In many ways, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 is at a crossroads.
Officials point to coping with less state revenue and two failed bond referendums that would have funded much-needed capital improvements. Curriculum needs to be updated and refined to catapult student achievement. And for the first time last year, a majority of the 12,200-student population was minorities.
Then there's the adjustment to six new principals and impending negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract seen by many as the key to reforming structural deficit spending.
Despite it all, Superintendent Scott Thompson believes District 15 is positioned to not only weather the numerous challenges ahead -- but thrive.
"From what I'm hearing when I interact with people in the community, the consensus seems to be that we're in a much better place now than a year ago," Thompson said. "We're taking steps in the right direction."
It was a far different story in July 2010 when Thompson was hired on an interim basis following the forced resignation of former Superintendent Dan Lukich, the reasoning of which was never fully disclosed.
A few months earlier, 7,500 residents opposed to a $27 million loan had signed a petition forcing the bond issue to referendum. And a few months later, a tumultuous campaign season would get under way, eventually resulting in an all-challenger slate's decisive victory.
In the midst of it all, Thompson worked to increase communication and transparency, and put the focus back on student achievement. Those efforts later earned him a multiyear contract.
One of the most ambitious initiatives he deemed critical to setting the district's future direction was a series of community engagement sessions he dubbed Navigate15.
A team of 25 dedicated facilitators and more than 400 community members took part in the monthly meetings over the past school year, covering topics such as world-class curriculum, 21st century technology, facilities and school finances. Participants discussed, analyzed and prioritized what they perceive to be the most urgent needs.
According to a preliminary report headed to the board of education, there are several widely supported "general agreements."
For one, the community backs investing in strategies that boost academic achievement and improve the overall quality of education. High priorities within that area include offering a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for success beyond District 15, as well as expanded science, gifted and foreign language education, as well as intervention programs for special needs students.
Another general agreement calls for the district to strengthen its teaching staff. High priorities include the recruitment and retention of highly experienced and skilled instructional staff and a stronger investment in teacher training and ongoing staff development programs.
"People value teachers and want the highest quality of teacher and professional development," Thompson said. "And the consensus is that we need to send the ones who aren't that effective on their way."
The board will hold a retreat on a still-undetermined date in mid-August to discuss the Navigate15 findings, which members will keep in mind when they begin creating a strategic five-year plan.
Despite the tapered attendance, which peaked at about 150 participants and averaged about 60 people by the end, Thompson was encouraged by the process and said it was just the first step.
He said Deputy Superintendent Jim Garwood is researching setting up a District 15 STEM Academy, designed to improve literacy in science, technology, engineering and math.
The district also will renegotiate new contracts for the custodians, mechanics and grounds crew workers that make up the Service Employees International Union, along with the impending contract talks with the Classroom Teachers' Council.
The district and the teachers union weren't able reach a deal earlier this year when the board asked it to renegotiate the final year of its contract, but Thompson said the discussions were positive and respectful.
"These contracts can make or break our educational environment, and I'm very optimistic that through a lot of talk, time and information sharing, we'll find something that respects teachers but also benefits the students," Thompson said.