Parker Junior High School was labeled as underperforming for the 2018-19 school year based on low-income and special education students falling below Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) standards.
The Flossmoor District 161 school board on Nov. 13 discussed the state’s designation but struggled to identify a specific issue that might have led to a decline in those students’ performances.
Board President Michelle Hoereth called the rating “disturbing on many, many levels” and urged fellow board members to be forthcoming about possible problems.
“This didn’t happen overnight, so I want to make sure we have a candid conversation about how we can move forward from this, and it’s not just one solution,” she said. “There is no magic bullet.”
The ESSA is a federal law passed in 2015 that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and shifted accountability for elementary and secondary education to the states.
Illinois announced 2018-19 ESSA designations for each of its schools on Oct. 31, with four possible ratings: exemplary, commendable, underperforming or lowest performing.
The ratings take student success and school quality factors into account, such as standardized test scores, year-to-year student growth and chronic absenteeism.
All four District 161 elementary schools were designated as commendable, meaning no subgroups performed at or below the lowest 5 percent of students in Title I schools, and the graduation rate is higher than 67 percent.
To receive the best designation of exemplary, a school would have to meet those standards while also performing in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.
The underperforming designation means one or more subgroups are performing at or below the lowest 5 percent of students in Title I schools. At Parker, the two underperforming subgroups are students from low-income backgrounds and those with individualized education plans (IEPs).
Superintendent Dana Smith said he is unable to identify any red flags that would indicate why some Parker students are no longer meeting standards.
“The data is absolutely alarming,” he said. “Systematically and practice-wise, there is nothing that sticks out and says this is why our students aren’t growing at a level that we would expect.”
Board member Stephen Paredes said planning for changes should also be seen as an opportunity to make an impact on underperforming groups.
“I know the tone is it’s not great news, but I think in terms of the pragmatic realities of improving the schools, I think that this is going to turn out to be excellent,” he said.
Board member Carolyn Griggs said the board and administration should consider multiple perspectives as they try to answer questions about how to improve, including hearing parents’ perspectives.
“While I’m excited that the Parker administrative team will tackle this now, I also realize that a lot of transparent input will be required to even begin to unravel some of the pitfalls that we’re perpetuating,” Griggs said.
Griggs also suggested looking at low-income and special education students who are high achieving to determine what practices are working.
Board member Merle Huckabee posed questions about several issues, like whether students with special needs are receiving accommodations for standardized testing and if teacher vacancies could be contributing to problems in the classroom.
“I guess what I’m really looking to find out is what is contributing to the decline, because we should be moving forward,” Huckabee said.
Hoereth said she feels frustrated that the board has some of the same conversations every year, but she never seems to walk away understanding the issues better.
“There is a sense of urgency that needs to be exercised here,” she said. “I don’t want us to create a new normal, because this data is not OK.”
Smith said he does not expect any major shifts in the district’s practices will result when the new data is incorporated into school improvement plans.
“We didn’t get here by jerking the wheel, right?” Smith asked. “As we’re steering our way through this, we didn’t get here by rash decisionmaking out of thin air.”
Smith added that each school has an annual improvement plan and that Parker’s plan will be utilized in addressing the new data.
The school improvement plans cover four main goals: literacy, math, achievement gaps such as low income or special education, and school climate, he said.
The current plans were developed over the summer using 2017-18 data and have been in effect since the beginning of this school year, Smith said.
Smith reviewed deadlines the district will have to meet in responding to the ESSA rating.
He said he applied for the current school year to be a planning year with three implementation years to follow, so the district will have four years total dedicated to addressing issues at Parker.
District officials will have until Jan. 31 to fill out an Illinois Balanced Accountability Measure form that asks critical questions such as “How does our district and school climate support all students and staff members?” and “How do students perceive their classroom learning environment?”
A final work plan will be due Feb. 28, and the district can apply for a state grant of $15,000 to implement it.