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Donation of up to $200,000 for Serena Hills Smartlab announced

Serena Hills School alumnus Allan DiCastro has made another sizeable donation to the elementary school from which he graduated four decades ago.

DiCastro is donating up to $200,000 to fund a “Smartlab” at the school, one of five campuses in Flossmoor District 161. District officials announced the gift at the July 10 board of education meeting.

DiCastro, who now lives in Los Angeles, has been working with for about two years with the district’s STEAM Committee about creating the lab. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Addressing an issue identified by the board last month, Superintendent Dana Smith said the Serena Hills project will serve as a pilot program for other schools in the district. Meanwhile, the administration will seek in-district partners and other benefactors in an effort to expand the program should it be deemed successful.

The Serena Hills Smartlab will involve the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, innovation and communication skills. This includes students’ exposure to robotics, circuitry, computer graphics, publishing and their use of various media.

DiCastro made a $25,000 donation to Serena Hills in December 2015. Following the first donation, DiCastro told the H-F Chronicle that “experiences in that school made me feel I could achieve what anyone else could.” 

After graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School and college, DiCastro worked for a while in the Chicago area, later moving to California, where he had a successful 20-year career in finance. He led an award-winning organization as a community activist in his Los Angeles neighborhood. Today, he is co-founder of a thriving, nationally recognized arts center and educational foundation.

Board members also learned at the meeting that Heather Hills School is benefiting from donations geared toward STEM programs. The school is receiving an Energizing Student Potential grant from various organizations in the energy industry.  The Exelon Foundation, ComEd, Nicor Gas, Peoples Gas, North Shore Gas and BP America have partnered with the National Energy Education Development Project to bring STEM learning opportunities to grade schools in Illinois and Indiana. The ESP grants are designed to help schools meet Next Generation Science Standards.

Heather Hill will receive a $500 grant to support its STEM challenge and $3,000 for hands-on kits and curriculum. Related activities include an energy fair and carnival at the school, classroom visits, field trips, professional development and end-of-school year celebrations.

In other business, Haley Marti, principal of the district’s Summer Academy, told the board that this year’s summer school session has been a success. 

Marti told the board she will later provide a more detailed report on the academic outcomes and feedback surveys involving the 376 participating students. 
“The students have been engaged, there’s been excitement and a lot of learning,” she said. The summer classes have taken place at Serena Hills School.

Summer Academy students range from early childhood to eighth grade.  The curriculum included English learners, a mathematics virtual program involving 78 students with 23 enrolled in pre-algebra, the Language Stars program for 79 students taking Spanish or Mandarin and occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services for 58 students.

“Summer Academy students included those who needed some help and those who want to get a little bit ahead,” Marti explained.

A celebration of the Summer Academy students is scheduled for July 27.

Also at the meeting, the board approved the expenditure of $6,210 to National Investigations, Inc. to complete residency investigations for this year when it is suspected a family has registered but does not live within the boundaries of District 161.

 Since the beginning of the year the administration has twice recommended a more complex arrangement with the firm to check the residency status of students’ families on an ongoing basis. At that time some board members expressed concern about the use of address information on file with credit bureaus as part of verifying residency.

Two weeks after hearing details about a state-mandated testing of lead in water in elementary schools, the board approved a contract for $9,700 with Hygieneering, Inc. to conduct the testing by the end of 2017. All buildings in the district will be included in the tests.

The board also established two committees to work on finances and budget and community engagement. It is possible other committees will be formed later based on the effectiveness of the new committees.


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