Analysis: U46 ‘success’ report tempered with some harsh realities
By Dave Gathman email@example.com January 16, 2014 8:32PM
"U46 is committed to closing the equity and achievement gap to ensure that every child can attain academic success, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status," the U46 Annual Report says, illustrating that page with this photo of a Hispanic teacher leading an overwhelmingly Hispanic class at Parkwood Elementary School in Elgin. The report does not mention that test scores of black and Hispanic students remain well below those of the white Anglo and Asian students. | Submitted
A big operation
During 2013, School District U46:
Served 1,569,118 breakfasts
Dished up 3,597,374 lunches
Drove school buses 5 million miles
Delivered 26,500 students by bus every school day (roughly equal to the population of Streamwood or South Elgin)
Cut 132,600 paychecks
Cleaned 5.1 million square feet of building space every school day
Updated: February 18, 2014 6:24AM
ELGIN — A slick, color, photo-filled, 32-page “U46 Academic Success for All 2013 Annual Report” may be appearing soon in every mailbox in Elgin Area School District U46. And it undeniably will provide residents who feel bad vibes about the giant school district with many reasons to cheer.
But prepared with a public-relations eye, it also glosses over some uglier realities of the district’s past year, many of which could be seen in the much-less-slick 2013 School Report Cards issued by the Illinois State Board of Education last October.
U46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders and School-Community Relations Director Patrick Mogge went over a draft of the annual report in front of the U46 Board of Education this week, in what Sanders called “a soft launch” of the document.
Sanders said the staff hopes to print tens of thousands of copies of the document and mail it to every home in the district. He said he did not yet know how much that would cost, but “we are getting pricing for the printing now.”
In the meantime, Mogge said, the report will be posted soon on the district website, www.u-46.org.
Mogge said that in the past, a similar but less-colorful and ambitious annual report has been attached to the annual budget report.
Board member Jennifer Shroder questioned whether a mass mailing would be a wise use of money. “A lot of people just throw out (junk mail),” she said. “I don’t want to kill that many trees.”
Board member Amy Kerber agreed. She suggested that a more-condensed version be printed and distributed to the district’s “cheer leaders” — community leaders, the news media and activists within the district who would be especially interested.
With everyone having a short attention span nowadays, Kerber said, “If we were putting up a billboard to be seen by people driving into town, what would our message on that billboard be?”
Judging by what the report says, that message might be that “District U46 is full of excellence.” Of nine sections of the report, the titles of five contain the word “excellence” — “Educational Excellence,” “Equity and Excellence,” “Excellence in Employee Engagement,” etc.
But there is no mention of the word “restructuring,” which 10 of the district’s 40 elementary schools are being forced to go through because of chronically low test scores under rules of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The district does indeed have much to brag about. The report reminds, for example, that:
The high school dropout rate dipped to 2.1 percent, down a whopping one-third from the 3.1 percent in 2012.
Occurrences resulting in out-of-school suspensions dropped 27.5 percent in a year, and that continued a six-year trend.
Bartlett High School was named to Newsweek magazine’s list of America’s Best High Schools, while Elgin High ranked among the nation’s best high schools as measured by U.S. News and World Report.
The state board of education and Northern Illinois University gave 2012 Academic Excellence Awards to four U46 schools — Bartlett, Centennial, Prairieview and Wayne.
A national online resource for school administrators profiled Tefft Middle School in Streamwood to show how it was able to create a “positive, student-centered school culture.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the district; and U46 Superintendent Jose Torres was the only school superintendent to serve on the federal Equity and Excellence Commission, which looked at ways to improve results for minority and low-income students.
The report profiles several personal success stories among students. Eduardo Perez was the first in his family to attend college. After he graduated from Elgin High in 2013, he began attending Stanford University, often ranked the top college in the country, on a full-ride scholarship. Larkin High’s pom squad won the state championship for the second year in a row. Elgin High’s Heather Johnson was named a Golden Apple Scholar, a distinction for young people aiming for a career on the other side of the teacher’s desk.
Nineteen thousand students, about half the total, toured the stars via the district’s almost-unique planetarium and observatory.
U46 tied for the largest number of new National Board Certified teachers produced by an Illinois school district.
One striking stat in the report is that the U46 Homeless Education Program has gone from serving 364 students in 2007 to serving 754 today.
That could be considered good news, since it shows that children and teens without a steady home are getting special attention. But it’s bad news, too — not so much for the school district as for the cities and villages within it, if it’s a sign that more than twice as many families are homeless as before the recession.
In fact, school board member Kerber said she thinks the report should contain more information about things such as homelessness and poverty to show the challenges the schools have in reaching every student.
Kerber said that in 2008, 43 percent of the district students had income so low that they were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Now 61 percent are eligible.
The statewide average is 50 percent, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
“I think it’s important for people to see the impact the recession has had on our district,” Kerber said. “We have been able to make progress under some incredibly difficult circumstances.”
The fine print
But sometimes greater truths of a topic lie hidden in the report’s fine print, or completely off the page.
For example, Torres’ introduction to the whole document states that “over the past year, we have seen steady improvements on our Destination 2015 goals,” referring to set of goals the district leadership set several years ago to reach by 2015.
A set of graphs headed “Snapshot of Destination 2015 Improvements” presents a rosy-looking picture along those lines: The number of first-graders reading at their proper grade level has risen by 50 percent since 2008. The number of advanced placement (college-level) exams — commonly referred to as AP exams — being taken has risen by 126 percent since 2008. The proportion of sixth-graders on target to meet college-readiness reading standards has gone up from 40 percent to 48 percent since 2008.
But a look at the fine print below these graphs shows that even after these healthy-sounding proportionate increases, the actual achievement levels remain far below the 2015 goals.
Yes, 48 percent of sixth-graders now are on target in reading level. But the 2015 goal is for 72 percent.
Yes, 75 percent of first-graders are reading at their grade level now, up from 50 percent five years ago. But the 2015 goal is for 98 percent.
Also unmentioned in all the salutes to “closing the achievement gap” is that even as test scores among blacks and Hispanics have improved, they remain far behind those registered by non-Hispanic white and Asian students.
And not mentioned at all is that not one school in the district managed to achieve “acceptable yearly progress” in test scores last year, as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state education officials.
But U46 is hardly alone in that last disappointment. Partly because of steeply rising expectations on how well students should do on the tests, only two of the 101 schools in U46, Burlington Central District 301, Carpentersville-based Unit School District 300 and St. Charles District 303 combined made “acceptable progress.”