What do top-scoring and bottom-scoring schools look like?

Profiles of progress at Owen Marsh, Enos, Jefferson and Southeast

click to enlarge What do top-scoring and bottom-scoring schools look like?
Photos by David Blanchette
Stefanie Midiri interacts with her students in an Owen Marsh Elementary School classroom.

Here is an in-depth look at four Springfield School District 186 schools based on their ISBE Report Card ratings. Two of them were highly rated "commendable" schools, Owen Marsh and Enos Elementary, while two, Jefferson Middle and Southeast High, were rated among the lowest-performing five percent of schools in Illinois.

Owen Marsh Elementary School, Commendable

"We've taken on the motto 'attendance matters.'"

"We were just one-tenth of a point from making Exemplary, which would have put us in the top 10 percent of all schools in Illinois," said Owen Marsh Elementary School Principal Wendy Conaway. "I credit our ranking to wonderful teachers who are willing to put in the extra time and really get to know their students as academic learners."

Conaway is in her seventh year as principal of Owen Marsh, which is located near Washington Park on Springfield's west side. She proudly points visitors to the frogs, the school's mascot, that can be seen all over the building.

"I do virtual morning announcements every day and we give shout-outs to those classrooms with perfect attendance, and they are rewarded with having their teacher's face featured on a turkey that dances across the screen," Conaway said. "Those types of fun things drive students to want to be at school."

"We've taken on the motto, 'Attendance matters.' When a student is absent, tardy or leaving early it really takes away from their learning," Conaway said. "We make parents and students understand the importance of attending, and that is what works here."

Conaway is most proud of closing the English Language Arts achievement gap at the school. She has used federal COVID-19 education relief funding to target students in kindergarten and first grade with tutoring as necessary. So by the time they become third-, fourth- or fifth-graders they are reading at a level that is proficient.

Discipline problems are on the decline at Owen Marsh, Conaway said, and students live by the "three bes": Be respectful, be responsible and be safe.

"It takes tenacity and grit to continue that educational progress and it doesn't matter what school you're from, they all can do it," Conaway said. "It is probably one of the most exciting times of my career, because I'm not only a principal of District 186, I'm a product of District 186."

Enos Elementary School, Commendable

"You're more likely to tell your parents 'I can't miss today.'"

When you visit Enos Elementary School you'd better have plenty of time, because Principal Claudia Johnson will want to show you what the students and teachers are doing in every classroom. That's exactly what happened during a recent visit to the ISBE-rated Commendable school, which is located near the medical district on Springfield's north side.

"I come every day ready to learn and to celebrate with my students," said Johnson, who has been the Enos School principal for 13 years. "I know if they can do one thing they can do more, so we keep on pushing them because we want them to be successful."

Enos has seen its ISBE Report Card numbers increase. Although it wasn't quite enough to earn the school an Exceptional rating, Johnson has her sights set on that elite designation.

"I'm happy about where we are but I don't want to stop there because I always set my expectations high," Johnson said. "We are reaching toward the very top and I can't wait to get there."

Enos established a special attendance team this year to make sure that families have all the resources they need to get their students to school on time every day. Once at the school, students take part in enjoyable learning activities and competitions that give an incentive to keep up their daily attendance.

"If you miss even 15 minutes of school, you've missed something very valuable and important that you need," Johnson said. "We know if you are being engaged and are excited about being at school, you're more likely to tell your parents 'I can't miss today.'

Enos uses co-teaching, a practice where a group of teachers work together in the same classroom to assist individual students who may need help with one or more subjects. The school's mantra – "Don't wait, communicate. Get involved and problem solve." – has helped students to better express themselves and has resulted in a decrease in disciplinary action.

"We let the students know that we believe in them, and we show them that they can be successful if we support and encourage them," Johnson said. "I know that they will give their all and in turn we will see that performance and growth in them."

Johnson is quick to credit all the other District 186 schools for what they are doing, regardless of what the ISBE Report Card scores may show.

"Our students and our schools are not just the scores they see on the report card, there's so much more," Johnson said. "Before anyone passes a judgment based off of numbers, they should definitely come through the doors and see what teachers do every day to effect change within our youth."

click to enlarge What do top-scoring and bottom-scoring schools look like?
Enos Elementary School teacher Melinda Holler and Principal Claudia Johnson talk to students in a classroom.

Jefferson Middle School, Intensive

"We get kids out of bed every morning."

An Intensive rating on the ISBE Report Card was not welcome news for Jefferson Middle School Principal Chelsey Ziebler.

