School turnaround

Partnerships make the difference at McClernand Elementary


click to enlarge Counterclockwise from left, Hannah Myers, Skye Palmer, Bria Price, Sakoyia Wrenn and Bryannah Kittrell surround McClernand Elementary School Principal Jennifer Gill. - PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
Counterclockwise from left, Hannah Myers, Skye Palmer, Bria Price, Sakoyia Wrenn and Bryannah Kittrell surround McClernand Elementary School Principal Jennifer Gill.

When Springfield Art Association director Betsy Dollar moved to town a little over a year ago, she learned early on of the poor reputation of McClernand Elementary School, the building at North Sixth Street and Enos Avenue directly across the street from her organization’s headquarters. Ninety-four percent of the school’s students are considered low-income, about 47 percent of its students transferred in or out during the 2010 school year and the school consistently scored low on standardized tests.

“I was just told that it was this absolutely struggling school that had a pretty poor reputation, partially because of the incredibly high transient rate of the neighborhood and how kids are in and out of there.” Appealing to Dollar was the idea of turning the school into an arts-focused magnet school to breathe new life into both the school and the neighborhood. But she soon learned that the school was already on an upward path and that the snapshot statistics weren’t really telling the whole story.

Indeed, the school’s reputation is a remnant of problems that the school, which hosts about 280 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, is now successfully overcoming. In the spring of 2008, only 43 percent of McClernand students met and exceeded Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) standards in reading, compared to 64 percent district-wide. Also in 2008, only 53 percent of McClernand students were meeting and exceeding standards in math, compared to 69 percent district-wide. Last year, McClernand’s numbers were up dramatically, to about 61 percent in reading, an 18-percentage point difference from 2008, and to about 76 percent in math, a 23-percentage point difference from 2008. District-wide, 64 percent of students in reading and 69 percent in math met and exceeded standards during 2010 testing.

As a result of its increased scores, McClernand has earned an Illinois 2010 Academic Improvement Award. The upward trends should be credited to increased community and family involvement, a team of dedicated teachers and a commitment from the school to use student data to help individual students, says Principal Jennifer Gill, who took the helm at McClernand in fall of 2008.

“I think maybe three or four years ago, what I was told was true,” Dollar says about McClernand’s reputation. “But they really have gotten in there and made huge changes. Now they just have to have more support in terms of implementing what they’ve already got going.” With that in mind, Dollar has ditched the magnet school idea. “I’m much more inspired to support what they have in place and elaborate on that than try to impose anything from the outside,” she says.

Instead, the Art Association is working with Gill and a handful of McClernand teachers to build a strong partnership that can compliment the many other community relationships that have become integral to the culture at McClernand Elementary.

While still in the early stages of building programs, a team of teachers is working with Dollar to develop ways McClernand can benefit from the resources of the Art Association – from more space in which to create, to new types of materials, to resident artists’ expertise. Dollar wants to help students create community art installations that instill pride in both students and the surrounding community, to help host Saturday Academies that are both fun and educational for students and their families and to help teachers think of ways to integrate the arts into daily instruction.

“Art is very hands on,” says Sarah Bentson, one of two teachers who provide each McClernand class with one hour of art every week. “I think it motivates kids when they’re not just sitting and doing work on paper.”

“Art takes such a bad rap as being frivolous when in fact it teaches incredible critical thinking and hierarchical thinking skills,” Dollar says. “Creating a picture doesn’t just happen. Every single movement of the crayon or the pencil or the material across the page is a decision toward achieving a final goal.”

Integrating art with core subjects, Bentson and Dollar add, can also make reading, writing and arithmetic more accessible to students who find those subjects difficult. “It’s another way to reach those testing goals.”

click to enlarge Third-graders Stephanie Conway and Amy Thomas, front, enjoy reading to Karen Osburn, a retired teacher who volunteers her time to help run McClernand's weekly Wednesday Literacy Lounge, where students can spend part of their lunch periods reading. - PHOTO BY RACHEL WELLS
Third-graders Stephanie Conway and Amy Thomas, front, enjoy reading to Karen Osburn, a retired teacher who volunteers her time to help run McClernand's weekly Wednesday Literacy Lounge, where students can spend part of their lunch periods reading.

Overcoming the odds
Partnering with the Springfield Art Association is just another building block on top of several the school has already put into motion to provide its high population of mobile, low-income students with a quality education.

