How do we get more success stories at poor suburban schools?

Can other schools replicate successes highlighted in Generations at Risk series?

  • Amanda Kienast, Mike Zalewski and five of her six kids, from left: Solomon Franey, Katurah Kienast, Zachary Zalewski, Ezra Franey and Gabby Franey. Dominick Zalewski is not pictured. Kienast found a Grayslake school where her kids could thrive.

    Amanda Kienast, Mike Zalewski and five of her six kids, from left: Solomon Franey, Katurah Kienast, Zachary Zalewski, Ezra Franey and Gabby Franey. Dominick Zalewski is not pictured. Kienast found a Grayslake school where her kids could thrive. Courtesy of Amanda Kienast

Updated 6/25/2015 10:00 AM

When Amanda Kienast split with her boyfriend on the West Coast, she came back to Lake County, found a home she could afford and enrolled her children in school.

Everyone seemed to be adjusting. Then, two of her kids started having problems.


Her son, Ezra, was being bullied on the school bus and was falling behind in reading. Kienast called the school about the bullying and sent letters, but she said nothing happened.

Her daughter, Gabby, wasn't socializing. Teachers couldn't get her to talk or eat, and during fire alarms she hid under her desk.

As soon as Kienast could, she moved.

Ezra and Gabby enrolled at Avon Center School, part of Grayslake Elementary District 46 and a standout school according to the Daily Herald/WBEZ Poverty-Achievement analysis. At Avon, 50 percent of families are low-income like Kienast -- a single mother of six -- but more than 69 percent of students met or exceeded the state standards in 2014, compared with an average of 56.2 percent in that income range.

Kienast sees improvements that go far beyond standardized tests.

Her children bring home laptops to do their homework. They seem to enjoy learning -- Gabby talks in class and will start cheerleading soon. She meets weekly with a social worker and has an individualized education plan to track her progress.

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Ezra is no longer being teased, and his mother said he made several years of reading progress in just one school year.

"Avon is not just an elementary school. It is a dedicated family with incredible communication," Kienast said.

While she's deeply satisfied her children are enrolled there, Kienast wonders why she had to move to find a better education for her children. She wonders what would have happened to them if she hadn't.

* * *

What makes a good school for low-income kids? How do we foster more of them?

Educators say the success of schools like Sunny Hill Elementary, Tefft Middle School and Avon Center -- profiled in the Generations at Risk series -- can be replicated on a larger scale, but it make take more time, creativity and money than most of our schools have today.

As well, each school has unique challenges. A cookie-cutter approach -- even one that's out of the box -- won't fit every circumstance.

"There's no one right answer. There are a lot of different measures for what a successful school is," said Alison Maley, government relations director for the Illinois Principals Association. "We have to look at the challenges in each district and how they do in spite of that."


Some good schools have consistently high test scores, stand out among their income group on the Poverty-Achievement Index, or make up for a lack of either of those in student growth -- students who make big gains, no matter where they start.

Sunny Hill in Carpentersville focuses on a holistic approach to children and families, going outside traditional school boundaries to help kids with problems beyond academics. At Tefft Middle School in Streamwood, the school introduced a structure to students' days and a "no excuses" attitude for students, parents and the staff itself.

Avon Center, meanwhile, decided reading needed to be taught in small groups, where students who are falling behind will be noticed quickly. They use Title I funds to offer free summer school, get native speakers to teach their bilingual classes and organize math classes based on ability, not grade level.

"It's hard. It takes time energy and effort. It's not uniform across all districts or all states," said new State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith.

"But there are places where it's happening," he said. "To whom you're born shouldn't predict if you go to college or not. And as much as that does play out, there are places that buck that pattern and we have to figure out how to have more of that."

Pupils as individuals

One common thread between the success stories profiled in Generations at Risk is treating low-income students as individuals.

Tefft Middle School has data journals for each student. Sunny Hill's classes are smaller than average. Avon Center has its small reading groups.

South Elementary School in Des Plaines has individual plans for each of its 250 students. In 2014, 71.6 percent of its students were low-income -- more than twice the number than in 2004. More than 50 percent are not native English speakers.

In spite of that, 61.2 percent of South students meet or exceed the state standards, while the average for its income range is 47.2.

