After her son finished kindergarten at Washington Elementary School in Elgin, Linda Scham decided to send him and his younger sister to parochial school. Scham said Jakob, now 10, had a great kindergarten teacher, but she and her husband were worried about neighborhood gangs and whom their children might make friends with.
Last year, Jakob returned to Washington for fourth grade, and Kayla, now 9, enrolled as a third-grader. Scham called her prior gang concerns a false alarm.
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While Washington is one of 10 elementary schools in Elgin Area School District U-46 labeled chronically failing by federal standards, Scham is confident they're getting a good education.
"They like it there," Scham said. "They're excelling."
But the fact that plenty of parents and educators think highly of the instruction in U-46 schools means nothing when it comes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Washington will join Elgin schools Channing, Garfield, Highland, Hillcrest, Huff, Lords Park and Sheridan along with Laurel Hill and Parkwood, both in Hanover Park, in the federal restructuring process, which requires the district take aggressive action to improve the schools.
The No Child Left Behind Act laid out an ambitious growth timeline that required schools to steadily increase the number of students meeting standards in reading and math. By 2014, schools nationwide are supposed to have 100 percent of their students meeting state standards.
For most schools that will not be the case.
And while many educators call the NCLB goals unrealistic, thousands of schools across the country have not been able to escape the consequences of failing to meet them.
Elementary schools in Palatine, Mount Prospect, West Chicago, Lombard, Aurora, Carpentersville, Gurnee, Round Lake, Barrington, McHenry, Addison and Crystal Lake all were in restructuring during the 2012-13 school year, the last year for which state data is available.
All of these schools were first placed on academic early watch status then academic warning status as they failed to make "adequate yearly progress," as defined by No Child Left Behind. After five years in a row without meeting the benchmarks for student achievement in reading and math, all of those schools began the process of restructuring.
How it works
During the first year of the process, districts have the opportunity to choose among four federally outlined options. They can close the school and reopen it as a charter school, replace most or all of the school's staff, contract with an outside entity to run the school or implement "other major restructuring of the school's governance that makes fundamental reform" in governance and management, financing and material resources and/or staffing.
Last March, U-46 school board members chose the last option, by far the most common pick by districts across the country. Ushma Shah, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, instruction and equity, was tapped to lead the process, for which implementation began this summer.
Shah said the 10 elementary schools look much the same as they did last year. U-46 isn't poised to implement a single program to be the silver bullet for change. Rather, Shah wants to guide a shift in the way teaching and learning happens in each classroom.
"We're thinking less about programs and more about a comprehensive change model focused on collaboration," Shah said.
Ten transformation coaches were chosen with areas of expertise like literacy, math and dual language to help their colleagues implement the best practices. Their salaries will be covered by federal funding that U-46 leaders decided to pool as part of the restructuring process, instead of apportioning to each school individually.
Teachers will be expected to work in teams and learn from each other. New principals were hired at Laurel Hill, Lords Park and Parkwood elementary schools. And Andrea Spieglan was selected to be a lead teacher. Her job will be to facilitate implementation of new practices and keep the initiatives grounded.
Shah said she considers herself a teacher but understands her views have changed as she has moved farther from the classroom.
"Having the voice of a lead teacher working in collaboration with me will make sure we're putting forward strategies that really make a difference in teaching and learning from a classroom perspective," Shah said.
After a summer of intensive professional development for principals, the transformation coaches and Spieglan, the academic year kicked off with school leaders still laying the foundation for these 10 schools' transformation.
The road ahead
The process will be a long one, and U-46 educators are viewing the challenge as a marathon, not a sprint. The plan is to invest heavily in creating leaders at the school level. Professional development will be ongoing. And parents will be encouraged to get more involved and take greater responsibility for their children's education.
The district hosted a series of workshops for parents associated with these 10 schools after the first week of classes. They were asked to describe what a "culture of excellence" means for their schools and think about collaboration between home and school to increase student achievement.
Nancy Lara, whose daughters are in kindergarten and sixth grade at Laurel Hill, attended the Aug. 24 meeting. She left the session feeling good about her school and the outline of the restructuring plan.
She hopes more parents from the close-knit Laurel Hill community get involved, matching the effort teachers will make to transform the schools.
"It's not going to be overnight," Lara said. "It's going to take a lot of time. It seems like they are trying their best. Us as parents, we have to do our best, too."
Doing 'great work'
As president of the Elgin Teachers Association, Kathy Castle is making the rounds of all 10 schools to discuss the restructuring plans with teachers. She said ETA members are concerned about the process and full of questions about how it will work.
Time is the biggest concern for many on the ground floor.
Castle said interventions have been in place for years to help meet the needs of the low-income, non-English speaking, highly mobile student population at these 10 schools. Teachers will have to balance new initiatives to better reach these students while they focus on heightened collaboration among the staff to serve individual learners.
"As you try to address the diverse needs of a large classroom of students and then try to incorporate the kinds of professional discussion and collaboration that you need to do in order to meet those needs, where is the time to do that?" Castle said. "Trying to capture that time and balance the time … that's really a concern of all teachers, but I think particularly at these sites."
U-46 students returned to classes Aug. 19. They agonized over their first-day-of-school outfits and readied their school supplies just like any other year. Teachers who spent the summer worrying about how the restructuring process would change their classrooms found very little different at the start of the academic year.
They still had a classroom full of students they needed to meet and serve.
But changes are coming. And in the next three to five years, educators hope to see a transformation in the district's lowest-performing schools.
Spieglan, who left a teaching position at Lowrie Elementary school to become the lead teacher for restructuring, looks at the whole process as a chance to improve learning across the district.
"This is not an indictment of our schools," Spieglan said. "This is an opportunity to do great work."