What's new in Dist. 203? Early childhood, career counseling, more

With more than 16,700 students starting school Thursday and Friday, Naperville Unit District 203 school board President Kristin Fitzgerald and other officials have a lot to think about.

School isn't just the three Rs of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but a complex compilation of academic, social and emotional learning combined with consumer education, college or career preparation, and often, an element of community consciousness. These days, parents are hyper-aware of their children's safety, progress and success in school.

With that in mind, the Daily Herald talked with Fitzgerald for an overview of the year ahead. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: What's new this year?

Kristin Fitzgerald, Naperville Unit District 203 school board president, says the district is heading into the new school year grateful for its community partnerships and excited for new initiatives, such as expanded early childhood offerings, new learning commons areas at four schools, implementation of new college and career counseling and suicide prevention programs and hiring of a new director of safety and security.

A: We are expanding our early childhood programs, from a commitment to expand our services, particularly to those learners that are most at risk. We are fortunate to have federal, state and local grants that support that. We're also expanding to full-day for some of our classes so we can best prepare our students for success. We are offering five more preschool classrooms at three schools for a total of 81 new seats, and we also have 72 new slots for parents to receive home visits from educators for children from birth to age 3.

Q: What successful programs are continuing?

A: The business incubator program we started last year at the high school level in both schools is continuing. We're thrilled with the way that students were able to benefit in the hands-on learning in that process. Students had a really amazing opportunity to hear from community partners with a lot of great experience, work with advisers who had experience in building a business, coming up with a prototype. Then they got that opportunity to actually get funding for their idea. There were such a wide variety of actual, tangible products, apps and ideas that really helped our students have creativity.

Q: What curriculum changes are being implemented?

A: We're doing a new counseling curriculum in grades six through 12. It's a curriculum that helps students to get an idea of their college and career interests and work through that whole process, but starting right from sixth grade and having bench marks to meet each year.

Q: Where have schools been renovated?

  The learning commons area at Mill Street Elementary in Naperville Unit District 203 is one of four across the district that were renovated this summer. Bev Horne/

A: This summer, Mill Street, Ranchview and Highlands elementary schools and Madison Junior High saw renovations to their learning commons areas. You'll see the new spaces for collaborative learning and for introductions to technology to give students time for inquiry-based experiences. And you'll still see the books. It's also a space that teachers and students can utilize for the collaborative work of their classrooms and project-based learning. It makes a big difference.

Q: How is the district working to keep students safe?

A: As an initiative in our new budget that has not yet been approved, we are hiring a director of safety and security. Included in that budget as well is a placeholder of capital expenses or funding for the things that are recommended by this new director. We are continuing with our current security measures, which are highly effective, and with trainings.

Q: How is the district supporting student mental health?

A: We are implementing a program called SOS (Signs of Suicide) Community Connection in grades six through 12. It is really important raising awareness of students who might be most at risk, helping students to seek help for themselves or other classmates. It will be a screening and education program. Each school will have its own way of communicating to the parents about it so that families can be part of the process.

Q: How is the district working to close achievement gaps?

  Nicole Weaver prepares the Maker Space room in the learning commons at Mill Street Elementary in District 203. Classes start Thursday in the district of 16,700 students. Bev Horne/

A: We are continuing our hard work in that area. Five schools we call "impact schools" have plans to close achievement gaps, including Beebe, Elmwood, Mill Street and Scott elementary schools and Madison and Jefferson junior highs. Each school is implementing, through their school improvement plan, different programs or efforts that specifically target the population at their school that particularly has a gap. Mill Street has done fantastic work with a number of populations, including with the SUCCESS parent group for African American students. This year, Mill Street developed a community partnership with Literacy DuPage to send families tutoring for English for parents.

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