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updated: 3/12/2013 5:39 PM

Student performance top priority for Dist. 203 focus group

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If Naperville Unit District 203 is to continue to thrive as a leader in education, residents say, the community first must focus on student performance and bridging the achievement gap that exists between the general student body and the roughly 11 percent of the population that is considered low income.

Nearly 140 residents met Tuesday to discuss the district's future during the first of nine scheduled community engagement meetings being held as part of Superintendent Dan Bridges' Future Focus 203 initiative. The volunteer-based community engagement program is designed to study and discuss issues important to planning and decision making in District 203.

Participants on Tuesday heard a brief State of the District report from Bridges and key administrators before breaking into groups of six to discuss the report and decide which topics the entire panel should tackle at future meetings.

Despite an otherwise glowing address, Assistant Superintendent for Learning Services Jennifer Hester's statements about recent test scores and how the district compares to several benchmark districts seemed to resonate with the group.

"Over the past four years, our scores have gone from above the rest of the benchmarking districts to being among the top of those benchmarking districts," Hester said. "We are proud of our performance on state tests, but as we look to the future, we could be doing better. We have some pretty significant achievement gaps between groups within our population."

Hester said some of the more notable gaps are found in the special education student population, English Language Learners (ELL) and among students of different races and ethnicities.

For example, roughly 70 percent of the district's low-income students are meeting or exceeding standards in reading, whereas more than 80 percent of other students are meeting or exceeding standards in reading on all state tests.

Nearly all of the small groups identified those gaps as the most important topic for the larger group to tackle in coming meetings.

"Our biggest concern was test scores and how we meet those needs with our changing demographics," community member Pat Harrison said. "The focus should be on the kids. Why is there a gap and how do we close it?"

Participant Denise Nigro said her group agreed.

"Our biggest concern was a seemingly downward trend on student assessment exams, so our priority is also to look at student achievement and performance gaps," Nigro said.

The second-highest priority identified by several groups involved the district's finances. Chief Financial Officer Dave Zager said state and federal funding was declining at the same time the district is preparing to take on teacher pension costs and increased health care costs.

The session will be repeated from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Naperville Central High School but focus group co-chairmen Mark Trembacki and Kathy Ruiz said they already have a feel for where the group is headed.

"I think we have a clearer focus of what we want to talk about. We'll take it away as a facilitating team and see where people are," Trembacki said. "I think the first theme is pretty obvious, focusing on student achievement."

Following Wednesday's repeat presentation, the next group meetings are scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. April 17 at Naperville Central High School and 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. April 18 at Grace United Methodist Church.

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