Public education in Illinois has undergone a significant transformation in the past decade with the overhaul of state standards, assessments and how teachers and students are evaluated.
Adoption of the more rigorous Common Core State Standards in English language arts, mathematics, social studies and physical education and tying those to a new standardized assessment were giant leaps forward, said Christopher Koch, former state superintendent of education who helped develop the state standards.
"I've always been an advocate for shared common standards among states for teachers and students," Koch said. "There was a lot of controversy with that. In the end, was it the right thing for kids and will it help kids in the long run? The answer to that is, yes."
Common Core has been adopted by 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity. The curriculum doesn't focus solely on high-stakes tests and incorporates a more meaningful way to evaluate student performance by tracking the same set of students' progress academically over time.
"That's just really an important evolution for Illinois to have undertaken," said Koch, now interim director for Washington, D.C.-based Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. "While controversial, I really do think those things are important for kids because they are going to require a demonstration of higher-level thinking. We raised the bar regarding what teachers know and were able to do, raising cut scores and performance assessments. It mirrors the direction that national accreditors ... are going."
Illinois debuted the PARCC -- Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- test this spring replacing the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and Prairie State Achievement Exam. The PARCC online assessments allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of key concepts more meaningfully.
"Illinois also has demonstrated good progress with our ability to collect data, use it to guide instruction at the school level and also policy at the state level," Koch said. "We required all higher education institutions to change the way that principals were prepared. We did the roll out of the teacher evaluation legislation. That still is seen as a model nationally."
Koch said school funding reform and more equitable distribution are issues the state still has to tackle.
"I was superintendent during one of the worst budget crises and recessions," Koch said. "We maintained a focus on instruction and tried to make good decisions that were the least impactful to school districts."
Schools with pools
Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 has launched a $29 million reconstruction of all five high schools' swimming pools over three years.
The project will completely replace each T-shaped pool with a larger and deeper square pool with more swimming lanes. Mechanical equipment, locker rooms, bleachers and offices will be replaced as well.
All district pools opened in 1978. Though they have been maintained regularly, there have been no major renovations during the past 36 years.
Meanwhile, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 spent $11 million in 2014 to replace the pool at Buffalo Grove High School and is adding a pool at Prospect High School in the near future. Buffalo Grove High's new 29,750-square-foot facility includes a larger pool, more seating, concessions and restrooms. Two of its high schools -- Hersey and Rolling Meadows -- still won't have pools.
Here are some other major school projects throughout the region:
• College of Lake County kicks off a $163 million project to expand Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan campuses.
• Round Lake High School's $29 million expansion and renovation begins.
• Mundelein High School begins construction of its new STEM education wing with an additional 25 classrooms and two labs for STEM and Project Lead the Way set to open in August 2016.
• College of DuPage completes a $168 million expansion, including a new Homeland Security Training Institute on its Glen Ellyn campus.
• Three Lake County elementary school districts -- Mundelein District 75, Hawthorn District 73 and Fremont District 79 -- share a preschool facility expected to serve about 300 students in District 75's former Lincoln School.
Harper College's Promise Scholarship guarantees Northwest suburban students up to two free years of tuition if they get solid grades, have good attendance, don't repeat classes, place into college-level courses and perform community service during all four years in high school.
To work for free tuition, freshmen will apply to join the Promise program in December. Then, starting their second semester, high schools in Palatine-Schaumburg District 211, Northwest Suburban District 214 and Barrington Area Unit District 220 will track the students against a list of strict criteria set by businesses and educators.
Harper expands manufacturing program
Harper College in Palatine broke ground this summer on a $1.5 million laboratory where students in its innovative Advanced Manufacturing Program will train for careers in mechatronics/automation, precision machining, metal fabrication and supply chain management/logistics.
The 6,000-square-foot facility on the college's Palatine campus is funded in part through a $500,000 grant from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. Once completed this fall, it will double the size of the college's current manufacturing lab, training up to 600 students annually.
Hanover Park work center
Elgin Community College and Harper College opened their Education and Work Center in Hanover Park in August 2014.
The 10,900-square-foot space at 6704 Barrington Road in the Hanover Square shopping center offers resources for the unemployed.
Harper and ECC will contribute $250,000 annually for three years for operations. Both schools will offer free adult education courses and counseling on financial aid and scholarships. In addition, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership will provide job training.
Early learning initiatives
An Elgin group is trying to help more disadvantaged children gain access to quality early childhood education programs so they are better prepared to enter kindergarten.
Elgin has been named an Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zone -- a designation given to communities that will serve as laboratories for the state to test strategies for increasing enrollment of underserved high-needs children into high-quality early learning programs. That includes children who come from low-income families or teen parent households, are homeless or under Illinois Department of Children and Family Services supervision, and have disabilities or language barriers.
The federally funded initiative is connected to $80 million in preschool expansion grants awarded to suburban school districts in December to expand access to full-day preschool for 4-year-olds in 18 communities.
Elgin Area School District U-46 will receive about $2.4 million for each of the next four years to expand access to full-day preschool to an extra 200 additional kids yearly starting this fall.
iPads for all
And Northwest Suburban High School District 214's school have put iPads in the hands of its more than 12,000 students as of this fall, meaning every student has an iPad to use in class and at home.
The district's other four high schools and alternative programs will join with full implementation at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
More than 9,000 iPads already have been distributed and many classes are phasing out textbooks. By the 2017-18 school year, the entire district will have moved to a digital curriculum, eliminating physical textbooks from sight.