How one poor school in Carpentersville is making big gains on tests

Sunny Hill in Carpentersville starts with making sure kids have enough to eat.

  • Nora Carranza works with Sunny Hill parents who are learning English. More than 85 percent of the student body is Hispanic.

      Nora Carranza works with Sunny Hill parents who are learning English. More than 85 percent of the student body is Hispanic. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A Sunny Hill parent works through a problem during an ESL class.

      A Sunny Hill parent works through a problem during an ESL class. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Tracy Mylin of Barrington carries blue bags filled with food out of Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville for students to take home over the weekend.

      Volunteer Tracy Mylin of Barrington carries blue bags filled with food out of Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville for students to take home over the weekend. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/25/2015 5:45 AM

Second of four parts

Chattering students stream through the front door at Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville.


They pass Principal Irma Bates, playfully tugging on each other's backpacks and scampering toward the cafeteria, where a hot breakfast awaits.

"Hola, hello, hello, hola," Bates calls over the din, welcoming her nearly 400 students in their native language.

Although not generally recognized as an academic high-performer, Sunny Hill -- where 94 percent of students are considered low-income -- is a standout when measured by the Daily Herald/WBEZ Poverty-Achievement Index, which assesses school performance based on income.

At Illinois schools with 90 to 100 percent of their student body classified as low-income, only 38.4 percent of them on average met or exceeded standards on 2014 state standardized tests.

At Sunny Hill, however, 56.4 percent "passed," making it one of the few low-income suburban schools performing significantly higher than others with similar demographics. What's more, Sunny Hill has been above the average since 2010.

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Parents and teachers say the commitment of time and resources well beyond the average school day is what makes Sunny Hill students succeed against the odds stacked against nearly all of them.

Sunny Hill is very different from the rest of Barrington Area Unit District 220 schools. More than half of the students speak a language other than English at home. Nearly 30 percent of them are classified under special education guidelines and have individual education plans. More than 90 percent of the students are minorities -- Hispanics make up 84 percent of the school body.

Bates ticks off the challenges: Students who come to school hungry are more likely to get sick and be less able to concentrate. Parents who don't speak English can't help their children with homework or expand their vocabulary in conversation. Students who aren't sure where they will sleep each night are more likely to skip school and fall behind.

Sunny Hill administrators can't change the demographics, but they are willing to go well outside the normal school day to give their kids a brighter future.


"Instead of saying we can't control what happens outside of school, we say, 'What can we do?'" Bates said.

What Sunny Hill and District 220 try to do is address the difficulties students face, in or out of the classroom -- providing healthy food to get families through the weekend, employing teachers who make home visits, and turning the school into a community hub with dental clinics for families and ESL classes for parents.

"We do a little bit of everything," Bates said. "This is not just about the school day."

Classes stay small

Sunny Hill Principal Irma Bates says other schools with low-income students can achieve their results, by treating the student body holistically.
  Sunny Hill Principal Irma Bates says other schools with low-income students can achieve their results, by treating the student body holistically. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

After the free breakfast, students move to classrooms, some bilingual and some English-only.

Class sizes at Sunny Hill are small -- 15 students on average per third-grade class versus the district average of 20 -- which allows for more individual attention and small group work. Bilingual classes are required by state law to be smaller yet, just 80 percent of a school's regular class size.

Marisa Guzman's bilingual fourth-grade class is working on shoe box dioramas of homes, and the kids are plugging in batteries and circuits to learn about electricity.

A student asks a question in one language and Guzman answers in the other.

To accommodate the large number of students who are learning English, three-fourths of the staff are certified in ESL and many are native Spanish speakers, including the front office personnel who talk with parents daily.

Sunny Hill children are not expected to forget Spanish but to improve their skills in both languages.

"It's good for the brain," Bates said. "We are trying to create bilateral, bilingual learners."

Second-language learning is a lifelong endeavor, said Bates, who spoke only Spanish until she was in kindergarten. Born to northern Mexican parents in Laredo, Texas, her family migrated north to Chicago, settling in the Lakeview-Wrigleyville area.

"It's something that is always going to be a part of you," she added.

One boy in Guzman's class has installed a tiny bunk bed in his diorama. He points to another boy.

"I sleep with him," he says. The two aren't related, but like many in the school their families have doubled up to save on housing costs.

