“In these times of limited resources, working together is the only way,” said Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner during Assistant Secretary of Communications and Outreach Peter Cunningham’s visit to his city last month.
The President’s proposed American Jobs Act and its potential impact on modernizing Aurora schools was the major focus of the visit, since many of the schools are 90- 120 years old.
The assistant secretary, however, was also impressed with the local partnerships. “The leaders here are targeting resources in forward-thinking ways,” said Cunningham.
Like many school districts, both Aurora West School District 129 and Aurora East School District 131 cope with decreased state and local funding. They collectively serve about 26,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, who are primarily low-income.
How is collaboration helping Aurora’s students?
- Four separate local school districts, Aurora University, and Democratic and Republican state legislators collaborated to develop a new jointly-operated Science Technology Engineering Mathematics partnership school that will serve 200 third- through eighth-grade students and provide STEM training for teachers of all four districts.
- Aurora West School District 129 teachers accepted pay concessions to prevent 127 layoffs in 2010 — an action that Cunningham told teachers “reflects well on you, but not on overall prosperity of the country.”
- Aurora West and Aurora East communities are working together and with the rest of the community to address achievement gaps between minority students and their white counterparts in progressive ways. For example, fewer than half of Aurora’s at-risk children ages 3 and 4 are attending preschool. In response, municipal, business and community leaders have partnered with the school districts to form the Aurora Early Learning Initiative, aimed at ensuring that all of the city’s children can start kindergarten ready to learn.
- The districts partnered with local business, government and higher education leaders for a summit last month on “How to Prepare Our Workforce For A Global Summit” hosted by the Illinois Math and Science Academy. The keynote speaker was Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — coined “the world’s schoolmaster” — who came from Paris to discuss how American schools compare with those of other nations, and how Aurora and other communities can learn from global examples.
Aurora participants also made it clear that an increased federal investment in local schools would be welcome, with the two districts targeted to collectively receive an estimated $7 million to modernize its facilities under AJA. Unfunded needs include the costly replacement of aging heating and ventilation systems with energy-efficient models.
Cunningham said that his day in Aurora was a valuable learning opportunity that he and other senior ED officials need to emulate often, around the country.
“We’re focusing outside the Beltway as much as possible, because the real innovation in education goes on in classrooms and not in Washington,” he said. “We look at education as an upside-down pyramid, and you’re at the top.”
Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region