RANTOUL – When Rantoul school board members tabled a proposal four years ago to make sweeping changes in their elementary schools, Superintendent Bill Trankina thought briefly about retiring.
"In 23 years, that was the only time the board chose to go in a different direction," Trankina said. "There's a saying that inaction is a form of action. I felt like the proposal was a valid approach to meeting students' needs. Those were dark days."
Trankina made up his mind to find other ways to reverse trends compromising the quality of education at some district schools.
"In the final analysis, I decided if it's about the kids, I needed to make more efforts, to write grants to bridge the gap, to see if we can do something else to improve test scores," he said.
Trankina brought up the idea again this past school year, and the current board approved it. When school opens this fall, grades kindergarten through 2 will be in two of the four elementaries and grades 3 through 5 will attend the other two. Each of the four elementaries used to house K through 5.
The change will put all students who take state achievement tests – grades 3-5 – where they can get intensive coaching.
"This will be a very positive thing for our community," board president Kevin Modglin said. "Where you live won't necessarily determine where you go to school. No single elementary can be viewed as better or worse because of its location. We hope all four schools will shine."
Before the vote in February, administrators, board members and staff members took a new look at their challenges, Trankina said, and how other schools approached them.
Among the challenges: Eastlawn Elementary hasn't made adequate yearly progress on reading tests for two years; and J.W. Eater Junior High hasn't hit the mark in reading or math for three. Pleasant Acres Elementary made it by the slimmest of margins last year.
Trankina said the district's population, always diverse because of Chanute Air Force Base, continues to diversify.
"Our demographic breakout now is about 3 to 4 percent Asian, 34 percent African-American, 5 to 8 percent Hispanic depending on the season, and the rest white," he said. "In the early '90s, we were typically about 6 percent Asian, 20 percent African-American and the rest white."
About 67 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a federal measure of poverty.
"We think our greatest obstacle is mobility," the frequency with which students move into or out of the district or individual schools, Trankina said. "It's about 30 to 35 percent. We've always had a high mobility rate because of the base, but it's increased – and so has poverty."
Trankina said before he made the current restructuring proposal, "I looked at systems with high poverty and high performance, schools with demographics similar to ours. Berwyn District 98 was one we identified."
In the Chicago suburb, teachers use a reading system recommended by St. Charles consultant Gretchen Courtney. Trankina and other district representatives visited Berwyn.
"It's called guided reading," he said. "A teacher creates four to six centers in a room where kids can read together and analyze word content while she helps groups that need it. We're doing some of that now, but we think a unified approach is best."
Soon after the Rantoul board approved the changes, Trankina let staffers know where they will be when school starts.
This spring, the district also held teacher workshops demonstrating "peace builder" techniques that help teach children values and conduct. This summer, all teachers will attend workshops with Courtney trainers.
"We're also planning three-day leadership meetings with one person from each grade from each building," Trankina said. "They'll be the activity leaders, and they'll take lessons and activities back to their buildings all year."
The district also is purchasing 40 resource books for each classroom that contain professionally selected materials.
"The idea is that all teachers will be using the same books to get the concepts across," Trankina said. "It will take a lot of the busy work out for teachers, so they don't have to read lots and lots of stories to find the best ones to demonstrate the concept of inclusion, for example. They can concentrate on the best materials."
Teachers will spend more time looking carefully at each student.
"In the past in grades 3-8, you could assume your students can read," he said. "Now they're coming to those grades and they can't. It's important for teachers to understand where they are."
The improvement plan, which will cost more than $200,000, also includes money to hire coaches, one for reading and one for math, to work with children who will take the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in the grades 3-5 schools.
And the district will hire two fluent Spanish speakers, one for the lower grades and one for the upper grades, to help Hispanic children make the transition to regular classrooms.
Trankina expects to see results quickly, and he said he believes staff members are ready.
"We don't just think changing locations and improving the quality of instruction dramatically are all we need," Trankina said. "We'll see the greatest improvement if parents get involved. We never thought this was a quick way to beat the system. This is about how to help every child reach his or her potential."
Joan Fitzgerald, who teaches fifth grade at Northview, is vice president of the Rantoul City Schools Education Association. She said the district worked closely with union members on details of the plans, and teachers endorse the fact that collaboration time is a key component.
"In the past it's been hard to share ideas, but now we will," she said. "Our in-service sessions will be more focused. We'll share what we learn in workshops. I'm excited about the changes. I just finished my master's degree, and they reflect a lot of the things I've learned."
Fitzgerald said teachers had a lot of questions at first.
"But teachers' emotions have settled, and I think parents right now also realize we'll have the same administration and the same staff, that we all care for their children, they'll get a good education and we'll make them comfortable," she said.
About half the teachers in the district will change buildings. The day after school dismissed, they packed up their supplies so custodians could move the boxes, their computers and even their desks and chairs.
Before school starts, teachers will come in, again with pay, to set up new classrooms – something they usually do without pay.
Ruby Weathersby, who's served on the board for 13 years, said she was completely in favor of the changes four years ago.
"It puts the four schools on a level playing field," Weathersby said. "It gives teachers time to share ideas, see where problems lie with kids and focus on the main concerns."
She expects it to take a few years to see the payoff, but she's eager to see progress the first year.
"We know one thing," Weathersby said. "We can't continue to do the same thing and get the same results."
Northview Principal Carolyn Hinton said she expects to start the new school with an excited, cautious but motivated staff.
"We're in uncharted waters," Hinton said. "We're jumping into new things with a new format and different goals. And teachers will have time to collaborate, and they love that."