Along with a high low-income rate, McClernand hosts the highest “mobility” rate of any District 186 elementary school. A student is designated as mobile if he or she transfers in or out of a school during the school year. Every year since at least 1999, McClernand has had a mobility rate ranging anywhere from 36 percent to nearly 55 percent. Often, highly mobile students move because their parents miss a few months’ rent, forcing them to move across town. Sometimes the cycle repeats itself and a student changes schools over and over again.

All of that change is hard on both teachers and students, who have to build new relationships and make sure incoming students are on the same track as the rest of the classroom.

For years the district has tried to align curriculum across the schools so that students transferring from one school to another mid-year will only be a day or two behind their peers. Still, change is hard.

Amy Thomas, a third-grader who came to McClernand last year, seems to have adjusted well and she likes her new school – “They have real cool food, you get to read a lot and they have cool teachers,” she says, as she takes a quick break from reading Eloise and the Big Parade during her lunch period. But she adds that she misses her friends from Ridgely Elementary.

For teachers, it’s a matter of having enough materials on hand to accommodate new students and of managing a classroom that’s always in flux. “You just start from scratch and get to know that kid pretty quick,” says Wendy Flach, a fourth-grade teacher, who this year has seen two students leave her class. The school as a whole from October to February is showing a mobility rate of about 18 percent, with two students who since the beginning of the school year have left and returned and three new students who had been to McClernand in previous years.

“I think sometimes they get used to it,” says Flach, adding that returning students are common and sometimes easier to accommodate than brand new students. “We already know them, we already know their families and we don’t have to rebuild those relationships.”

To help combat the problem of mobility, Congress in 1987 passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires all schools to bus to their home school all children who become homeless. This year, McClernand is providing that service to between five and 10 students. As an extension of that, District 186 is allowing students who are forced to move out of McClernand’s residence boundaries to remain at McClernand if their parents can provide transportation for them. This year, of about 30 transfers into the school, 21 of them are students who were attending McClernand already but whose families moved outside of McClernand’s regular boundaries.

On top of mobility problems, McClernand is dealing with an extremely high low-income rate, which can manifest as poor student behavior and a lack of parental involvement. Supported by the district, McClernand understands that parents aren’t always able to overcome on their own the obstacles presented by their economic status, so the school is working on multiple fronts to help students as well as their parents.

Parent educator Nicolette Lovingood, who splits her time between McClernand and Wanless Elementary School, works to keep parents involved by checking in with them either by phone or a home visit. If parents need a ride to a parent-teacher conference, she makes sure they have one. If a child shows up to school sleepy and hungry, she finds out why and figures out a way to help parents make the situation better.

“If you provide a good support system for the parent, especially if they really want it, the child tends to do better,” Lovingood says. “The parent tends to focus more on what the child needs because their own needs are also being met, and then the child does better in school.”

click to enlarge From left, Rachel Knott, volunteer Cindy Murphy from Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault, Terriaunna Brown, Dejuana Cooper, Raynesha Nolden, Brandy Doud, Addison Greff and Kalyn Thomas get together over lunch for a Girl Power Hour. - PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
From left, Rachel Knott, volunteer Cindy Murphy from Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault, Terriaunna Brown, Dejuana Cooper, Raynesha Nolden, Brandy Doud, Addison Greff and Kalyn Thomas get together over lunch for a Girl Power Hour.

Community partners like Eastside Pride and Grace Lutheran Church help the school meet those needs by providing food baskets when school is out and warm clothing when the weather turns cold. Those and other organizations and individuals are also vital to the school for providing mentoring and tutoring opportunities for students having trouble keeping up with their schoolwork.

Since she came to the school three years ago, Lovingood has built community partnerships to bring to the school lunch-time programs like PAVE (Project Anti-Violence Education) and Girl Power Hour, which teach girls about self-esteem, and a life skills class for fourth- and fifth-grade boys through the Triangle Center.

In addition, the school sends 15 students to the district’s Saturday school program held five weekends each year at Harvard Park Elementary. For two and a half hours, students receive an education disguised as fun. One Saturday, for instance, they built a recipe. While it was fun, they were also learning critical thinking, math and reading skills.

Another district-wide program that McClernand is taking full advantage of is F.A.C.E. (Family and Community Engagement), in which schools each build a team of parents who meet with school administrators to weigh in on school issues and organize programs designed to bring families and community members into the schools, thus paving the way for education to extend into students’ home lives. For McClernand, its F.A.C.E. team is the closest thing it has to a Parent Teacher Organization (P.T.O.).

