Butler Elementary District 53 uses teamwork, personalization to achieve growth

  • Campbell Jones works out a problem with her seventh-grade math class at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook. Students in the district made the most growth in math among DuPage County school districts in the Daily Herald's coverage area.

    Campbell Jones works out a problem with her seventh-grade math class at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook. Students in the district made the most growth in math among DuPage County school districts in the Daily Herald's coverage area. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Michelle Milani teaches seventh-grade math at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook, where the district prioritizes personalized learning, teacher collaboration and student well-being to improve math and English performance.

    Michelle Milani teaches seventh-grade math at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook, where the district prioritizes personalized learning, teacher collaboration and student well-being to improve math and English performance. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Teacher Jill Vonnahme works with eighth-grader Saniyah Mohiuddin in algebra class at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook.

    Teacher Jill Vonnahme works with eighth-grader Saniyah Mohiuddin in algebra class at Butler Junior High in Oak Brook. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted12/15/2018 6:00 AM

Clearly, something is working in Butler Elementary District 53.

Butler's 525 students in Oak Brook achieved the highest proficiency scores in both English and math among DuPage County school districts within the Daily Herald's coverage area -- 81.3 percent proficiency in English and 74.7 percent in math, according to the 2018 Illinois Report Card.

 

And, clearly, the district is blessed with favorable demographics, which brings well-supported students and highly involved parents.

The district has only 2 percent low-income students among a population that is 51.4 percent Asian and 40.6 percent white, with 7.9 percent students of various other ethnicities, according to Report Card demographic data.

The district "is known for its high achievement and top test scores," according to its own website. But Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom said good scores are beneficial more as a road map to even better learning, not as a mark of pride, achievement and a job well done.

"We could have relaxed," Wennstrom said. "We wanted to show that our kids are really gaining skills for their class time."

Using a variety of methods Wennstrom describes as "wraparound services to students and staff," Butler District 53 achieved the highest growth scores in DuPage County in both English and math, with 65.1 percent growth in English and 59.7 percent growth in math.

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The growth scores mean Butler students improved their performance on standardized tests from last year to this year as much as or more than 65.1 percent of their grade-level peers across the state in English, and as much as or more than 59.7 percent of those peers in math. To count in the peer group, students must start with the same baseline scores.

It takes collaboration, personalization and wise management of time and money to improve upon already strong scores, educators say. Recognizing that all aspects of a student's education matter, District 53 worked to strengthen student health, safety and individualization of education, as well as teacher training, teamwork and planning of lessons.

"We are after that vision of exemplary learning for every child," Wennstrom said.

All hands help

To be exemplary requires the help of some unlikely characters, such as the local police department, the park district and the school lunch vendor. With an increased focus on student well-being, Wennstrom said District 53 has reached out to all of these organizations to be sure students feel safe and healthy while learning.

With the help of after-school camps, physical education and healthier meals, student obesity has dropped nearly 5 percent.

"For us, it's really part of that commitment that we have to the whole child," Wennstrom said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But teachers are the most obvious and strongest advocate for student learning, and Butler educators recently have begun to act even more as "ambassadors of their craft," said Chad Prosen, principal of Brook Forest Elementary School.

"They utilize all resources -- including each other," Prosen said.

Working together, teachers review student test scores and look for ways to help those who are not yet achieving.

Teachers also challenge each other and share helpful resources, such as materials from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which the district uses to support social and emotional learning and help students cope with pressure and stress, Butler Junior High School Principal Amy Read said. The balance of collaboration and friendly competition helps all teachers improve.

"Our student growth would not be possible without the teacher growth," Wennstrom said.

But none of this discounts the role of parents, who can emphasize the importance of learning from an early age.

"They partner with our teachers in such a way that the children are getting a unified message that learning matters," Wennstrom said, "and that they can explore and create and enjoy learning."

Personal focus

For one student to enjoy learning, he might need extra help with reading. But for another to enjoy his classes, he might need additional challenges.

Butler District 53 provides both through an emphasis on differentiation, the practice of simplifying or advancing classroom work to match student understanding.

And that's where test scores come in as a guide instead of as bragging rights. Scores received during the year can show what students understand and what they don't yet grasp, giving teachers time to tweak their instruction accordingly. More differentiation.

Read said teachers aren't given double blocks of time for teaching math at Butler, as they are at many junior highs, because the district also values giving students time for physical education, arts and music. They have 42 minutes, and they've learned to make each of them count with fast-paced, rigorous learning and engaging activities.

"It really is extraordinary," Read said, "what we do in 42 minutes."

Maximize learning

Even well-resourced districts could use more funding to provide truly extraordinary education, Wennstrom said. So the district has cut spending in "every category," taking all dollars freed and putting them back toward strategies to improve instruction and performance.

These include paying for resources for stronger teacher training and bringing in a consultant to advise on lesson planning and how to add workshop components to classes for students.

"That has produced the attainment and growth and benefited the culture," she said. "Because success breeds success."

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