More than 400 community members gathered Wednesday at Monroe Middle School to discuss the current state, and future, of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's schools and students.
It was the first of six community engagement sessions that are part of Engage200, a new initiative by the district to collect input from taxpayers within the district's boundaries about topics they think should be studied by the district in greater depth.
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The session started with an overview of Engage200 by Scott Brown, a co-chair of the Engage200 citizen-led facilitating team. He said while some negative things have occurred in the district's past, the sessions are about looking forward to determine what the community thinks should be done next.
"We would hope as we proceed in this process that we can the past as lessons learned," Brown said. "This process is not about a referendum campaign."
Superintendent Brian Harris then gave a 'state of the District' address, during which he mentioned basic facts about enrollment, staff and programs and touched on some statistics about student achievement, such as graduation rates.
He also discussed how much work has been done in regards to technology and facility maintenance and noted the district's $153.7 million in revenues and $153.5 million in expenditures.
Those in attendance were randomly seated at more than 40 tables, where they were presented with two tasks: to list the biggest surprise and biggest concern they had after hearing Harris' presentation, and to rank a list of possible topic areas that could be addressed at future Engage200 sessions.
One person from about a dozen tables had a chance to address everyone in the crowd about what consensus the group came to regarding the biggest surprises, concerns and priorities.
A majority of the tables expressed surprise and concern with the sharp increase of students who receive free or reduced price lunch, from 16 percent in 2002 to 25 percent now, and the fact that 32 percent of students are ethnic minorities.
"We need to concentrate on giving good food, providing transportation to the schools and good buildings," said Angela Ramos, whose son attends Johnson Elementary School. "If your stomach is full, you're happy. But if those factors are bothering you ... (even if it's) the best school, you can't learn that way. After that you can provide technology, whatever you want."
Other concerns that frequently came up included not letting student achievement stay flat, which was observed in the average ACT scores over the last six years, and increasing technology.
Most of the groups said the top priority should be student performance, but the ranking of priorities varied after that, ranging from finances to transparency.
Jon Eckert, a parent of three kids at Whittier Elementary School, said he personally felt student performance is the top priority for the district.
"I think District 200 has different levels of investment compared to some of the benchmark districts and so I think the student performance is reflected in those different priorities," he said. "Barrington and the two Naperville districts, I think they spend their money differently and I think they spend more money."
At the end of the session each table turned in a work sheet with their answers. The Engage200 facilitating team will meet at least two times before the next community engagement session on Feb. 19 to review the work sheets and determine what the primary topics will be for upcoming sessions.
A report summarizing the findings at all the sessions will be presented to the board of education in July. For information on Engage200 or to view videos or verbatim notes from the work sheets filled out during Wednesday's session, visit cusd.org/engage200.