'Doing the work that's necessary': Fox Valley schools show promising signs of growth

Fox Valley students demonstrated resilience after two years of learning disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with schools showing signs of improvement and movement back toward pre-pandemic performance levels, according to the 2022 Illinois School Report Card.

Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 recorded its highest graduation rate in more than 10 years, St. Charles Community Unit District 303 saw math scores increase, and Elgin Area School District U-46 saw many of its schools in the 50th percentile for growth in language arts and mathematics.

Even with the gains, school districts are careful to note that recovery from two years of disrupted learning will take time, and state report cards show student performance is not yet at pre-pandemic levels.

In fact, both District 300 and U-46 have one school each listed in the comprehensive category, meaning the school performed in the bottom 5% statewide and must begin a four-year cycle of improvement. Neither district had a school designated as comprehensive on the 2019 school report card.

"We're doing the work that's necessary and I think we're moving in the right direction," said U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders. "But it's going to take a lot more than one or two years to make up for the loss that these students experienced."

The state's second-largest school district, which is a diverse mix of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, also had 12 schools listed under the state's "targeted" designation, meaning they had one or more student groups performing at or below the comprehensive level. Targeted schools also must comply with a four-year improvement plan for targeted areas.

Forty of the district's schools, however, were in the commendable designation.

As students returned to the first full year of in-person learning, educators worked to identify areas of need and address them while keeping a focus on grade-level standards rather than try to make up for a year of disrupted instructional time.

Like many other districts, District 303 focused on assessing where a student was at the start of the 2021-22 school year and what bench marks they need to reach to get to grade level.

"That allowed teachers to individualize and support students from where they were ... and we saw significant growth," said Christine Igoe, assistant superintendent of educational services for District 303.

The district also placed a full-time math specialist in each of its schools during the 2021-22 school year. Though students are not yet at pre-pandemic proficiency levels, the intervention helped bring student math scores up from 2020-21 levels.

Summer intervention programs also helped keep the focus on learning.

District 300, for example, offered a summer learning option to address learning standards for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The district also hired a director of academic multitiered systems of support to track the student response to intervention programs, the district said in an emailed response.

"This school year, the district has begun analyzing our report card data at the district and individual school level and are developing comprehensive action plans to support all District 300 students," the district said.

In U-46, officials focused on the U-46 Rising program, which aims to improve classroom instruction through student academic teaming. This year, the program expanded from five elementary schools to include seven more elementary schools, one middle school and one prekindergarten site.

The program shifts from using a model where the teacher delivers knowledge to one where students work in collaborative environments and the teacher serves more as a coach, Sanders said.

The five pilot schools saw an increase in students meeting or exceeding proficiency standards ranging from 2% to nearly 8% in 2022 when compared to the previous school year. For example, at Creekside Elementary School, 5.6% of students achieved proficiency in English language arts and 8.5% in math in 2021. Those percentages increased to 11.5% in English and 8.7% in math in 2022, state report card data show.

In 2019, student proficiency levels at the same school were at 12.1% for English and 9.7% for math.

The district has commissioned a review of the program by a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who will analyze the test results for the five schools in comparison with other schools. Sanders hopes to present that information to school board members next month.

"Early indications are that, yes, those schools grew at a rate higher than their peers," Sanders said.

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