How the odds are stacked against East Aurora students

Updated 5/23/2016 3:10 PM

The bell rings and nearly 4,000 East Aurora High School students burst all at once into the narrow halls. With exactly six minutes to get to the next class, they race up or down the stairs, sardined five and six across -- navigating a school built in 1957 for a much smaller student body.

Passing walls of lockers and faded murals, the chatter, most of it in Spanish, is cheerfully deafening.


One girl darts into a classroom to see if her 4-year-old daughter is behaving in day care before running back out on her way to algebra. One student is moving noticeably slower -- he worked a late shift last night. Another young man makes a detour into the health clinic near the front office. He is feeling sick, and this is the only doctor he has access to.

Some kids aren't here at all. Some skipped school today, maybe to help a parent translate at an important meeting. Or, because a car broke down on this icy December morning, and District 131 does not have busing.

Students crowd the hallways of East Aurora High School between periods. They have six minutes to switch classes.
  Students crowd the hallways of East Aurora High School between periods. They have six minutes to switch classes. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Teachers stand outside their classrooms scanning the crowds, looking for anything that might spell trouble. They are wearing blue shirts, a show of solidarity with their union -- a majority of the East Aurora District 131 teachers have just authorized a strike.

Among the lowest-paid staffs in Illinois, teachers at the 18 East Aurora schools are feeling underappreciated. All of their students, to some degree, are poor. Many have unstable home lives, and they come in learning below grade level.

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A teacher walkout would be narrowly avoided a few months later, but the signs of frustration in East Aurora are still clear. Each semester fewer students are showing up. Last year, only 64 percent of the senior class graduated, and less than half of them enrolled in college a year later.

School board members fight with one another. Superintendent Michael Popp's contract has been terminated early, and he is leaving at the end of this year to be replaced with two interim leaders.

Just weeks before graduation, a grading glitch came to light, putting thousands of transcripts in question.

• • •

If this doesn't sound like a typical suburban school district, that's because it's not.

District 131 officials compare themselves to places like Rockford or East St. Louis more often than to nearby Naperville or even West Aurora District 129, just across the Fox River.


East Aurora District 131 is an outlier in almost every possible way in the suburbs.

Students are dismissed from East Aurora High School. The school does not have bus service for students.
  Students are dismissed from East Aurora High School. The school does not have bus service for students. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Nearly all 15,000 students live in poverty. The school has reached a level where they can give every student free breakfast and lunch every day. The student body is 86 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black. At the Anne Garcia Benavides Kindergarten Center, 68 percent of students are learning English. At Beaupre Elementary School the mobility rate is 37 percent, which means more than 1 in every 3 students move in or out during the school year, disrupting their education.

At East Aurora High School, 27 percent of students are chronically truant, meaning more than one-fourth of students miss 5 percent or more days without a valid excuse.

Every elementary school in East Aurora -- except the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy -- has a negative score on the Daily Herald's Poverty-Achievement Index, meaning even when compared to schools with similar economic demographics, District 131 is still falling behind.

Only 1 percent of the district's students exceeded state standards on the latest PARCC test, and the high school's average ACT of 17.1 is three points below the state average and eight points below that of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, right next door.

"Our list of issues is long," Popp said in an interview earlier this year before it was announced he was leaving.

"But," he said, "so is our list of successes."

Success in school districts like East Aurora looks different from most Chicago suburban schools. As a continuation of "Generations At Risk" -- a series about the indelible relationship between poverty and achievement in Illinois schools -- the Daily Herald will spend the next three days examining how District 131 got to where it is today, what barriers the district faces to success, how hard some students are working to achieve their dreams despite their circumstances and programs that are making a difference at East Aurora and in similar districts.

Two Auroras

Aurora, today the second-largest city in Illinois, was nicknamed the City of Lights for being the first U.S. city to illuminate its streets with electricity.

Bisected by the Fox River, Aurora's earliest days were as two separate towns, East and West. The two merged in the mid-1800s when mills, then heavy industry, began lining the riverbanks. When the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad came to town with a rail yard and car-building and locomotive-building facilities, the city mushroomed.

The thousands of jobs drew immigrant labor -- large influxes of Irish, German and Luxembourgers to begin with, then Russians, Swedes, Romanians and Hungarians. Mexicans began arriving after 1910, driven north by political violence and economic hardship.

Aurora's east side primarily became the "ethnic, working class side of town," writes Susan L. Palmer in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, while business owners and industrialists -- many of them New England Yankees -- settled on the west side, building impressive homes on larger lots.

From that point on, the economic divide through town was set.

That divide also played out in the city's schools. Two distinct unit districts -- West Aurora Unit District 129 and East Aurora 131 -- mirror the economic and demographic differences. West Aurora is not among the suburbs' highest-achieving districts either, but on nearly all metrics it fares better than East Aurora. The graduation rate is 77 percent, only 67 percent of students are considered low-income, and the average ACT score is 18.7.

Students are dismissed from East Aurora High School. The school does not have bus service for students.
  Students are dismissed from East Aurora High School. The school does not have bus service for students. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

West Aurora has bus transportation for students, whereas East Aurora is one of the few Illinois districts that does not. In the early years, East Aurora officials didn't think they needed it, Popp said. By the time the boundaries and demographics changed to where busing was desirable, District 131 could no longer afford it.

