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Turning a Corner

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” – This old adage is ringing true throughout the classrooms of North Chicago School District 187.

Despite years of poor performance, community concerns and funding issues among one of the largest low-income populations in the state, school district administration officials are finally starting to see green shoots from the seeds of change they’ve planted in the years since the Illinois State Board of Education took oversight of the beleaguered district in 2012.

“The high school graduation rate was at 50 percent 3 years ago and we’re currently at 69 percent with every indication we’ll be able to break 70 percent this year,” said Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Joel Pollack, referring to Illinois Report Card data from 2013-2014, which also notes that 84 percent of District 187 students are low-income.

“During that time we’ve had a 14 percent increase in daily attendance, from 75 percent to 89,” Pollack noted excitedly, “and another point about the high school, from the first quarter of last year to the first quarter of this year, we are marking over an 80 percent drop in office referrals because of the calmer school climate developed by school leadership and teachers.”

Further, Pollack says, the culture of achievement is permeating all schools at all grade levels, leading to more academics-focused – as opposed to behavior issue-focused – classrooms and the development of a college-going and career-prepared culture that school building administrators are instilling into even the youngest pre-kindergarteners.

“This is a really salient point,” Pollack emphasized, “We still have a very long way to go to get to where we need to be for our students. But the data points are clearly moving in the right direction.”

Pollack said that ACT scores rose at the District – compared to the state average. Although District 187’s high school juniors are still below the state average in absolute terms, scores are trending upward. Prairie State Achievement Examination score growth also outpaced growth statewide.

The road to such positive gains has not always been smooth – the District’s massive overhaul of teaching and administrative staff and even the District’s structure and school organization – hit many nerves in the community. But changes are being tracked in concert with the community to ensure a new, never-before-seen level of accountability to the taxpayers and parents of students.

Chief among the instruments used to gauge student, staff and parent concerns about curriculum, instruction and general governance was the Illinois 5Essentials Survey, an online survey taken by all pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and all sixth- through 12th-grade students, usually requiring no more than 30 minutes to complete.

The information collected through the survey is rigorously reviewed and analyzed to generate a 5Essentials Report for each school which measures changes over time in the categories of leadership, teaching staff, family involvement, supportive environment and curriculum and instruction.

North Chicago School District 187 was able to use this survey methodology with support from The Lake County Community Foundation and a $9,000 grant it made to UChicago Impact. This funding assisted NCSD 187 by providing tailored training and implementation support to families completing the Illinois 5Essentials Survey and then using the resulting data to articulate the strengths, weaknesses and root causes of the District’s/school’s 5Essentials results and collaborate on plans of action moving forward.

“This work has fostered further engagement among faculty, staff, families and students,” said Maggie Morales, The Lake County Community Foundation’s Manager of Community Engagement. “We are very pleased with the progress made among UChicago Impact and District 187.”

Morales said that the initiative began in 2012, when the Foundation hosted UChicago Impact at a community-wide meeting designed to align school improvement efforts in North
Chicago. Through this listening session, a grant opportunity emerged for the Foundation to support UChicago Impact in providing technical assistance to the District to successfully implement the Illinois 5Essentials Survey.

“The Foundation remains committed to supporting the improvement of North Chicago schools,” Morales said. “A second grant to UChicago Impact is being implemented this year with a greater focus on developing improvement plans for each school and the District as a whole.”

The results are already garnering attention.

“It’s been a huge overhaul and a major change,” Pollack said. “But, essentially, we’ve gotten a student achievement and culture and climate moving in the right direction. At the same time, we are stabilizing operations and finances – we’ve reduced deficit spending by 22 percent. The work of completely restructuring the District’s entire school configuration, which included the transition from a community schools model to grade-based learning centers, is starting to pay dividends.”

Chief Education Officer Ben Martindale said, “We recently we had our first daytime meeting with parents at one of our elementary schools and told them they could ask us anything.
Multiple comments from people in attendance were radically different – in a positive way – from two years ago.”

“One parent who transferred their children here and had been very reticent about having their kids attend school in North Chicago told us they were very pleased with what they’ve seen,” Martindale said. “We’re beginning to get positive feedback. There’s a sense in the community that there are great things going on in the District and it appears a corner has been turned.”

“There are still big challenges to overcome and there are plenty of things we still need to do,” said Pollack. “We haven’t accomplished everything we need to and there are many improvements we still need to make. Some people are unhappy with some of the choices we’ve made –– but we’re addressing that on a daily basis. We still have a long way to go, but without a doubt we are moving in the right direction and we are on the move toward true excellence for our students and community.”

About The Lake County Community Foundation

Since 2003, The Lake County Community Foundation, an affiliate of The Chicago Community Trust, has partnered with donors to leverage and guide their philanthropy to help transform the lives of the most vulnerable people across our county. Together, we have contributed over $2.5 million to 80 nonprofit organizations that support basic human needs, community development, education and health throughout Lake County. By connecting the generosity of donors across Lake County with the most pressing needs of the community, we ensure that our county thrives today and for generations to come.