"It's not what we want to see," said Ziebler, who has been the Jefferson principal for two years. "It's frustrating because the data does not show what it's like to be in this building every day. We are really on a great trajectory."

Ziebler said that Jefferson has raised its attendance rate to 89 percent, the highest it has ever been at the school, but the threshold to move to a higher state report card designation is 90 percent. The school just missed it, and it wasn't for lack of trying.

"We get kids out of bed every morning. We have a student where we call his mom at 7:30 every morning to wake her up," Ziebler said. "We try to take away every barrier that we can. You say you're out of gas? Well, not only are we going to come and get your child, but here's some money for gas so you can get here tomorrow."

On a recent school day, Ziebler went from classroom to classroom, something she does with 50 percent or more of her time each day, to observe how the students and teachers are doing. Several students greeted her by name and asked Ziebler to look at the class assignments they were doing.

Ziebler said a lot has changed at Jefferson since her arrival two years ago, when all schools faced post-pandemic challenges. But Jefferson's issues seemed to be more acute, with a lack of engagement between students and teachers. Things have improved since then with the adoption of a revamped instructional focus on the four Ps – proximity, planning, preparation and procedures.

"Are the teachers up in front of the kids, are they moving around the classroom?" Ziebler said. "Are they planning and preparing for what needs to be accomplished? Do they have procedures where the kids know when they must turn things in? Do they know what to do if they miss a day?"

Jefferson hired a former district administrator as a school improvement coach who identifies students who need help, whether with academics or other issues. Discipline incidents have declined because students are continually reminded of the consequences of certain actions.

"We make them proud to be a Jaguar. We say, 'We don't treat people like that here.' We constantly remind them of our expectations," Ziebler said. "We scheduled fun things like a pajama day, but we said, 'Here is the expectation for that day.' And we literally had zero problems on pajama day."

Jefferson students who go above and beyond what is expected of them are rewarded with Jaguar Pride Cards that can be redeemed for items every other week at the school's Pride Store. Ziebler had T-shirts made that said "relationships change lives" to remind students and teachers that relationships are the key to success at school and out in the world.

Learning objectives for students are posted in each classroom so the students know exactly what is expected of them. Based on input from Jefferson teachers, those objectives have replaced the traditional lesson plans that teachers had been required to turn in, a switch that Ziebler said has helped to improve teacher morale.

Despite the progress, however, there's still a long way to go at Jefferson, which is located on Springfield's southeast side, and the path to success won't be easy.

"We take excuses off the table because it's easy to fall back on excuses in hard schools. We actually take the time to work on things that matter," Ziebler said. "But I think it's still going to be a couple of more years before we are OK with the scores."

Southeast High School, Comprehensive

"Some of our kids go through a lot of trauma but they are still coming to school."

The principal walked down the crowded but bright and clean hallways, fist-bumping with students and asking many of them about individual plans and concerns. This is what an ISBE-rated Comprehensive school looks like.

"We missed our target (to go up in the report card ratings) by point-five-six percent. It's like losing a football game by a last-second field goal," said Southeast High School Principal Cody Trigg. "That number is going to come out of our mouths every day from now until the end of our four-year improvement cycle. Once we get past the disappointment and kind of taking it personally, it's time to get to work."

Southeast's ISBE Report Card rating of Comprehensive is partially based on the school's four-year graduation rate below 67 percent, which places the school among the five percent of lowest-scoring schools in Illinois. But Trigg said the rating doesn't tell the whole story about what is going on at the east side campus.

"We want kids to walk across that stage and graduate within that four-year time frame, but we have some students where that takes five or six years," Trigg said. "So that's what success looks like for those students."

Trigg, who is on his fifth year as Southeast principal, is also proud of the progress that has been made with Southeast's chronic truancy rate, which was at 67 percent two years ago and now stands at 48 percent.

"We introduced the position of attendance support coach and have greatly reduced our chronic truancy rate. Our kids are coming to school," Trigg said. "We need to keep going, to be around 25 percent. I want it to be zero, but we are realistic about our setting."

Trigg feels that Southeast's teacher retention rate of 92 percent shows the dedication of the school's educators, whom he said are committed to making the students feel loved, supported and respected. Those teachers, plus the student-led Peace Room initiative and free on-campus mental health support services, help to keep students from bringing pernicious outside influences onto campus.