Principal Amy Cengel, teachers, the school psychologist and the social worker meet twice a month to talk about individual problems and solutions. Cengel sets aside money in the budget to give the staff three full days each year to do nothing but study student data, come up with plans and discuss how to help each kid improve.

"If there is a kid who is struggling, we know about it. We're on it," Cengel said. "We come up with a plan and we work to intervene quickly and get them back on track."

South also benefits from consistency and geography. Some teachers have been there so long they taught their students' parents. The school is also a true neighborhood school -- there's only one bus with 19 kids on it, and everybody else walks.

Jason Klein, chief information officer for Wheeling Township Elementary District 21, said one challenge to creating more good schools is finding the right combination for every student there.

The number of low-income students in District 21 has doubled in 10 years.

"We have a pretty wide toolbox of strategies we know work, but it can be a challenge to employ the right one for each student in a school all at the same time," he said.

"Every school has to be a good school. That's what we have to be working toward," Klein said. "There are some really severe challenges that stop us from being able to do all the things we could, but I remain optimistic."

Klein also said there are a few key things all schools can replicate, like understanding what students' lives are today, and what their needs will be for the future.

"Their futures are much different from what our pasts were," he said. "It's very easy to say, 'This is what worked when I was in school.' But we can't be teaching kids the way we were taught. You can't be a great school if you're not thinking first about the needs of learners."

Another commonality is good leadership. Principals faced with sizable low-income enrollments should be willing to try new things and bring the rest of the school along with them, educators say.

"Second to the teacher, the principal has the biggest impact on student success and student achievement," Maley said.

Success breeds success, said advocate Larry Joseph of Voices for Illinois Children, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, multi-issue advocacy organization committed to building better lives for children.

"All parents want to send their kids to good schools," he said. "And what constitutes a good school? Well, one of the things that constitutes a good school is good students."

The role of money

Maley said each school needs to find their "secret recipe" for success based on the community it serves. One major ingredient is money, she said.

"We need money to provide supports inside and outside of school," Maley said. "I think it's possible to fix this, but it takes resources and those are unfortunately in short supply."

Experts contend it costs more money to educate a poor student than a middle-class one, but often those districts have less money to spend per pupil than those with more affluent students.

"Equitable is not the same thing as equal," said Natasha Ushomirsky, senior data and policy analyst at The Education Trust. "Districts and schools that serve high populations of low-income students need more resources to provide those kids with the support they need."

Ushomirsky said districts that spend more per pupil can offer more competitive teacher salaries, and buy extra enrichment and support -- "things that are important to all students," she said. "But they're especially important for those children who may not get access to these opportunities outside of school."

Per-pupil spending by itself isn't always a good indicator. Sunny Hill Elementary is part of a larger, more affluent district that spends more than $9,000 per pupil, while Elgin U-46, where Tefft Middle School is located, spends about $5,800. Those are averages, however, and money can be distributed differently within one district.

The problem in Illinois, though, is that there isn't much more money to give.

"Everyone would agree our school funding formula is broken right now. The question becomes how do you fix it," said Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis. "We don't have adequate funds to put into K-12 education because of the overall financial crisis of the state."

Gov. Bruce Rauner hired Purvis, former CEO of the Chicago International Charter School, a network of 15 schools in Chicago and Rockford, to be the state's first education secretary.

"The governor hired me to try to get a more clear trajectory from cradle to career," she said. "(His) goal is that every family have two high-quality options in early childhood, kindergarten through 12th grade, and college. The governor is a supporter of charters and obviously I am as well, but they have to be high-quality charters. High-quality means the children come out of every course either college- or career-ready."

Tony Smith said that without addressing some of the larger structural causes of poverty, our education system will continue to struggle. Still, he sees signs of hope.

"I think there's a growing consensus and awareness that if we continue doing what we've done and continue to foster this widening gap, income inequality, differences by race, class, newcomer status -- we will tear apart," he said.

However funding mechanisms change or don't change, Smith said everybody has to understand that poor students don't exist in a vacuum.

"Outcomes in one place matter to another place," he said. "Our conversations about funding equity, amount and distribution have to be held in the context of the wasted human capital potential, the future health and well-being of Illinois, and ultimately the safety and security of the country.

"It's not fighting for yours or mine. It's what's in the best interest of us all."

• WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton contributed to this report.

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