Partnering with the Springfield Urban League and the Boys and Girls Club, the school also hosts 21st Century Learning, an after-school program funded by the federal government. About 80 students are enrolled in the program and receive an hour of tutoring every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, before spending another hour gaining exposure to new activities, like volleyball or karate.

“It takes a lot of time to get all these things and it takes a lot of peoples’ time and energy and resources to get everything set up, but we’re dedicated and that’s the key – having that great staff,” Principal Jennifer Gill says, including volunteers and outside organizations in her definition of “staff.”

While community support is an essential element in McClernand’s recent academic success, the primary factor in a successful school is good classroom instruction provided by quality teachers, who are supported by quality leaders such as Gill.

“The teaching is done with great skill and fidelity,” says Kathy Crum, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “The big change that they’ve done is to have really focused intervention blocks in their school. It’s all hands on deck there when the kids are in intervention block.” Intervention blocks are set periods during the day in which academically struggling students break off from the rest of the class to receive individual instruction tailored to their needs.

Every six to eight weeks, McClernand sends substitute teachers into the classrooms to give regular teachers time to analyze data about each student’s academic performance. If they find that a student hasn’t improved in a subject, teachers look for new ways of teaching that topic and reaching that student. The process is generally referred to as intervention, or response to intervention (RTI), a method focused on early detection and correction.

“They (teachers) are just willing to try things and if that doesn’t work, they’ll try something different,” Crum says. The focus on intervention is so strong and students feel the benefits so much that they’re eager for that part of their day, she adds.

Marie Schroeder’s third-grade grandson transferred to McClernand as a second grader. When he first arrived, he could only read 16 words per minute. After a year of specialized intervention – 30 minutes of additional reading every day and a private tutor paid for by the school with federal funding – her grandson was reading 98 words per minute. “It was a partnership between the school, tutoring the school district offered and the work at home,” Shroeder says.

click to enlarge Principal Jennifer Gill arrived at McClernand Elementary School in fall of 2008. - PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
Principal Jennifer Gill arrived at McClernand Elementary School in fall of 2008.

Schroeder appreciates the welcoming atmosphere the school exudes. About a decade ago, she transferred her own children out of McClernand, in part because she didn’t feel like her efforts to be more involved were welcome. That’s certainly not the case any more.

“Their policy is [for parents] to drop in at any time, and I do,” Schroeder says. “When you walk in the door, someone always greets you. The principal knows your name. All of the teachers are very responsive.”

She lists a number of programs – such as Muffins with Mom, in which mothers can eat breakfast with their child at school – that provide some parents with an opportunity to view school in a new light.

“I think in low-income schools, a lot of parents had a not-so-good experience at school themselves, so it’s hard to get them in the door. They’re afraid to come in,” Schroeder says about lack of parent involvement. “Once they get in and see how it is, they come back. The problem is we have to get them in the door first.”

With that in mind, Gill says one of the benefits of after-school programs that provide both academic and recreational activities, such as 21st Century Learning, is that parents have to come in to pick up their children. “So they’re getting a personal connection with our school every day when they are greeted by staff and have time to look at the things we have posted in the hallways,” Gill says.

Being better neighbors
Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, is a retired teacher and lives just a stone’s throw away from McClernand Elementary School, but he admits that in his drive to turn the neighborhood around he’s completely neglected the school. It was only after his organization this past fall unveiled a new master redevelopment plan for the blighted neighborhood that he realized a neighborhood rebirth is largely dependent on McClernand’s success.

Combs wants to increase the number of families that own homes in the area and that will take pride in their property. In recent decades, many single-family homes have been converted into multi-family residences, which now make up about 38 percent of Enos Park’s housing stock. Combs says that, in order to keep home-owning families in neighborhoods like Enos Park, the school systems have to provide what those families want – a great education.

“Somehow, some way, our efforts to improve the housing stock have to be complemented by whatever we can do to help improve the educational environment in our neighborhood and the city proper. That’s what’s driving us to be a partner with and a better neighbor to McClernand,” Combs says.

Combs isn’t sure yet what that will entail, but Gill is already hoping to partner with the association during its annual neighborhood walk of historic houses. Opening the school during such events is just another way to connect to the community and build pride in the school.

“We’re the heart of the community,” Gill says about McClernand School. “People can choose to go to a charter school, they can choose to go to a school that might have a different theme or need, and neighborhood schools are just one piece of that pie. I think that this school is a great neighborhood school and that’s what we want to be.”

Contact Rachel Wells at

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