U46 students head back to school in ‘the year of reinvestment’
By Emily McFarlan Miller email@example.com August 19, 2013 6:44PM
Kindergarten teacher, Jennifer Fabe, leads Dadiana Morris, Aliandra Miranda, Jonas Owens, Jiyion Holmes and the rest of her new class to their classroom during the first day of the new school year. | Ruthie Hauge ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 21, 2013 6:14AM
ELGIN — After the flag raising ceremony outside Harriet Gifford Elementary School, and after the back-to-school assembly at which Principal Joe Corcoran explained his expectations of students, kindergartner Dadriana Morris walked to her classroom Monday with a confident shake of the blue and white barrettes in her dark hair.
“Now I feel ready,” Dadriana said.
So did Corcoran, despite the three-day-earlier start to the school year, he said. The principal stopped as he walked the hallways of the building at 240 S. Clifton Ave. to reward second-grader Enrique Ruis by letting him feed the fish in the school’s courtyard koi pond and give out his first class Bear Paw of the year to Sharon Smith’s first-graders, standing in a straight, quiet line.
It was the first day of the 2013-14 school year in Elgin School District U46, which U46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders called “the year of reinvestment.”
“We’re just slowly trying to reinvest into our classrooms — and our teachers, with the purchase of laptops,” Sanders said.
Those reinvestments include expanding time spent in art, music and physical education with the addition of 18 new teachers. They also include purchasing new laptops for every teacher in the state’s second-largest school district, as well as the first new school buses in five years.
That comes after years of budget cuts as the recession hit the U.S. economy in 2009 and the state of Illinois cut and fell behind on payments to U46.
“I think we were a little bit more on the forefront of making reductions, before the economy really got bad,” Sanders said. “Those reductions have been saved year over year.”
In addition to those savings, the district also has conducted a couple bond issuances, he said. Property tax income is projected to increase slightly this year — about $200,000 total — as is the amount of money the district collects from Illinois in general state aid, he said.
All that should leave the Elgin school district with a balanced budget for the 2013-14 school year, according to Sanders. District officials planned to present that budget later that night at the regular U46 Board of Education meeting.
Art, music, P.E.
Ringed by chairs and djembe drums, Molly Thompson’s music classroom in the mobile outside Century Oaks Elementary School at 1234 Braeburn Drive was empty Monday. Students weren’t scheduled to start special classes such as music, art and P.E. until Tuesday, after they’ve had a day to the settle into the rhythms and routines of back-to-school in their classrooms, she said.
They’ll start, the new music teacher said, with “a lot of fun.”
And, as with all of the 22,000 elementary students across the district, they’ll have more time for specials this school year.
The 18 additional art, music and P.E. teachers — among 320 new teachers this year in the district — will mean expanding each of those classes from 30 minutes a week to 40 minutes at each elementary school, Sanders said. That takes the three specials from 1½ hours total each week to two hours, he noted.
That’s a reinvestment after U46 cut 50 elementary music, art and P.E. teachers in 2009, he said. The district’s goal had been to cut between $25 million and $40 million total from its budget that year.
It’s a good reinvestment, too, said new art teacher Beth Speer.
Forty minutes is “just about the perfect amount of time” to work on an art project, figuring in the time spent gathering materials and cleaning up, Speer said. And the Common Core Standards, which the Elgin district will implement fully next school year, will require more time to discuss art and its history, in addition to projects, she said.
Plus, Thompson said, “The more time they can have at all in the special areas is going to be so helpful to them — retention, they’re going to get so many more concepts, just having this enrichment.”
In his first weekly message for the school year, Superintendent Jose Torres pointed to a number of other reinvestments U46 has made for the school year.
They include 90 new buses to update the district’s aging fleet, purchases it had postponed the past five years, Torres said. They also include $2.5 million in new computer equipment: 800 laptop computers (including one for each teacher), 640 desktop computers for middle and high school labs, 260 smaller mobile netbook computers and 240 CAD stations for Career and Technical Education courses, he said.
“These are to support instruction and to support our work in the district,” he said in his “welcome back” video message posted on the district website.
U46 is expanding its two-way dual language program, adding two more sites this year at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates and Washington Elementary School in Elgin. That brings the number of schools with two-way dual language classrooms to 18, according to the superintendent.
It’s also piloting a tuition-based extended-day kindergarten program at Fox Meadow Elementary School in South Elgin and Prairieview Elementary School in Bartlett. About 80 students are enrolled in that program, he said.
Over the summer, the Elgin district also made 25 renovations at schools, including the addition of six new classrooms at Ontarioville Elementary School in Hanover Park, he said.
“As cliché as it sounds, many of our dreams have come true,” Torres said.
‘More with less’
But on the first day of school, those reinvestments still felt like a bit of a dream at Gifford Elementary School, according to Corcoran.
The principal popped his head into Silvia Eagels’ fourth-grade classroom and spotted one of the new teacher laptops for the first time. It sat dark at the front of the classroom as students scribbled pen-and-paper “sloppy copies” remembering what they’d learned last year and setting goals for this year to soft, peaceful music.
There’s little teachers can do right now on the new laptops, which they just received Thursday, Eagels said. She’s still waiting for hers to be connected to a printer and bemoaning the loss of her old desktop; while ancient, it had everything she needed saved on it, she said. (Sanders said the district did save all those hard drives, and nothing was lost.)
Teachers never have had their own district laptops before, Corcoran said.
And the expansion of art, music and P.E. is great, he said. That will allow classroom teachers more time to plan and coordinate while their students are in specials — things that are done in the business world over lunch or golf, he said.
But, he said, he — like most principals in the district — was back at school long before this week, readying it for the earlier start to the school year. So were his teachers.
Those reinvestments are coming, but slowly.
And in the meantime, Corcoran said, “We’re asking people to do more with less.”