Sunday, November 06, 2005

Peoria School District #150 Possibilities

An article in the Oct. 31st issue of the U.S. News and World Report titled “Thriving in the Zone” reports on the work of one of America’s best leaders, 53 year old Geoffrey Canada. He heads what is known as the Harlem Children Zone, serving 8600 low income children on 60 New York City blocks, which he says “isn’t doing much new”. It has all-day preschool; it’s phasing in a K-12 charter school. It has tutoring and mentoring and antiviovilonce initiatives. It provides a full network of services to an entire needy neighborhood. It combines educational, social and medical services, covering participants from birth all the way through college.

The angel is in the details-in the superior way the zone delivers its programs is with the help of a skilled staff, wealthy backers and a leader who can talk to the block and the boardroom. Canada and his supporters have two key aims: to rescue large numbers of impoverished Harlem children; in so doing, provide an irresistible model for policymakers. He says “if we can get Harlem to the place where passing is the normal thing, staying out of jail is normal, guys growing up and getting jobs is normal; that to me is victory”.

One hundred percent of the past three preschool classes tested “school ready”. Only 11% of 100 kindergartners initially tested above grade level; 80 % had reached that point by the end of the school year. Canada says “older children have been more challenging. Of last years 100 sixth graders, only 10% initially tested at or above grade level. At the end of the year, 19% reached that point in math, 39% in English. The six graders may improve more gradually and at greater expense, but by 12th grade, it will be clear we can save them”.

The picture accompanying the article shows all these black kids neatly dressed and groomed. Mr. Canada dresses like a professional although when parents are invited to watch a series of impressive children’s performances, he dresses in a baseball cap, Khaki pants and a HCZ Team T-shirt. He steps to the mike before 4,000 parents and kids and says “This is the hope of Harlem we’re looking for.”As Peoria Public School District #150 plans it’s school closure and building options, more thought should be given to plans to go back to K-8 or go to freshman attending a ninth grade class as is being done in the Adline Independent School District in Texas, the Grand Prairie Independent School District near Dallas and Edison High School in Philadelphia. All of these ninth grade classes have been in effect long enough to track results and they are positive.

The School District in Philadelphia is in the midst of a five year plan to do away with many of its middle schools-reducing the number to 21 from 36 by 2008. An article dated 4/7/05 in the WSJ is titled, (ok, entitled if you wish, both words are proper I’m told by a retired English teacher), “Middle School Goes Out of Fashion-Amid Evidence Kids Struggle With Move to Junior High-- Districts Shift to K-8 Model.” “At that age, they don’t know whether they’re adults or babies. Our whole theory was let’s keep these kids babies as long as we can.”

An analysis of standardized test scores show that reading and math scores are consistently higher for K-8 schools compared with those in traditional middle schools. Not only are scores higher, attendance rates are higher and there are fewer incidents of student disciple.

In studying the recommendations of the task force and administration, Dr. Gorenz is quoted “You can’t decide to do anything in regards to facilities until you know what kind of model you use.” Superintendent Ken Hinton says “I would think with something of this magnitude, it would take a lot of time for consideration and input.” These quotes were reported in the JS on 5/17/05 so only 5 months have elapsed. This Monday evening the School Board will probably give the go ahead to proceed with at least part of the Task Force recommendations.

Construction of a math, science and technology middle school with questions of how to staff, has also been under consideration. Unfortunately, the community heard these promises from Dr. Royster and some of her predecessors without much action. A greatly expanded Vo-Tech is way past due and the lack of hand, head and work ethic training has cost this community millions of dollars. The lack of a greatly expanded Vo-Tech in both the K-8 and K-12 will prevent some companies from locating here and allow more non-citizens to take jobs from locally unskilled drop-outs and graduates. (On my next blog on schools I will take count of those who do not participate in classroom instruction in the classes I visit and give you some accurate figures).

It is way past teaching kids more than reading, writing and computer skills, although all three of those are a “must”. Today’s Parade Magazine has an article about training inmates in correctional centers, skills they should have been taught years before their first visit to juvenile court. District #150 has lagged behind its local counterparts yet has the greatest need for teaching lifestyle programs. If they are not getting it elsewhere than home economics, welding, vehicle maintenance, health skills and taking care of a family and home they will have, some before they are even out of the 12th grade, must be taught BEFORE they drop-out or graduate with no skills and no way to get or hold a well paying job.

This community has abundant number or retirees with skills that have gone largely untapped by our school district. These volunteers, with teachers to help maintain disciple and teachers willing to continue to learn, would be more than willing to assist to make our schools better.

Some will scoff at this article and say “we are doing all these things”. Sorry, the results of some home, school, social agencies and court failures are over burdening our police force, our judicial systems, our jails and our prisons, our welfare system and even cause our health costs to escalate. Many people are becoming more and more concerned about their safety; they are more afraid of local terrorists than they are of foreign terrorists. As I wrote early on, many in Peoria are in a state of denial and feel they can help cover our failures like the Romans did; build more circuses. We should be learning from history.

I suggest that those who are living in denial or even if you are not, please read “The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman. You may feel a little dismayed as he details how we are falling behind other countries in more important things than spending large sums on pork projects and more circuses. (I have said before that most of us are not opposed to more “circuses” as long as the people that want them and can afford to pay to build and maintain them). When we visit we will be glad to pay the fees. In the meantime, most of us feel the community has higher priorities.

Whatever happens in School Dist. # 150 over the next few years will not leave much room for failure. Most teachers feel they are doing the best they can under existing situations. Some schools in the public sector are doing quite well and many teachers are pleased with their results. The “customers” served by these schools are seemingly pleased. (We have to run schools more like a business and welcome everyone into our “business” and help them get involved.)

The shortage of well trained good teachers, plus the negative effects of good teachers taking early retirement (about 20% says the Regional Superintendents office, down from a few years ago when the state government had a senior moment), has allowed more than a few teachers and school leaders to enter and stay in the system who are not as the one’s described in the Harlem article. In the article above it states the leader was able to fire four teachers because the teachers didn’t measure up to the expectations his administration had for them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in the public sector for reasons most people understand.

The possibility of more privately funded schools and the possibility of more parents moving out of the area or sending more of their kids to private schools already in existence like the one described above, may shrink the number of public school building needed. Instead of approximately 70% of the student population now classed as “in poverty”; this figure could increase to 90%. Growth in the downtown area and in the center, south and middle of Peoria will then be basically dead and all the “Heart of Peoria” plans, despite their best efforts, will not save these areas.

Let’s do more of what we can now without putting more burdens on the property tax payer. With the growing deficits in state government, we shouldn’t count the money before we receive it.

I have been visiting Peoria schools, even coaching, teaching (Concordia Lutheran, Junior Achievement) and mentoring since 1994. I know we can do better. But only if the wealthy recognize the public school systems that are in trouble and make them more of a priority for their expendable dollars.


Anonymous said...

Very good article.

Anonymous said...

Posting is very easy. Word verification works the first time.