The issue went to referendum in 2005. Officials pleaded that buses would reduce tardiness and truancy and improve overall student safety, but 59 percent of voters rejected it.

"It's just a battle for students to even get here in the morning," Popp said. "If we had the funding, that would be a definite must for us, but it's just not in the cards right now."

The 'poster child'

Busing isn't the only thing that District 131 cannot afford. The swim team is gone, the high school pool paved over to accommodate more classrooms. Folding walls often break one room into two. Many of the buildings are more than 75 years old. Music and core classes are sometimes taught in elementary school hallways.

In 2014, 61.4 percent of East Aurora's money came from state funding, and 26.6 percent came from local funding, primarily property taxes. The rest of the state is the reverse: On average, 66 percent of Illinois schools' funding is from local sources and only 26 percent from the state.

That funding ratio means state budget cuts hit districts like East Aurora particularly hard. In 2014, East Aurora lost $10.7 million in state funds, more than 10 times the $742,000 that similarly-sized St. Charles Unit District 303 lost, according to district documents.

In the last five years, Popp said, East Aurora has lost nearly $40 million. With that money, he said, the district could have built a full-day kindergarten center, hired 90 teachers, bought a laptop for every student and more.

"East Aurora is the poster child for the kind of district that needs help," said Ben Boer, deputy director of Advance Illinois, a nonprofit that lobbies for a more equitable distribution of state education money.

Even if they wanted to, East Aurora residents cannot tax themselves out of their budget problems because the tax base is far too small.

"Even if they were to tax themselves more, they just don't have the property values to generate enough money," Boer said.

In 2015, the equalized assessed value of property in the East Aurora district was $577.5 million. By comparison, in West Aurora, the 2015 equalized assessed value was $1.35 billion, according to the Kane County Assessor's office. Another way to look at it: In 2015, East Aurora taxed property with an equalized assessed value of $39,020 for each student's education; West Aurora taxed property with an equalized assessed value of $107,186 for each student.

Giovanni Gutierrez, a 2015 graduate, spoke at a recent Illinois State Board of Education meeting about the toll state cuts have taken on students.

"We have dreams. We love to learn, but budget cuts are holding us back," Gutierrez said. "We go to school each year wondering where our previous teachers went, why there are less clubs to join. We need the things other districts take for granted."

Aurora Alderman Richard Irvin has called East Aurora's economic reality "a de facto measure of class discrimination."

Popp started a Fix The Formula campaign, and he regularly lobbies Springfield alongside some of the state's poorest districts. As he prepares to leave East Aurora, he admits to being tired.

"How do you deal with a system that is perpetuating opportunity gaps?" Popp asks.

The funding system keeps communities like East Aurora depressed, he added, a cycle abetted by legislators who protect their own instead of thinking of what's good for the entire state.

"You hear conversations, especially in DuPage County, about not wanting to be the losers in any new (school aid) formula," said Popp, who before coming to East Aurora was a teacher and administrator in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville for more than two decades.

"Well, there are districts right down the street from you that are losers," he added. "Our kids are being hurt so much, and they have been for years, and they don't have a voice."

'Need a champion'

Reading class at Brady Elementary in Aurora is held in the hallway because the school, built in 1923, is over capacity.
Reading class at Brady Elementary in Aurora is held in the hallway because the school, built in 1923, is over capacity. - courtesy of East Aurora District 131

It's the first day of kindergarten at Bardwell Elementary on South Lincoln Avenue. Students are lined up for first-day photos, grinning through missing teeth and holding up signs that read "Class of 2028!"

They may not all get there, but District 131 starts building the dream young. College banners line the walls of elementary schools and school representatives meet with parents from the time their children are born, talking up the value of a high school diploma.

Math teachers invent problems that revolve around college acceptance rates. Driver's ed teachers deliberately drive past Waubonsee Community College and Aurora University to demonstrate how accessible a college education can be.

It may be working. In 2012, the graduation rate was 60 percent. By 2015, it was 64 percent. Popp said getting every student to a meaningful graduation is the No. 1 goal.

East Aurora High School Principal Anthony Crespo said improving the graduation rate ultimately requires educating parents about the importance of school, "that an education is the vehicle to break the cycle of poverty."

It's a tough message to send when most families are worried about the basics like putting food on the table and working multiple jobs.

Popp tells of one recent student who was at the top of his class but still had to resist the pressure of a family that wanted him to drop out and go to work full time to help pay the bills.

"That's the reality in this community," he said.

Crespo sees that reality every day as he encourages his students to reach for more, even while understanding their daily struggles.

"We have kids who work 40 hours a week washing dishes and go home at 2 a.m. to do homework," Crespo said. "Then we tell them, 'You better get to school on time.' They get up in the morning and have to drop their siblings at school and, depending on their (immigration) status, they might not have a valid driver's license. What am I supposed to tell them? 'Don't get caught?'"

But, as Crespo finishes his first year at East Aurora, he said he has been amazed by the students who doggedly come in every day with the deck stacked against them, willing to work and not abandon their dreams.

"Students can still succeed no matter what. What students need is a champion," he said. "They need someone they can believe in and who believes in them.

"That can go a long way. It opens up the possibilities and talent they have inside."

Coming Monday: Two students, one dream -- getting to graduation despite sometimes overwhelming obstacles.

Tuesday: Can extremely poor schools overcome the disadvantages poverty brings? Some innovations appear to be working.

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