Editorial: Future of education in the suburbs must embrace those at-risk

  • The Daily Herald has featured a four-day Generations at Risk series on the relationship between income level and education.

      The Daily Herald has featured a four-day Generations at Risk series on the relationship between income level and education. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/29/2015 11:07 AM

One of the things we learned about schools in 2015 is just how much poverty is an accurate indicator of student academic performance. When we tie that to the increased number of suburban students living in poverty, now we see more clearly the challenges facing Illinois in 2016 and beyond.

In the Daily Herald's groundbreaking series, "Generations at risk: Our promise to our kids," something most of us intuitively suspected all along -- that children in poverty do not perform academically as well as children from middle- or high-income families -- became a data-driven fact. Using 10 years' worth of Illinois report card data, reorganized by percentages of low-income students, the correlation between poverty and academic performance was shown as unmistakable. The more poor children in a school, the worse that school performs on standardized tests. Period.


In decades past, it mattered less in the suburbs. There were always poor children in suburban schools, of course, but rarely did they make up a commanding portion of a school's enrollment.

Today, there are more than 1 million low-income students in Illinois. At some schools, 100 percent of the student body lives below the poverty line. In the suburbs specifically, the proportions of poor families have increased. At Elgin Area Unit District U-46, for instance, the number of low-income students nearly doubled in 10 years. Indian Prairie Unit District 204 -- Naperville, Aurora and Bolingbrook -- has seen its low-income enrollment rise to 18 percent from 3 percent in that same decade.

The changing demographics translate into the challenges of 2016 and beyond. In some places, people who were middle class 10 years ago aren't anymore. In yet others, lower income families have moved in. Either way, the demographics must now inform discussion at the state level and at the local school board level alike.

As our series showed, some schools are figuring it out. We profiled Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville and Tefft Middle School in Streamwood, two schools that altered their focus and their practices and made dramatic improvements in test scores.

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The children they serve are still low-income, but many of them are performing as if they come from higher-income families.

Sunny Hill and Tefft aren't the only suburban schools beating the odds, but most poor schools are not. We'll look at more of them in additional "Generations at Risk" stories in 2016.

To educate the next generation of suburban students, our communities first have to come to grips with their changing reality. "We've got to lift up every student," says Ken Ender, president of Harper College in Palatine, in the first "Generations at Risk" story. "I don't see a bright future for us, our kids and our grandkids if we can't bring everybody along."

For generations, our suburban schools have been a beacon on the hill, spreading light and the hope of a safe passage into adulthood. Keeping those schools there and that beacon lit are the challenges facing us now.

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