The A+ Team: Standouts

NOTE: This story appeared in our October 2006 issue. For the latest data, see our October 2010 story.

by Dennis Rodkin

Braeside: Weather Report

If you’re a student at Braeside Elementary School in Highland Park, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. That’s because you can always stop by the weather monitoring computer station outside Larry Hiler’s second-grade classroom. There you’ll find the latest data from the school’s weather station, showing not only the wind’s direction but also its speed as well as the temperature and the day’s rain or snow total, if any.

Hiler uses data from the three-year-old rooftop weather station (purchased for about $2,500 with a grant from the school’s parent-teacher organization) in various ways. His students graph daily high and low temperatures, write their compositions on subjects such as wind chill, and learn weather-related vocabulary words. In winter, they regularly report the temperature to the school office, so the principal can determine whether students will play outside that day.

“Kids are really curious about the weather and they’re aware that it affects their lives every day,” says Hiler, a lifelong weather buff because of his childhood in a Michigan farming community, where the weather really mattered. “So when you bring it into the classroom, they’re interested.” It also forges a strong connection between home and school. “Parents always tell me that within a month of coming into my classroom, their kids start running down the driveway in the morning to get the newspaper and start reading the weather page,” Hiler says.

Parents see Hiler’s fascination with the weather as characteristic of the warm atmosphere that pervades Braeside. “Teachers here are encouraged to pursue their own passions and bring them to school,” says Paula Canchester. That goes not only for Hiler but for the third-grade teacher who’s into opera and the school librarian, who’s an accomplished storyteller—a sort of vocal folk artist. “If you let teachers go with their gifts and you give them great material to work with, they return it,” Canchester says. Her kids prove it every time they pass the school on weekends and identify several teachers’ cars parked outside. “We know they’re dedicated to working with our kids,” she says.

Dedication may be easier to cultivate in an affluent district like Highland Park, where the average teacher salary is $67,874, the highest in Lake County and fifth highest in the region (four districts in DuPage County top the salary ranks) and the average class size in first grade is 16, among the lowest in the county. Together, those numbers mean teachers in the affluent North Shore town get a very teachable setting (not too many kids) and are rewarded well for their work.

But Hiler says that on top of the gifts a community’s affluence brings, “teachers here feel like they’re invested in the community. There are opportunities to shape curriculum and experiment. You feel extremely supported.”

Braeside Elementary School: 150 Pierce Rd., Highland Park; 847-433-0155, www.nssd112.org/braeside

Lake Forest: Star Tech

When Lake Forest Country Day School’s 430 students return from their summer vacations in September, they’ll notice some changes. The main school building’s 160,000-square-foot addition was completed over the summer, part of a $19-million facility upgrade that also includes a high-tech component that puts the school’s first- through eighth-grade classrooms on the leading edge of school technology, out where even some colleges haven’t yet arrived.

The private school (tuition: $10,500 to $17,500, depending on the grade) spent about $500,000 to make the entire campus a wireless zone and install an innovative combination of tablet PCs and LCD projectors in 33 classrooms. Think of the devices as multimedia, multi-input, interactive descendants of the chalkboard. While roaming the classroom, a teacher equipped with a wireless tablet PC can handwrite an equation, call up prepared lecture notes, or access a Web site or video and then beam it via the LCD projector onto a wall-size screen.

“It’s not a shiny toy,” says Mara Grujanac, the school’s technology curriculum coordinator. “The idea is to give our teachers a tool that enhances what they already do.” If a teacher is talking about the Holocaust, for instance, and a child asks what the camps looked like, the teacher can call up photos, video, and other images on the spot. “It’s not the teacher saying, ‘I’ll find some pictures and show them to you tomorrow,’” Grujanac says. “It’s ‘Right now, right here in this moment, let’s explore the things you’re asking about.’”

Unlike notes on a chalkboard that get erased later, the notes and other images used in class can be available later for students who were absent or even for parents who want to review a lesson, explains Keith Gillette, director of information technology for the school. “This breaks down some of the classroom walls,” Grujanac says.

