In The News

Elgin roundtable discusses many facets of public education

This article appeared in The Courier-News on April 22, 2017. Continuing Ed. is a yearlong, statewide series of free public programs that puts parents and schools back at the center of conversations addressing difficult questions. You can find the original article here.

Gail Borden Public Library roundtable on education on Thursday revolved around one really broad question: What is the purpose of public education?

Unsurprisingly, answers varied by panelist, including School District U46 and Elgin Community College administrators, parents, local organizations and faith leaders.

“We want the schools to give them every single item they need, whether to go to college or go out and get a job,” Bartlett High School parent Karen Merchant said. “We also expect them to learn about real-life situations, not (be) blinded by it (when they graduate).”

Other answers ran the gamut from expanding high school academy programs to fixing stereotypes about the area to keeping community programs afloat and relevant.

“We want the schools to give them every single item they need, whether to go to college or go out and get a job,” Bartlett High School parent Karen Merchant said. “We also expect them to learn about real-life situations, not (be) blinded by it (when they graduate).”

Other answers ran the gamut from expanding high school academy programs to fixing stereotypes about the area to keeping community programs afloat and relevant.

One of the more surprising answers came from Sanders, who suggested expanding the district’s academies beyond the five current programs. Each of the five main high schools house an academy: Elgin supports the gifted academy; Larkin specializes in performing arts; Streamwood holds a world languages program; Bartlett focuses on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math; and South Elgin has media and communications.

Sanders took it one step further, suggesting the “dream” is for every high school student to be in some type of academylike concentration that caters to a student’s needs and interests, providing school choice within U46 schools.

“We want to get down to a smaller learning community for students so you have the more robust social emotional needs,” Sanders said. “In addition to that, you have them traveling and learning with peers who have a similar interest. … There’s a huge benefit to moving to this type of format.”

How attainable such a goal is remains to be seen, given the state’s inaction on crafting a budget. The state already has fallen behind by more than $25 million owed to U46 for special education and transportation.

Sanders also spoke about a return to less standardized testing, which received a round of applause. He said that while he is a supporter of more advanced courses, he believes the district should begin moving away from focusing on GPA and rankings, just as many colleges and universities are doing.

A number of panelists pointed out how times have changed and what once worked decades ago, no longer does today. Demovsky said that while some parents may not agree, social emotional learning — interaction, respect, protesting and reforming in a civil manner, among other things — is necessary for students and teachers alike.

“Our students are coming to our buildings with trauma, and there’s no denying that,” he said. “When you look at Bartlett High being the lowest free and reduced lunch (percentage) school in the district, it is 37 percent. That means one out of every three is struggling. Those students are coming in already anxious, they may be defensive and we’ve got to get to the root of that.”

While some of the responses were more focused on in-school progress, leaders from outside groups gave their own suggestions. Elgin YWCA CEO Julia McClendon said its services provide generations of local families some reassurance about living in Elgin.

Close to 60 percent of U46 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and McClendon gave one example of the YWCA’s impact: when some U46 schools and facilities shut down for three days in 2015 after the presence of the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

“We had these tall kids come into our building, our babies at one time,” she said. “They were hungry, and they came back to us because they knew we would find food for them. They didn’t have food at home, it was the end of the month. They counted on the lunch at school.”

Edmond suggested that in order for public education to work, local organizations must be “U46’s greatest cheerleaders” — not only to help students and families, but also to shake off lingering stigmas.

Villalobos, co-chair of the U46 Citizens’ Advisory Council’s family and community engagement committee, has conducted workshops to better inform Realtors about the district and its services, which can dwarf those of smaller districts in the surrounding area.

“We want to correct that,” she said. “A lot of times, when we do these Realtor breakfasts, we hear, ‘I did not know U46 had all those offerings.’ After Tony (Sanders) is done speaking with them, it’s amazing … ‘Wow, we got something good to say about U46.’ ”

The 90-minute roundtable was hosted by the library and education-based nonprofit Illinois Humanities.