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updated: 4/5/2013 9:53 AM

U-46 must restructure 10 schools feds deem 'failing'

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Ten elementary schools in Elgin Area School District U-46 have been deemed failing by the federal government. Administrators and leaders in the Elgin Teachers Association are working together to finalize restructuring plans for the schools, which are required by law to be implemented in the coming school year.

The plans include major changes to the governance and management, financing and staffing of the 10 schools: Channing, Garfield, Highland, Hillcrest, Huff, Lords Park, Sheridan and Washington, all in Elgin, and Laurel Hill and Parkwood in Hanover Park.

None of the schools have made "adequate yearly progress," as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for five years in a row. But U-46 board members only grudgingly approved the restructuring plan for schools they didn't want to label failing.

"We know that this label that's been placed on us is not reflective of the work that's been going on in these buildings," said board member Traci O'Neal Ellis at the last board meeting. "It's not reflective of the expertise that we have in our schools."

The NCLB guidelines require schools to increase the number of students meeting state standards every year. When schools fail to make "adequate yearly progress," as laid out by the education reform act, sanctions are imposed -- the most serious of which is restructuring.

U-46 administrators had the choice of reopening the schools as public charter schools, replacing all or most of the school staffs, contracting with an outside organization to run the schools or making the changes outlined in a plan recommended by Ushma Shah, assistant superintendent of elementary schools for instruction and equity, and Kathryn Castle, president of the Elgin Teachers Association.

Shah and Castle presented the plan March 18, where Shah said the approach focuses on building the capacity of the district's own trained and certified professionals, both principals and teachers.

"Our choice of this option affirms public schools that serve the public good and recognizes that a democratic society relies on an educated citizenry," Shah said.

The plan is still a work in progress as administrators collaborate with the teachers union leadership and the district's transformation task force committee members to fill in the details.

The plan proposes naming a second assistant superintendent of elementary schools for instruction and equity who will oversee the restructuring process and serve as the direct supervisor to the 10 principals involved. The plan also proposes hiring a lead teacher to work, not in the classroom, but with the assistant superintendent consulting all the stakeholders to design and implement the school restructuring. And it suggests a team of 10 coaches -- master teachers with expertise in 10, mostly academic, realms -- to help support teachers in each school.

Current principals in the schools targeted for restructuring have been asked to submit a letter of commitment to the process showing their investment in becoming transformational leaders in their buildings.

Teachers will need to commit to the process as well. And many may need new training. Because all 10 schools have dual language programs and serve a majority of Latino students, the plan proposes requiring all teachers to have English as a Second Language credentials -- professional development that would not be paid for by the district.

Some teachers would be required to have the training by next year, others would have longer and those close to retirement may be spared, according to Shah. Like many details, the ESL requirements have not been finalized yet.

Patrick Mogge, director of school and community relations, said administrators are continually meeting with leadership from the Elgin Teachers Association on the evolving plan, which also includes a redesigned school day.

The plan calls for at least 75 minutes of teacher collaboration time per week, the details of which are under discussion.

"We know that in effective schools, teachers have dedicated time to work with each other, to look at data, look at their students' work samples, reflect with each other on their practice, give each other feedback," Shah said. "We are talking about embedding time for that professional learning in the context of the school day."

To fulfill a requirement for fundamental change in financing during restructuring, the district plans to pool the schools' government aid from Title I funds. This year, the schools received $2.6 million.

According to the plan, the money will pay for the district coaches and lead teachers at each site as well as specific projects like expanding full-day kindergarten, engaging parents and hiring dedicated art teachers to work in a cluster of schools.

Shah said restructuring will give the district a chance to try out reform proposals brought forward by the transformation task force committee on elementary education, which has been meeting since June in an effort to re-envision the school day.

Joyce Fountain, the only board member to vote against the restructuring plan in March, said she was concerned there weren't enough people at the negotiating table -- namely, teachers.

"I think it's important to have those voices in at the very beginning to help not just implement, but create the strategies," Fountain said.

The board will have a chance to vote on other aspects of the restructuring plan as it takes more solid shape in coming months and is put in place in late summer.

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