Advanced technology is nothing new at Lake Forest Country Day. Wireless PCs are deployed around the school for use by classes and also for checkout by students working on projects outside of class time. There’s also the robotics program that is integral to the science curriculum from kindergarten on up. Kindergartners use “turtles,” or little round wheeled robots, to measure distances in the classroom and hallways. At higher levels, kids participate in a national robotic design challenge. “It’s a technology-rich environment here,” Gillette says.

Lake Forest Country Day School: 145 S. Green Bay Rd., Lake Forest; 847-234-2350, www.lfcds.org

Edgebrook: Grade Inflation

Two decades ago, most students at Edgebrook Elementary School on the city’s Northwest Side came by bus from other neighborhoods. It wasn’t that the surrounding neighborhood, a leafy enclave of lovely homes on quiet streets, lacked children; but many local parents preferred to send their kids to parochial schools, where they could get a better education. Then Diane Maciejewski moved into the principal’s office. Maciejewski set about trying to convince local parents that Edgebrook could work for their children. She gradually reshaped the teaching staff, pulling in people dedicated to rigorous education, and together they established a solid program. It includes pre-algebra in sixth grade—before most other neighborhood Chicago public schools teach it; 45 extra minutes a day of algebra for eighth graders; and an “integrated curriculum” in which reading, math, social studies, music, and other subjects revolve around common topics, each reinforcing lessons learned in the others.

Maciejewski retired over the summer, but her successor, Janice Kepka, intends to carry on with what Maciejewski started. “We expect a lot from our kids here,” says Kepka. “They have accelerated reading, writing, and math available to them from the beginning.”

Local parents have taken notice of the improvements. This fall Edgebrook is so full, largely with neighborhood kids, that it is adding four temporary classrooms. Parents raise money each year to pay half the salary of a full-time science and writing aide. And on last year’s state report card, more students at Edgebrook met or exceeded state standards on tests than at any other neighborhood school in the city. The city schools that scored higher were all gifted-specialty campuses, whose students were upper intellects.

Edgebrook has done all this “despite huge class sizes,” Kepka says. Last year’s first grade had 38 students in one classroom, probably too many to get the intensive teacher attention children at that age need. This year’s first grade has 60 students in two classrooms. Much of the increase from last year can be attributed to the school’s spreading reputation in the community. These days, parents “clamor to get into the neighborhood so their kids can go to Edgebrook,” Kepka says.

Edgebrook Elementary School: 6525 N. Hiawatha Ave., Chicago; 773-534-1194, www.edgebrook.cps.k12.il.us

Northbrook: It’s Academic

Talented teachers get into the profession because they value learning, so you can figure that giving them ample opportunities to advance their own education will pay off in the classroom. That’s being proved at Northbrook’s School Districts 27 and 30, each with multiple schools in the top 20 on our Cook County chart. In both districts, teaching teachers is a major thrust. “We believe fundamentally that if you’re better educated, you’re going to provide better education to children in the classroom,” says David Kroeze, superintendent at District 27. “So it’s critical that you invest in your teachers, that you create an environment where they are constantly learning.”

Teacher advancement is an all-out campaign in District 27, in northwest Northbrook. The district allocates 4 percent of its annual budget to professional development for teachers; according to its own study, three comparable local districts all spend less than 2 percent. In the past five years, the district has increased the number of professional development days for teachers from four (which is typical of comparable districts) to seven. And the district’s teacher salaries are tied to the teacher’s education level in an unusual way. In essence, teachers with only bachelor’s degrees hit a pay ceiling at ten years. The aim is to encourage all teachers to upgrade to master’s degrees and, after 17 years, to further degrees. The idea is to ensure that the district’s teachers are always out front, bringing home the best new ideas on how to get through to children. “Where you have strong adult learning, you’ll have strong student learning,” says Richard Streedain, of National-Louis University.

The results are evident: Kroeze says that for many years, roughly 60 to 65 percent of his district’s eighth-grade students scored in the top quartile on standardized math tests. After the district emphasized training in math-teaching skills from 1998 to 1999, that figure popped into the middle 70s, where it has remained.