"We have to deal with the fact that life happens for high school kids. Some of our kids go through a lot of trauma but they are still coming to school," Trigg said. "We fight the story, the perception that Southeast is unsafe. Of our 1,200 students, 93 percent of them had no behavioral referrals whatsoever."

Trigg thinks it is unfair to compare a school like Southeast, whose report card numbers are improving but are still below the state average, with schools from the Chicago suburbs and elsewhere that don't have the same challenges.

"The state tells us we are a Title One school, with more than 40 percent of our students from low-income families, but then they hold us to the same standard for schools that don't have our challenges," Trigg said. "They are our challenges and we met them head-on, but fair isn't always equal."

"The numbers don't tell the full story of what it means to be a Southeast Spartan, and that is disheartening," Trigg said. "I challenge people to get to know a Southeast Spartan. Truly get to know our kids, see what they do on a daily basis to try and meet challenges."

District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill agrees.

"Being on the comprehensive list is hard for a school that has a positive trajectory with positive things that they do for kids," Gill said. "It hurts to get a designation that says they're not doing good things. What's happening inside the school is what matters."

How safe are District 186 schools?

There are more anti-violence and safety programs and procedures in place throughout School District 186 than ever before. But the instances of troubling behaviors by students are also on the rise.

“Outbursts by students at all age levels and schools have been on the rise and situations that spill over into our halls from community disagreements have affected our schools at a higher rate now than prior to the pandemic,” said District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill. “We have utilized our positive relationship with our local law enforcement officers and the state’s attorney’s office to address any act of violence in a swift and appropriate manner that meets the letter of the law.”

Springfield Education Association President Aaron Graves said he and fellow union members have also noticed this trend, but said the district should do more to address it.

“We have allowed an unacceptable degree of chaos and violence within particular school settings for the last many years,” Graves said. “The failure to address students’ unsafe and aggressive behavior has eroded the educational fabric of many classrooms, schools and portions of our district.”

According to the ISBE Report Card, the total number of incidents requiring disciplinary action last academic year in District 186 numbered 4,748. These included 273 incidents of violence without physical injury and 25 drug-related offenses. No data was supplied to ISBE to show how many violent incidents occurred with physical injury.

The response to these disciplinary incidents included 4,699 out-of-school suspensions with educational services being provided, 39 expulsions with educational services, and 10 expulsions with no educational services.

Graves feels that the district is using Senate Bill 100, a recently passed Illinois law that sets disciplinary guidelines for schools, as an excuse for the increasing disruption in Springfield’s schools. The law requires that schools minimize disciplinary practices such as suspension and expulsion and use more alternatives to suspension.

Gill said that District 186 has no choice but to follow the new law. “If not followed there could be severe consequences to the district,” Gill said. “The Exclusionary Discipline Law sets parameters that limit the number of days students can be excluded from school through discipline and outlines or restricts administrators on the numbers of days a suspension can last.”

But that doesn’t mean that violent behavior will be tolerated.

“My office, with the support of the Board of Education, has taken a strong stance that fighting among students and hands-on-behavior toward staff constitutes a severe disruption in the learning environment,” Gill said. Such behavior “shall be a reason for suspension and possible expulsion.”

Gill pointed to a number of initiatives that are intended to create and maintain a safe school environment in District 186. A Social Emotional Learning curriculum and mental health support systems are available for students. Security systems and protocols at schools have increased greatly in recent years. Help hotlines are in place to head off potentially dangerous situations, and videos have been created to encourage respectful behavior in schools.

Peace Rooms have been created at each high school where students can seek time to regroup and ask for additional services. The number of “School Within a School” classrooms has been increased – these are small settings for students who may need additional support for a short time.

Alternative education programs are available for students who have trouble functioning in regular District 186 classrooms, including Douglas Prep, Springfield Learning Academy and Lawrence Adult Education. The district partners with the Springfield NAACP and other organizations to provide tutors and mentors for students. The Back to School Stay in School Program ensures that students have an opportunity to grow even while expelled from District 186.

Graves admitted that he has seen a stronger response from the district recently regarding classroom safety.

“District administration and the school board are taking a much harder stance on this now, and we appreciate this move to prioritize safe schools and classrooms,” Graves said. “If we want to turn these trends and scores around, schools must be orderly and safe.”

Gill said that safe schools are a priority for everyone.

“This work starts in the home and our partnership with families. Together we must all become united, stop pointing fingers and come together to support our students and educators,” Gill said. “When this happens we see programs emerge that do not include law enforcement or negative consequences, but proactive programming.” - David Blanchette

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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