Nikki Trudeau's first-grade class is playing reading games on school laptops, technology many don't have access to at home.

High school and middle school students in District 220 have iPads or MacBooks they can take home to help bridge the digital divide. Next year, some elementary students will get them, too. Last year the district started a program called Project Horsepower that works with Comcast to bring the Internet to the homes of low-income students for free.

Kelly Mayorga's second-grade bilingual class is reading a story in Spanish about a bird and learning how to ask good questions related to what they've read. Before starting, one student announces in English, "I'm going to try my best."

The rest of the class gives him a round of applause.

Mayorga moves from small group to small group, checking their comprehension.

It's time for a snack and Mayorga asks who didn't bring one from home.

While most of the class pulls out yogurt, bananas or granola bars, four students raise their hands.

Mayorga quietly distributes pretzels she has stored in her classroom closet to those students without and goes back to the lesson.

Above and beyond

Sunny Hill teacher Nancy Kontney works with her gifted class.
  Sunny Hill teacher Nancy Kontney works with her gifted class. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

In a small classroom, where college banners hang overhead, a group of 10 students works on algebra problems. This is Nancy Kontney's fifth-grade advanced math class. The multiplication tables are painted in orange and black on the wall outside the classroom. Kontney and her students did that themselves.

"In this kind of school there's not a lot of attention for the gifted students, but they do great things," said Kontney, who teaches reading and math in Spanish and English.

Kontney taught for more than 20 years in another District 220 school but asked to transfer to Sunny Hill. In 2008 she was named a Golden Apple winner as one of the best teachers in the state. "This (school) is the best kept secret in the district," she said.

Kontney's reading class studies "Crossing the Wire," a novel about crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, and "House on Mango Street," about a young Latina growing up in Chicago.

Before last year Kontney had never been able to place any of her students in middle school honors math. Last year she sent four; next year she will send eight. For the first time this year she took Sunny Hill students to a districtwide Math Olympiad competition. They didn't win, but that's not why they went.

"We have to widen the doors of education for them and show them what's possible," she said. "You have a whole world out there waiting for you and it goes beyond Carpentersville."

That's why Kontney and another teacher, Lori Ford, organize trips to colleges for their elementary students, many of whom have never seen a college campus.

Not too long ago, Arturo Guerrero was one of those students.

His parents never went to college. They never got past sixth grade. But growing up, Guerrero constantly heard how important education would be to his future.

"They came to this country so I could have a better life. My dad always said he didn't want me to work a manual labor job like him," Guerrero remembers. "Whenever I didn't want to do my school work they would remind me."

Guerrero is well on his way to that better life. He just finished his freshman year studying computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the help of loans, scholarships and the 37 credit hours he was able to earn while still in high school.

He still keeps in touch with Ford and comes back to Sunny Hill to share his experience with the students there.

"There's no reason not to try," he tells them.

That doesn't mean there aren't challenges.

One third-grader who recently moved here from Mexico earned the highest score in the school on a recent math assessment, but her lack of English is holding her back.

"We have to unearth it. We have to figure out what to do to make that child successful," Kontney said. "It's not because they're not smart. It's about breaking through the barriers they face."

To assist them, Kontney and many other teachers at Sunny Hill make home visits. This year she focused on families of her third-grade math class -- bringing learning games for them to play at home and encouraging parents to model and teach as they go through the day.

"They are very loving, but ... their first priority is working and putting food on the table," she said. "It's powerful to go into their houses and feel like you are a part of the family. They share their tamales with me."

More than a school

Sunny Hill parent Melchor Nevarez says he takes his own English studies as seriously as his son's grades.
  Sunny Hill parent Melchor Nevarez says he takes his own English studies as seriously as his son's grades. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

On this Thursday morning, seven parents sit around a table in the basement of Sunny Hill School, learning English.

Nora Carranza, teacher and parent-liaison, leads them through a workbook lesson that will help them run errands. They learn the English words for cashier, mechanic and waiter. They practice ordering coffee.

In the back of the classroom six siblings too young for school play with blocks under the watchful eye of a volunteer, so their parents can come to class without worrying about affording a baby sitter.

