ribbon program, said Teal's consulting is a frequent topic at the education department. She said the similar award names have led schools to ask her for information about Teal's business.

Kumi said Teal previously worked for the federal program and legally trademarked his business as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. She told the Free Press his use of old and current federal Blue Ribbon criteria for his nonprofit organization has been a "battle" for the education department.

Department of Education officials over the past week refused to answer Daily Herald questions about Teal's company.

Critics including Edward M. Mazze, distinguished professor of business administration at University of Rhode Island, have questioned Teal's operation. Mazze said schools already are evaluated by state and regional accrediting associations.

In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request, District 46 stated there have been no contracts for services with Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence since 2007.

But records show District 46 has incurred more than $76,000 in Blue Ribbon-related expenses, including convention registrations, airfare, hotels, rental vehicles, food, gas and consulting services over the past three years or so. District 46 paid for employees to attend the Disney World conventions in 2010 and 2009.

Officials at districts 24 and 70 said while they are allowing teachers to attend the Blue Ribbon conference at Park Campus, they have no intentions of hiring the company for consulting.

Controversy: Records show Dist. 46 has spent $76,000 over past 3 years or so

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