Best Elementary Schools: Six Great Schools

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

A student raising his hand at Leland Elementary School
A student raises his hand at Leland Elementary School
 

WILL COUNTY
LINCOLN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
(PLAINFIELD)

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Illinois’s Budget Crisis Leaves Schools Scrambling »
Educators are working to cut costs—without cutting classroom programs

Methodology »
How we ranked the schools. PLUS: A guide to the columns in the charts

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.

 

COOK COUNTY
JOSEPH SEARS SCHOOL
(KENILWORTH)

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

 

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.”

 

 

DUPAGE COUNTY
PARK VIEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
(LOMBARD)

Educating children doesn’t simply mean turning out reading-and-writing machines. It’s about preparing them to thrive as adults, a philosophy most clearly made manifest at Park View Elementary School in Lombard, where the principal, Roberta Wallerstedt, articulates a trio of specific goals. “We want our students to succeed in three areas: academics, social/emotional, and physical,” she says. “You need growth on all three, because a child who is not happy on the [latter] two is not going to do [his or her] best in the classroom. If they feel good about themselves, it’s easier [for them] to feel they can succeed at school.”

Teachers, reading specialists, and other educators closely follow each child’s academic progress, Wallerstedt says, and that is supplemented with similar attention paid to the other two areas. On the social and emotional front, she explains, “our goal is to prevent alienation and promote friendship.” Three times a year, students complete a questionnaire about how they feel socially. Those who feel they are drifting are tapped for leadership roles “so other kids start to interact with them in more positive ways,” Wallerstedt says.

Concurrently, every Park View student has physical fitness goals. These include improving aerobic capacity every month, as well as increasing strength, endurance, and flexibility. “Kids can see and feel their improvement,” says Wallerstedt, “and it makes them want to improve even more.”

 

KANE COUNTY
GENEVA MIDDLE SCHOOLS (NORTH AND SOUTH)
(GENEVA)

Geneva’s middle schools took the top two spots on our Kane County chart, and that’s really no surprise. Not only do the two schools stand next to each other on Viking Drive—while configured as separate schools to keep them at a manageable size, they are essentially two halves of one institution—but they benefit from District 304’s steady focus on students’ needs.

“We pay attention to the data we have and really drill down to get at what [students] need to help them make progress,” says Patty O’Neil, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum. “Data [come] in lots of forms; [they] can be standardized test scores, teacher observations, student performance in class—all sorts of things.”

Teachers and administrators gather regularly to study that data and find students’ weak spots. In math, for example, they might discover some students who aren’t picking up on decimals or fractions. The educators then put their heads together to devise a solution, be it tutoring, taking more time on lessons, or working with smaller groups of students. “We will find something that helps them make the progress we want to see,” O’Neil says.

That kind of focus results in high test scores—96.5 percent of South’s students and 95.5 percent of North’s meet or exceed state standards—but as O’Neil sees it, there is an even bigger payoff. Not only do students gain the confidence to take on academic challenges—“They’re willing to take chances and push themselves,” she says—but they develop an assurance they can carry with them through their lives. “We want students to have every opportunity available to them,” she adds.

Five other District 304 schools finished below the middle schools, giving Geneva a solid top-of-county position in both our quality rankings. For efficiency, the two middle schools and two of the district’s elementary schools got As, but three of its elementary schools landed only Bs because their test scores were slightly lower.

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