"I need to learn English because I live in a country where that is the first language. I need it to talk to my son's teachers, his doctors, everywhere," said Melchor Nevarez, the only dad in the class of seven this morning. Nevarez takes his own grades and attendance at ESL classes as seriously as the education for his fourth-grade son.

The adults move from beginner to more advanced classes and have a graduation at the end of the year to celebrate.

Araceli Sanchez has seven children in District 220 schools, including one at Sunny Hill.

"I need to help my children with their homework and communicate with their teachers," she said.

Bags of food are prepared each Thursday for Sunny Hill students to take home for the weekend.
  Bags of food are prepared each Thursday for Sunny Hill students to take home for the weekend. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

While parents are downstairs, about a dozen volunteers are in the school cafeteria packing bags of food. Apples, pudding, oatmeal, tuna, granola bars and canned goods, all donated by grocery stores such as Mariano's or collected by Barrington Children's Charities, are put into 350 bags. Nearly every Sunny Hill student will take one home that afternoon to supplement the family's food for the weekend.

The program, Blessings in a Backpack, is in its third year in District 220. Many volunteers packing the bags are recipients themselves.

"Sometimes we don't have things to make, but a can of soup or tuna, we can make a meal out of that," said Petra Aguillera, through a translator. Her grandson is in fourth grade at Sunny Hill. "We're very grateful."

Angela Cook, president of the Sunny Hill PTA, helps pack the bags and deliver fruit to classrooms. Her daughter will bring home a backpack for them as well. Cook goes to the local food pantry once a month, but she said the weekly help from the school is a source of relief.

"The fact that we have extra food is wonderful," Cook said. "It helps make up for what we can't afford."

Cook also delivers containers of grapes to each classroom as part of a grant-funded program the school does on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get more healthy food in their students' diets, as studies show obesity is more common among children in poverty.

District 220 frequently holds districtwide programs at Sunny Hill rather than Barrington High School, as Sunny Hill parents are more comfortable coming to what has become more of a community hub than a school.

"We work with what the parents can do," Bates said. That includes holding conferences as late as 9 p.m., having school improvement nights in two languages and hosting events on Friday nights when parents are free from work.

Students can take home any books they want from the Free Little Library, unique to Sunny Hill, and return them any time.

The school nurse acts as an intermediary to make sure families, documented or not, know how to get health insurance or immediate care. Free family dental clinics are set up at the school several times a year.

The school day ends at 3:40 p.m., but more than a quarter of Sunny Hill students stay an extra three hours to participate in the Boys and Girls Club, paid for with federal Title I money. Families pay $25 for an entire year of the program, which includes supervision, tutoring and dinner for students five nights a week.

"There are some standard things that we take for granted that a child in a middle-class environment has," Bates said. "What they don't have, we try to provide."

Opportunity gap

For all of Sunny Hill's success, there still is a long way to go. Nearly half of the students are still scoring below standards on state tests.

Bates said all the intervention at school still can't solve every problem for these children, who often have bigger issues to face than making sure their homework gets done each night.

"Children bring everything to school," she said. "Sometimes their mind isn't necessarily at a math lesson; it's, 'Do we have a safe place tonight?'"

The achievement gap often seen at schools like Sunny Hill is not about ability, Bates said, but opportunity.

Low-income families don't visit museums or libraries very often, and parents aren't home as much to expose their children to reading, books or activities that are common in higher-income households.

"It's not just the size of the house. It's the experiences our kids are lacking," Kontney said.

Students can quickly fall behind when learning doesn't happen at home, but Bates refuses to use that as an excuse.

"Some might say that these are things they should be learning at home, but we can teach them," she said. "A lot of teachers here have really taken ownership for the children here. These are all our kids."

Teachers run after-school activities, paint their own classrooms, text-message parents and stay in touch beyond the walls of the school.

It's not unusual for them to attend a quinceañera for a former student, or help fill out financial aid forms and college applications.

"It's a little nontraditional," Bates says, "but it works."

"It is all about reaching excellence in academics, but you won't be able to get to the learning if you don't make a child feel comfortable, get food in their stomach and address their basic needs," she said.

Bates said other schools with low-income students can achieve their results, but only with a more holistic approach to education.

"You can do it, but you have to believe in kids," she said. "You have to believe they are capable of truly reaching excellence."

• Graphics and data analysis by Daily Herald presentation editor Tim Broderick

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