In the adjacent School District 30, each teacher gets at least $400 a year to spend on professional growth. The teachers are “always bringing in ideas that lead the way,” says superintendent Linda Vieth, such as asking for training on how to incorporate digital cameras, iMovies, and PDA note-taking into the classroom.

Northbrook School District 27: 847-498-2610, www.northbrook27.k12.il.us. Northbrook School District 30: 847-498-4190, www.district30.k12.il.us

Lenart: Junior Achievement

Aaron Gray was a bright kid, smart enough to land a spot at one of the elite gifted specialty campuses of the Chicago Public School system, but his teachers weren’t satisfied with that. Being smart wasn’t enough, they told him repeatedly. “They harped on it, that it’s not just about your academic record,” he recalls. “You have to be good at a number of things to be successful in life.”

The teachers at Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center “rewarded and honored and recognized your academic achievements,” says Gray, now 25 and working in Los Angeles in a business-development role for the movie ticket company Fandango while applying to some of the nation’s top-ranked MBA programs. “But they also emphasized to you that the other things you do, behavior-wise, affect where you go in life.”

At Lenart, located at 81st and LaSalle streets, “we have accepted that we don’t only educate kids,” says principal JoAnna Theodore. “We are their mother, their doctor, and their lawyer.”

When she was a classroom teacher at Lenart, Theodore was big on giving out gum for kids to chew on; now there’s a bowl of candy on the front office counter. “As adults, we do these things without permission,” she says, “so I think children can be allowed to do these little things that make them feel their own independence, not always look to adults for direction.”

At a school populated by high-octane intellects, she says, it’s essential that the atmosphere be relatively carefree so kids don’t get the impression they have to live up to painfully high standards just because of their academic gifts. “People come in expecting to see our kids all lined up in straight rows, marching down the hall silently,” Theodore says. “But these are children. They make noise, and they’re not going to stay in order. They don’t have to here.”

Lenart Regional Gifted Center: 8101 S. LaSalle St., Chicago; 773-535-0040, www.lenart.cps.k12.il.us

Spring Avenue: Parent Power

Teachers are the fundamental educational resource in any school, but at Spring Avenue Elementary School in La Grange, students and parents pitch in, too. Kindergartners help teach one another phonics, the basic sounds that make up words. The children partner up and coach each other through recognition of building-block sounds, explains Elizabeth Webb Peterman, the school principal. “In the old days, the teacher would do ‘Ah, ah, ah; ay, ay, ay,’” she says. “The kids were just repeating it and you hoped they were applying it.” Now, led by their teacher, Spring Avenue’s K-Pals, as they’re called, nudge each other to identify the different sounds “a” can make.

A writing consultant, Peterman says, “I would have said this was a stretch for kindergartners, but these kids are coaching one another to the point of mastering the concept.” In the process, some of the learning has nothing to do with phonics; instead, it’s about working together, problem solving, citizenship.

When Celeste Pearson enrolled her son in kindergarten at Spring Avenue last year, she wanted to get involved and wound up running an afterschool science program for kindergartners. It was a logical place for the Midwestern University science professor to put in her volunteer time, and one of a couple dozen afterschool programs taught by Spring Avenue parents. “It’s not unusual around here for parents to offer their expertise to the school,” she says. “The woman across the street teaches art, and a man down the street teaches ceramics.” Pearson taught kids to make slime out of water, Elmer’s Glue, and borax, and had them measure the different strengths of sunscreen on little beads left in the sun.

The kids had fun, and school officials tapped Pearson’s scientific knowledge for an unusual project: vetting new science textbooks. A committee of teachers had already narrowed the range of options to a few possibilities, which they then handed off to Pearson. “I reviewed the textbooks for their scientific content, whether or nor their statements were correct science,” she says. The book she chose was adopted for use this school year. Peterman says parents with expertise in other academic realms may get the nod to do the same later.

Spring Avenue Elementary School: 708-482-2710, www.edline.net/pages/Spring_Ave_Elementary_School. La Grange School District 105: 708-482-2700, www.edline.net/pages/LaGrange_School_District

NOTE: This story appeared in our October 2006 issue. For the latest data, see our October 2010 story.

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The A+ Team

The A+ Team: How We Ranked Them

The A+ Team: Standouts