U46 hopes for ‘more of a normal’ school year
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org August 22, 2012 9:56PM
Students pack the hallway on their way to their next class Wednesday at Larkin High School in Elgin. Larkin and other schools in District U46 opened their doors for the first day of the school year. August 22, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Amount of money spent (presumedly back-to-school shopping) at family clothing stores in the U.S. in August 2011. Only in November and December were sales higher.
Number of children and adults enrolled in school throughout the country in October 2010 — from nursery school to college. They comprised 27 percent of the entire population age 3 and older.
More than 40,000
Number of students enrolled in Elgin School District U46.
Percentage of elementary through high school students in the U.S. who had at least one foreign-born parent in October 2010.
The number of schools in U46.
Number of school-age children (5 to 17) in the U.S. who spoke a language other than English at home in 2010.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:54AM
ELGIN — Bright and early Monday morning, Kitty Syavong of Elgin snapped a photo of her daughter Deja, 9, outside Channing Memorial Elementary School.
It was Deja’s first day of fourth grade and her first at the east-side school at 63 S. Channing St. Syavong also had attended Channing when she was growing up, but her family only recently returned to Elgin from Florida, she said.
That’s not why Deja was nervous, though, according to her mom.
“She’s scared because she knows it’s haunted,” Syavong said, referring to legends that grew from the school’s location on a former graveyard.
All around them, students threw their arms around each other as they reunited after the summer break. They pointed out classroom assignments posted in the front window of the building and dragged plastic bags of school supplies, complaining their arms were tired.
They lined up outside with their classes, and, finally, said goodbye to the parents and little siblings and puppies and Spider-Man toys that had come that far — as summer officially ended and students returned to class in Elgin School District U46. Students in Burlington Central Community Unit School District 301 returned to class the same day.
U46 Superintendent Jose Torres also had returned to Channing last week to record his 2012-13 welcome video. That’s appropriate, Torres said in the video, because he had introduced himself as superintendent to the Elgin community at the same place five years ago.
“I introduced myself by saying I have a quote on my desk that says, ‘Actions reflect beliefs,’ and those beliefs that I have I said would drive the actions that I would take in the district,” he said.
Torres repeated those beliefs before the start of the 2012-13 school year Wednesday in U46.
The his beliefs are raising the bar, closing the gap and cultivating relationships, he said. Cultivating relationships is “something in fact maybe I have underestimated,” he said.
“The way we do that is really by developing relationships with each other and by knowing each other’s stories.”
Torres shared his story, of being born in Puerto Rico, raised by a single mother, first being introduced to the English language in fifth grade and struggling through school. Those experiences are what forged his “dual commitment to equity and excellence,” he said.
And he shared the story of his first five years in the second-largest school district in Illinois, of getting to know the district in 2008, then getting hit with “the Great Recession” in 2009. That forced the U46 Board of Education to make a number of painful budget cuts, many it still is feeling, he said.
In 2010, the board approved Destination 2015, a five-year accountability plan that set targets, benchmarks and a vision for the district — true to Torres’ beliefs — to raise the bar, close the gap and ensure success for all students.
“We have been very focused on closing the achievement gap, (although) not as successful as we wish we were,” he said.
And much of the last school year was spent in negotiations with all six of the district’s unions. The Elgin Teachers Association approved its contract this summer after rejecting a first pass at it, and all but U46 food service personnel now have tentative agreements with the district, according to the superintendent.
“My hope is 2012 is a bit more of a normal year where we can be focused on the Common Core standards and nonfiction reading and writing, that we can be focused on people — as I’ve said, that’s a really important part of our work — and to deliver it with a great sense of urgency,” Torres said.
A new chapter
It’s hard to have a “normal” start to the school year when, Channing Principal Selene Stewart said, one in four of your students — a total 154 — are new to the school. That is, however, normal at Channing, as many students move in and out of the neighborhood, she said.
That’s why it was important to have staff in yellow safety vests outside Wednesday, pointing students to their classrooms, she said. And why it was important for parents to register their children for school before the first day: Channing had registered 10 kindergartners just the day before and turned away several unregistered students that morning, she said.
“We have to work hard to have it not feel chaotic when literally 24 hours ago we didn’t know who was coming,” Stewart said.
But as the first bells rang, students settled into their classrooms and the start of a normal routine with one new addition — the Elgin school district’s new Breakfast in the Classroom program.
There only was one crier in kindergarten, where, the principal noted, it was students’ “first day of school ever in their entire life — and they started with a good meal.” Students across the school happily sipped juice and milk, and munched on crackers and cereal bars, at their desks (see accompanying story).
And across the district, U46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders said there were no reported fights, and he had received only one phone call about a student getting on the wrong bus at the end of the school day. When you’re the second largest school district in Illinois, transporting 26,000 students each day, “you’re going to have that happen, especially when you have brand-new kindergartners,” Sanders said.
“All the way around, it was a very successful opening of schools,” he said.
“We had schools welcoming kids back, teachers teaching in the schools ... and the facilities looked great, with the fresh paint at Elgin (High School) and the new lockers at Kimball (Middle School in Elgin). All that work we did over the summer — the kids came back to bright, fresh buildings.”