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State Turnaround Teams: Illinois

Monique Chism, Division Administrator, Innovation & Improvement, Illinois State Board of Education 


In Illinois, the SIG team is currently housed under the Office for Innovation and Improvement. In addition to Dr. Chism, there are four staff members that are dedicated to SIG work. Illinois has plans to create a Center for School Improvement that will house the school support and school turnaround teams. The Center will hire additional staff to help support SIG work and provide more direct technical assistance (TA) for districts. The state anticipates the Center to be open by January 2012.

Q: What are some of the challenges your team has faced in the first year of SIG implementation? 

A: In the first year, we had a lot of questions from the field about the different SIG requirements and expectations for the grant. Many people just didn’t have good examples of implementation. Things like extended learning time, operational flexibility, embedded professional development – people wanted concrete examples of those practices.

Based on this experience, we put together a four-course series for round two of SIG on what good school improvement looks like. These are actual 90 minute courses which an external provider – Turnaround Learning – helped put together that provides more support for districts and schools on SIG.

Q: How are you helping your districts and schools build capacity?

A: In between round one and round two, we provided onsite TA for any district who applied for SIG funding the first time and wasn’t awarded the money. We sent a staff member to the district twice, went through the SIG application with them, talked about the areas they scored low in, and really specifically talked about expectations in that area. We were also inclusive at these meetings – we asked districts to have representatives from their board, the union, parents, community groups. We wanted a diverse representation of stakeholders. And all of our districts agreed to have these meetings with us to strengthen their next SIG application.

We also worked with a nonprofit called Advance Illinois to put together a toolkit to help districts engage in conversations about collective bargaining issues as it relates to SIG.  Anything we thought would impact collective bargaining – from extended learning to teacher evaluations – we addressed those issues in the toolkit to help support those conversations. It’s meant to be seen as guidance, as examples of best practices. The toolkit is published on MassInsight’s website

Q: What are lessons learned from your experience with SIG so far? 

A: We really learned from the first round the importance of community and parent engagement in SIG. The challenge with round one was the turnaround time – the timeline was so tight that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for districts to do much. In fact, one of our districts ended up being sued by a parent and community group because they felt they weren’t involved in the conversation enough. Whenever you’re going through this radical reform – there’s going to be a level of pushback. The best thing to do is to make sure that people feel they have voice in the process. 

One of the things we did to ensure successful implementation was to have face-to-face meetings with each school after they were awarded their grant. We discussed what the school had said it was going to do, and what was expected from them by the state. Those meetings helped to start us off on the right foot. We also made it a requirement that each school must work with a Lead Partner – an external provider with a proven track record in turning around schools – to help with stability issues and the change process. All things considered, we’re very happy with where the districts are. We’ve seen strong progress and significant changes already in the climate and culture of our schools.

Q: What support would you like to see from the federal government?

A: One of the gaps we’ve seen is in finding external organizations that are able to do this type of work. It would be helpful if ED generated a list of competencies for partners, or even a list of recommended providers.

It would also be helpful to have strong examples of how districts are working with unions across the country. Even if the department was working with national organizations like the NEA or AFT and their leadership was coming together to support any changes related to SIG - examples of these partnerships would be helpful.

Q: Any other advice you’d share with state turnaround directors?

A: Just like we’re asking our districts to rethink and reinvent themselves, SIG has required us at the state level to reinvent the way we do things. We’ve had to change mindset about what our role is in supporting schools and districts. I’ve worked late to attend local parent meetings, board meetings, etc. It’s not the traditional compliance role we’ve held in the past.

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