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Best Elementary Schools: Six Great Schools

A look inside some schools that performed well on our charts.

(page 2 of 3)

McHENRY COUNTY
CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT 158
(ALGONQUIN AND HUNTLEY)

The state’s continuing problems with funding schools have meant that supporting teachers is tougher to do in some school districts. But treat your teachers well, says John Burkey, the superintendent of Consolidated School District 158, and they will return the favor.

After a decade of rapid growth, District 158 began to struggle with reduced funding last year. Some budget cuts were “draconian,” Burkey admits, but the goal was always to keep them from reaching classrooms. “The classroom is the center of what we do,” he says.

Among the cuts was a diminished custodial schedule. To save $500,000, the district reduced the frequency of nighttime janitorial work. Now classrooms don’t get cleaned as often, and most teachers must put their trash cans in the hall at the end of the day so janitors don’t waste time going into classrooms. How are teachers responding? “Actually, there are some teachers who have started vacuuming their own rooms,” Burkey says. That’s a sign of a fulfilled employee: someone who picks up the slack when times are tough.

It’s not hard to see why some teachers in District 158’s schools, such as high-scoring Conley Elementary (92.3 percent meet or exceed state standards) and Heineman Middle School (94.5 percent), would be willing to pitch in. Innovation surrounds them. The district has a stated goal to foster a lifelong love of learning in its pupils, and, toward that end, it retooled the curriculum for grades K–2 to make reading central. Kindergartners have sight words and other reading tools to get them started, literacy leaders coach all first graders, the library has been turned into the literacy center and staffed with reading specialists, and there is a 90-minute literacy block during each school day.

“It’s more than a [single] program; it’s a philosophy,” says Mary Olson, the district’s curriculum director. “The whole school community is about everybody reading and becoming a better reader. If we can do this, we make learning so much more exciting for the kids as they go on up through the grades.”

This emphasis on literacy occurs at all district schools, including Chesak in Lake in the Hills and Mackeben in Algonquin, which didn’t rate well on our charts because of a technicality. (With no grade levels that take standardized tests, they have no scores to report, which negatively impacts their ranking on the charts.) But if the early emphasis on literacy is as effective as Olson anticipates, the commendable test scores at District 158 should get even better as today’s students move into higher grades.

 

LAKE COUNTY
ISAAC FOX ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
(LAKE ZURICH)

A similar reading-rabid attitude prevails at Isaac Fox Elementary School in Lake Zurich. “Every activity here is literacy based versus work sheets and busy work,” says Jill Brooks, the school’s principal. “Even when a small group [of students] is not [receiving] the teacher’s focus, they are reading, listening to a friend reading, or working on the computer.”

Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 spends thousands of dollars less per pupil than Lake County’s biggest-spending school districts, Rondout School District 72 and North Shore School District 112. Yet the same proportion of Isaac Fox’s students—97.7 percent—meet or exceed state standards on tests as at Rondout Elementary School, west of Lake Forest, and they surpass every one of District 112’s schools. Fox’s test scores were a full ten points lower less than a decade ago, says Michael Egan, the District 95 superintendent. “Emphasizing literacy as the key to real learning is what changed that for us,” he says.

Of the 164 Lake County schools on our online charts, Fox ranked 26th, just a little too low to earn a spot in the magazine. We determined rankings in part by how much money a school district spends per pupil—usually a strong indicator of school quality. District 95, which includes the Fox school, spent $5,959 per pupil in the 2008–09 school year, about $1,000 less than the amount spent at Daniel Wright Junior High School, the county’s top-ranked school. But with 97.7 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state standards—the same level achieved by students at Wright—Fox was the only school to score an A in efficiency among the county’s top 26 schools, a commendable achievement in these tough financial times. Other schools that didn’t show up in the magazine also fared well in our efficiency rankings; you can see all those grades on the more extensive charts at chicagomag.com.

Principal Brooks also stresses the importance of committed, experienced teachers. “You can have a million-dollar program, but if you don’t have excellent teachers, it’s not going to make a difference,” she says. Both she and Egan point to the quickness with which district teachers adopt methods identified as “best practices”—that is, educational techniques recognized as especially effective. At District 95, that means an intensified focus on writing because, Egan says, “it goes directly to reading improvement.”

Then there is the Daily Five, a national reading program introduced into the district by several Lake Zurich teachers. It emphasizes five basic things—reading to self, reading to someone else, listening to someone read, writing, and spelling—that school kids should do every day on their way to becoming strong learners. At Isaac Fox, every classroom from kindergarten up uses the Daily Five in some fashion. “Some of our teachers are very excited about it,” Brooks says. “They wanted to get away from work sheets that [students] aren’t learning from.”

The shift of emphasis to intensive reading and writing, says Egan, was subtle but effective. “We haven’t thrown a lot of money at it,” he says. “We’ve just tried to get better at what we do in terms of instruction.”

 

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