Reorganized district 'turning a corner'
RANTOUL – Carolyn Hinton summed up the past school year at Northview Elementary School succinctly.
"This is a year I wouldn't want to live through again," said Hinton, Northview's principal.
"But," she added, "I wouldn't trade anything for what we've learned. We've turned a corner."
Northview housed kindergarten through grade 5 until last fall, when it became one of two elementary schools in the city to become a grade center for grades 3-5.
"I've supported grade centers because I think they're better for kids," said Eastlawn Elementary Principal Roger Obrecht, who had been principal at the school for 15 years before it opened last fall as a grades K-2 building. "Whether it's basketball, math or reading, you can focus on the specific grade levels."
Superintendent Bill Trankina proposed sweeping changes in school configuration and reading programs last year.
"We believed there was disparity between the education opportunities and the needs of students, and we wanted to bring resources to bear on our educational needs," he said.
Trankina said it took four years to get plans approved, including an intensive reading program following consultant Gretchen Courtney's recommendations.
"We targeted reading because it's a cornerstone for math and science and it's why students have problems in third and fourth grades," he said.
He also relied on a book by Robert Barr called "Saving Our Schools" and brought Barr to Rantoul to talk about helping students, families and communities to promote academic growth.
"That book is our blueprint," Trankina said. "He says if you're changing curriculum, there are two ways to do it.
"You can use trickle-down methods, but he recommends bringing everyone in at the same time. It's more costly, but it's more likely to bring change. Everyone's speaking the same language, staff and students."
Another Barr recommendation called "looping" moves teachers with classes for several years, also to reduce lost time. Trankina said his teachers decided to perfect their skills teaching the Courtney reading program before they move into looping.
"This has gone so well for 200 reasons – our staff," he said. "A significant portion of the community had concerns. However, parents were willing to trust that what we were doing was in the best interests of children."
The Courtney program is "dramatically different," Trankina said. It's based on six focus areas – predicting, summarizing fiction and nonfiction, connecting, questioning, inferring and imaging – and children starting in kindergarten hear those terms daily.
Courtney trainers came to Rantoul last summer and during the school year to teach teachers.
The program, which includes 40 class-appropriate reading materials, cost about $140,000, and Trankina supplemented that, spending $20,000 on a program with downloadable reading materials.
The district also had to spend money on physical changes at the schools to make them ready for new age groups. Pleasant Acres is now a K-2 building, and Broadmeadow houses grades 3-5.
Northview fifth-grade teacher Joan Fitzgarrald said she'd been changing her reading methods when she heard about Courtney two years ago at a conference.
"It's pretty intensive on the teachers' part at first," she said. "I'm a mentor, and we meet once a month with a consultant. We brainstorm and share ideas and we meet with our teachers to trade ideas. Collaboration is the best time spent by teachers."
Bea Pierce switched from fourth grade to kindergarten at Eastlawn this fall because she was looking for a challenge. Pierce said she does the basics like letter recognition and sounds, but she also tries to make youngsters in her class more independent readers.
"We ask about story reading, we make connections to their lives, we ask why the author wrote what he or she wrote, we make up questions about stories," she said. "It helps them remember better. We've done shared reading, and we learned how to make an inference. My kids know that word and what it means."
She said the new reading system was frustrating at first.
"It's like you don't want to play the game until you've practiced, but as the year went on, it fell into place," Pierce said. "And my kids are doing great. They're reading and understanding. I have a lot of English language learners, and they're learning."
Trankina said periodic tests the past year have showed positive results.
"Children are demonstrating growth faster than they have in the past," he said. "They're more fluent. We're anxiously awaiting results of the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests."
"The big changes in ISAT scores may take a year or two," said Obrecht, who added his children in all grades advanced several levels in reading.
"The first semester, everyone was tearing their hair out," Hinton said. "Courtney is so comprehensive, and you implement in bite sizes, so it's very frustrating. But we've seen our children make wonderful strides in reading and in participation by children who were struggling because they're learning English.
"We see the light at the end of the tunnel."