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2016 Best Public Schools
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The Innovators

5 schools and districts that are leading the way

Photo: Courtesy of CPS

Portage Park

William P. Gray Elementary School

When former principal Sandra Carlson adopted Teach to One: Math, an individualized math-education program, at Gray four years ago, the transition was bumpy at first. And not just because teachers had to learn a new system that allows middle-school-level students to learn traditionally, online with virtual instructors, independently with software or print materials, or collaboratively from each other. 

“The biggest obstacle was that the program wasn’t very well geared to English learners and kids with special needs,” says current principal Susan Gross. The student population at this school on the Near Northwest Side is 14 percent special needs, 23 percent limited English, and 87 percent low income.

But the school’s faculty and PTO got together to make it work. “We brought in bilingual and special ed teachers to better differentiate the program,” says Gross. The notion behind Teach to One is that with a tailored approach to learning, students will be more engaged and teachers can more effectively identify weaknesses in individuals.

The switch “has resulted in incredible scores,” says Gross. In 2011–12, Gray’s eighth-grade math attainment (the share of students reaching expected levels) was 45 percent. In 2014–15 it jumped to 64 percent.

Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

North Center

Albert G. Lane Technical High School

The digital-manufacturing revolution is transforming the way things are made, from aerospace components to consumer products, with 3D printing and desktop prototyping placing more power than ever in the hands of individual “makers.” The faculty at Lane Tech wants its graduates to be ready to ride that wave.

In 2013, Lane became the first CPS school with a maker lab. Students use tools such as laser cutters, design software, and 3D printers to design and create functional objects, from musical instruments to skateboards. The assistant principal, Damir Ara, says that Lane hopes to bring nanotechnology and aerospace dynamics into the lab curriculum in a few years. And to diversify a traditionally male-dominated field, the school began recruiting female computer science teachers. Now girls make up nearly 25 percent of Lane Tech students taking elective computer science, nearly double the level in 2014. 

Overall, a broader range of students are excelling in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) areas. What’s more, in the last three years, says Ara, ACT science scores at Lane reflected the type of growth normally seen over the span of eight to 10 years. “The typical gain would be 0.1. We jumped nearly two full points.” 

Photo: Theresa Bollinger

Chicago Ridge

Ridge Central Elementary

In 2010, administrators at Ridge Central, a school where 69 percent of the students are low income and 22 percent are English learners, were struggling to find a way to improve test scores. After observing how students took the exams, teachers concluded that to improve performance in all core subjects, they had to focus mostly on just one: reading. “We know that if our students can’t read, they can’t do their math,” says Principal Terri Bollinger—certainly not when they are struggling to comprehend instructions or word problems.


So the school applied a “push-in, pull-out” model—sometimes used in ESL and special education—to reading instruction. The “push-in” approach entails sending reading specialists into classrooms to help lagging students understand the lessons. Occasionally, students can be “pulled out” of scheduled classes to get support with things like vocabulary and comprehension. Those students miss some class time, but by returning with improved reading skills, they ultimately come out ahead. Ridge Central also hired additional teachers who are bilingual—fluent in Arabic, Spanish, or Polish—to support its ESL students.

The result: Ridge Central’s test scores jumped so dramatically from 2013–14 to 2014–15 that the website School Digger, which rates schools based on PARCC and ISAT scores, ranked the school among the 25 most improved in Illinois.

Photo: Brian O’Mahoney/Pioneer Press

Arlington Heights

John Hersey High School

In the late 1990s, literature teacher Charles Venegoni (now retired) looked at the way English was being taught at Hersey and saw something missing. Who, for instance, was teaching students how to read nonfiction? That genre was getting lost in the shuffle, with the English department focusing mostly on literary fiction, poetry, and theater. 

With the support of other faculty members, Venegoni helped implement a broad-based, forum style of teaching, in the tradition of college lectures. The innovation has since been adapted to combine different subjects into single extended lessons. A few times a month, students meet in the school’s theater to learn from several departments at once. 

If students are studying Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, the novel is just the beginning. “Then our social science department comes in and does a presentation on the details of what Romania was like at the time the book was written,” says District 214 superintendent David Schuler, who notes that the shift was popular with teachers and students alike. 

The result, he says, was a level of analysis and information processing “way beyond what is happening in most high schools.” Since the implementation, the number of students taking AP exams has doubled, with 81 percent of them passing. “It’s just outstanding,” says Schuler. “Hersey is now a high-performing school. It wasn’t always that way.” 

Photo: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune


Barrington Elementary Schools

Guided by the belief that it’s never too early to teach kids good business sense, last year Barrington’s school district started a program called Fresh INC Marketplace for five of its eight elementary schools. 

During a series of 18 lessons on topics like creating a business model and pricing, groups of fifth graders were each given $50 to form their own businesses and sell products and services through an e-commerce platform similar to Etsy’s. Members of the community could buy items such as backpack support pads, dog collars made from recycled belts, or tickets to an arts-and-crafts club that met during recess. 

While not every company turned a profit, “at least 75 percent of our groups were incredibly successful; many sold out completely,” says Becky Wiegel, the district’s elementary education director. After six weeks, the classrooms boasted a $4,000 profit. Students voted on how to allocate the money: Some was donated to charity, and some was reinvested for next year’s businesses. 

In addition to raising money and getting feedback from mentors in the Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce, the students picked up valuable skills, including bookkeeping and public speaking, according to Wiegel. “They really learned about what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” she says. The program will soon be implemented in all district elementary schools.


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