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updated: 3/12/2013 5:27 AM

School choice an issue for Hawthorn District 73 candidates

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The situation involving what is known as adequate yearly progress and its impact on school choice is a top issue in Hawthorn Elementary District 73, school board candidates agree, though they are uncertain how best to address it.

Whatever happens, the complex issue will require continued public input to resolve, say four candidates for three seats.

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One certainty is the winners April 9, all newcomers to politics, will bring a different perspective as three incumbents are not seeking re-election.

Jeanne Engelkemeir, a former teacher who works part-time as a French translator, Louis Gatta, general manager at Niles Central High School, Ghita Mueller, a Realtor, and Sangita Parande, a former banker, are vying for the open spots.

District 73 is in flux because three of the four schools for a second year don't meet AYP standards, which are determined by how students in grades three through eight do on a standardized test.

Districts that accept federal Title 1 funds and don't meet the standard for two consecutive years must offer parents with students in those schools a choice to go to one that does. District 73's School of Dual Language met the standard but can't receive transfers because of the nature of the program, leaving Aspen Elementary as the only alternative.

Current district procedures allow parents to give a preference for which of four elementary schools they want their children to attend. Placement has been based on space availability and a lottery, if necessary.

The district argues that students perform above state averages overall and the AYP snapshot is not a fair representation of student learning. A committee composed of parents and school officials led by Superintendent Nicholas Brown has been studying the issue and will host an information session at 7 p.m. today at Middle South, 600 N. Aspen Drive in Vernon Hills.

The following information came from a candidate interview with Daily Herald staffers and responses to a questionnaire.

Gatta described choice schools in District 73 as "the elephant in the room for many, many years" and said the setup isn't working. "The choice school as we know it is ending," he said.

AYP is flawed because there are "tremendous" schools that don't hit the mark, he added.

Based on the proximity of the buildings, one scenario could be to reorganize and have grades kindergarten through second, and third through fifth in their own buildings for the north and south areas, rather than having two K-5 schools on each side, according to Gatta. Under that scenario, the current choice system would be eliminated.

Doing that would be the most efficient use of resources, he said, potentially providing funds to allow the district to rehire teacher aides, he contended. Gatta said he would seek community input before making a decision.

Parande said parents don't have a clear understanding of the AYP situation.

"There is a lot of confusion about taking away the choice school option," she said. Possible solutions need to be presented clearly, she said, and any decision "has to come from the people."

"I'm not sure the community would be ready to support," Gatta's idea, she added. "From what I understand, people like to have a choice."

Mueller said she wanted to get more information.

"It is a community voice, but we're also getting federal funding. We have some constraints," she said. "It's very unusual, and it can be confusing. A lot of us enjoy that choice, but we are getting pressure now. I don't know what the answer is."

She said communication from the district has been "excellent" and parents need to be proactive.

Engelkemeir said she agreed the district was handling the situation well and that information is readily available.

"It's open. You can go online and give your opinions," she said.

Understanding adequate yearly progress is important "so that parents, students and community members realize there is no need to panic, mistakenly fearing their school is suddenly 'failing' them," she said.

She said the district can "improve upon and tweak our schools where necessary" to meet state standards while allowing for individual growth and achievement.

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