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A student raises his hand at Leland Elementary School
LINCOLN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
In contrast to Leland, Lincoln Elementary School, a K–5 campus, has 874 kids; test scores are averaged from a far larger number of individual test-takers and are less prone to fluctuate from year to year. Which is not to say that Lincoln’s teachers can put up their feet and coast. “We are constantly assessing how students are doing, and how we’re doing with them,” says Kelley Gallt.
Plainfield School District 202, home to nine top-ranked schools on our Will County list, expanded rapidly in the economic boom years of the 1990s. (See “Illinois’s Budget Crisis Leaves Schools Scrambling” to see how the district is adjusting to the state’s school funding crisis.) Thus, many of its schools and the teachers who work in them are relatively new. Plainfield teachers have, on average, 8.6 years of experience, compared with 12.1 in Frankfort Community Consolidated School District 157C and 10.2 in Joliet Public School District 86.
Gallt points out that the district makes up for that relative lack of experience with a culture of “strong mentoring.” Teachers regularly spend time in one another’s classrooms; that way, the newer teachers get insights into methods used by more senior teachers while receiving immediate feedback about their own fledgling efforts.
The district also employs an assortment of specialists—experts in reading, in multimedia, and in making school assignments to children based on their abilities—to augment what its teachers are doing. This helps mitigate the schools’ larger-than-average class sizes, which in some cases rise above 30. With the traffic of specialists through the classroom, children typically aren’t packed into one working group of 30 during their school day.
Teachers and specialists alike “are focused on student achievement,” Gallt says, and from the way Plainfield district schools dominate our Will County charts, that attitude seems to pay off handsomely.
JOSEPH SEARS SCHOOL
Educational specialists also help out at Kenilworth’s Joseph Sears School, where 96 percent of the students met or exceeded state standards on the 2009 tests. Latin teachers visit the third, fourth, and fifth grades twice a week; this is in addition to the daily world language study, either French or Spanish, that begins in kindergarten. Latin isn’t taught as another language but is “integrated into the curriculum,” says Kelley Kalinich, the superintendent of Kenilworth School District 38 (with a school population of 573 pre-K–8 students, Sears is the only grade school in Kenilworth). During a social-studies unit on the history of Chicago, for example, Latin teachers guide third graders through a discussion of the motto Urbs in horto (“City in a Garden”) on the city’s seal. In sixth grade, students can opt to switch from Spanish or French to Latin as their principal foreign language.
The Latin component is part of what Kalinich describes as a “liberal arts education,” a term that is more often used to refer to a college, not a grade school. And if it sounds like the sort of luxury that only an extraordinarily affluent school district could offer, keep this in mind: Kenilworth’s per-pupil spending is $9,438, certainly well above the $7,052 spent at Leland and other Chicago schools, but less than the $10,529 spent in nearby Northbrook School District 28.
Kenilworth’s teachers get extra education, too. Their work year ends a week after and begins a week before the students’ school year, and they spend those two extra weeks intently focused on new curriculum ideas and other innovations. (That’s in addition to the in-service days scattered through the school year.) This year, for instance, teachers spent a week in August looking at technological upgrades—every classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade has new interactive whiteboards, paid for by the parents’ volunteer organization—and at how to create a positive classroom culture.
“The quality of teacher performance is the top factor in student performance,” Kalinich explains. “So it just makes sense to provide all this support for your teachers.”
Photography: Katrina Wittkamp