“We don’t use poverty as an excuse for low achievement.”
That strong message from Springfield School District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton, Jr. resonated throughout a day-long visit that Peter Cunningham, ED’s assistant secretary for communications and outreach, made to the central Illinois district Nov. 29.
Like many urban areas throughout the nation, Springfield—the state capital—has a proud history and a diverse community with a strong will to prepare both their children and their city for successful futures. Springfield recognizes that a high-quality education is vital to achieving both goals. The school district serves more than 14,000 students, with nearly 66 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches.
Cunningham learned firsthand about the district’s focus on readying students to meet 21st century challenges through a whirlwind itinerary of activities that ranged from a Blue Ribbon School celebration to a planning meeting for turning around a struggling high school. He spoke with district students, parents and educators about local progress and plans, and their ideas on national education reform.
“This isn’t easy. There are no ‘one size fits all’ answers,” Cunningham told a group of teachers, administrators and parents at Lanphier High School, identified by Illinois as eligible for a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG). “Solutions need to come from the local level.”
While the dialogue at Lanphier was sobering, it was also hopeful. The group discussed strategies to improve, to include an extended school day, a new curriculum to make subject matter relevant to students and developing a system where kids at risk may be identified early and provided resources to succeed. According to Sara Vincent, the district’s director of communications, implementation of some of those elements has already begun, and has produced small but positive results, to include better attendance and a decline in suspensions.
The assistant secretary and other ED officials frequently visit schools around the nation, and often bring reports of promising best practices and insights, as well as concerns, back to Washington. The takeaways from the visit were invaluable, voluminous and varied.
At Vachel Lindsay School, a neighborhood elementary school serving a 45 percent low-income population, Principal Wendy Boatman cited the school’s dedicated outreach to the parents of disadvantaged children as key to its improvement in state assessment scores, which earned it recognition as one of 314 Blue Ribbon Schools throughout the United States for 2010. After discussions with Boatman and some of the award-winning school’s other administrators and teachers, Cunningham said he was impressed with the clear “culture of trust” among them.
“From day one, the clear message to students is that they are going to college,” said Chris Colgren, principal of Capital College Preparatory Academy, a new school opened this fall that will ultimately serve students in grades 6-12. CCPA, open to all Springfield students through a lottery, uses best practices from schools throughout the U.S. that have generated strong achievement among high-poverty populations, including gender-specific classrooms and an extended day schedule, as well as the pervasive college-bound attitude.
All students are provided their own laptops at Lincoln Magnet School, a technology-focused school open to all Springfield middle-schoolers through a lottery. More than 96 percent of students met or exceeded state standards for 2010 at Lincoln, where the tech theme goes far beyond the equipment. Teachers use strategies aimed at best connecting with a generation that has grown up with computers, texting and video games as routine elements of daily life. For example, one student showed Cunningham how her English teacher asked her and classmates to create “Wordles “—computerized “word clouds” that can demonstrate understanding in a quick and fun way that capitalizes on pupils’ visual acuity and communications style.
During a small group discussion, teachers said they were gratified to learn from Cunningham about the focus on flexibility, innovation, growth-testing and “carrots, not sticks” in the Obama Administration’s blueprint to re-write the No Child Left Behind education law. In the coming year Congress may act to reauthorize the law, which is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“There’s got to be a way to get accountability that lets us breathe,” one educator said. “The message that we’d like to hear from the President and Secretary Duncan is ‘We’re going to support teachers, and not punish them for not meeting unrealistic expectations.’”
Office of Communications and Outreach
Julie Ewart is a senior public affairs specialist for Region V (including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and a proud mom of three public school students.