Judge: St. Charles D303 must revise school improvement plan
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org September 19, 2013 7:10PM
Students at Davis Elementary dismiss from school on Thursday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 21, 2013 2:29PM
ST. CHARLES — A Kane County judge will be watching St. Charles School District 303 over the next six months to ensure the district creates a corrective action plan involving two of its elementary schools that were reconfigured in 2011.
Judge David Akemann handed down a revised order this week that requires District 303 to create a plan that will help failing students at Richmond and Davis elementary schools with the input of parents whose children attend those schools and staff who work there.
Under federal law, corrective action plans must include a “significant intervention” to help all students become proficient in math and reading, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, such as a curriculum change, replacing school staff or bringing in an outside expert to help the school.
The judge said the district also has to give Richmond and Davis parents the option to send their children to other schools, if they choose to do so, and must offer additional tutoring and academic supports, especially for English-language learners and low-income students.
District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann said he envisions preparing a school improvement plan for the state and a “more extensive and public” one for the court that demonstrates sufficient parent engagement and input.
“I really think this is a process we can use to help us improve student performance,” Schlomann said in an interview Thursday. “It took us kind of a roundabout way to get here, but I’m excited about engaging the community.”
The judge’s order is the result of a two-and-a-half-year court battle that started just two weeks after the district reconfigured Richmond and Davis, which are located a mile apart.
Originally, both schools served kindergarten to fifth grade. But under a plan the district’s school board approved in March 2011, Davis became a kindergarten to second grade building, while Richmond served third to fifth grade.
Essentially, the two school populations were combined and divvied up between two buildings.
District officials have held that the plan — which also included more instruction time, added foreign language instruction and iPads for students — was designed to help alleviate overcrowding at Davis and to provide a better education at both schools.
At the time, according to court documents, Davis was meeting progress standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But Richmond had not met them for four years.
Known as “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, the progress standards track how well children read and do math and if they’ve improved over the last year.
It also looks specifically at how students in certain subgroups are performing, including by race and students who are English-language learners, disabled or low-income.
In years leading up to the reconfiguration, Richmond’s Hispanic and low-income students were lagging behind.
Under federal law, when a school fails to meet progress standards for two years, the school must develop an improvement plan and parents have the option to send their children to another school that is meeting standards.
From 2008 to 2010, some parents took that option and pulled 117 students from Richmond, leaving the school underused and the nearby Davis overcrowded.
After the reconfiguration in 2011, the district successfully petitioned the state board of education to allow it to restart the clock on Richmond’s academic progress record, because it was a new school.
That year, the district did not give parents at either Richmond or Davis the option to send their children to another school.
In their original lawsuit, a group of parents alleged that District 303 tried to circumvent its responsibilities under No Child Left Behind by combining Richmond and Davis’ school populations in the hopes of meeting overall standards.
The school improvement plan, the parents said, failed to outline ways to help failing subgroups of students and parents weren’t given the option to send their children elsewhere, in violation of federal law.
After a seven-day trial this summer, a judge sided with the parents on these issues.
“The NCLB is an acronym for ‘No Child Left Behind,’ but the district admittedly adopted a plan for the general good with no specific strategies for those subgroups who failed AYP,” the judge wrote. “These subgroups have continued to fail after the 2011 plan was implemented.”
District officials testified that changing the academic status at Richmond was not part of their 2011 school improvement plan, but the judge found otherwise.
“Although district personnel repeatedly denied that resolving the Richmond issue was a factor in the 2011 plan, the court does not find this testimony credible,” he wrote.
Parents had hoped to return Richmond and Davis to their original kindergarten to fifth grade configurations with their lawsuit, but that doesn’t look like it will happen.
The judge ruled that the school board had the right to determine school attendance boundaries, but noted on Wednesday that, “Nothing in this court’s order would prohibit the district from returning to its prior building configurations so long as NCLB mandates are met.”
District 303 School Board member Edward McNally has children, ages 7 and 9, who attend Davis and Richmond schools. He has been an outspoken supporter of the parents who filed the lawsuit. He ran for election to the board in April, he said, in part because of the Richmond-Davis litigation.
In an interview Thursday, McNally said he hopes the district will form a diverse parent committee to give input on the school improvement plan and seriously consider putting the schools back together, if a majority of parents want that.
Schlomann said he envisions a parent engagement process that is “more inclusive than exclusive” and will provoke a “larger discussion.”
“What the judge is looking at is a more specific one that’s focused on student learning and the needs of certain subgroups,” Schlomann said.
But McNally thinks administrators will have to work to build trust with parents who lost faith in district leadership during the court battle. Parents would forgive and forget, McNally said, if board members and district officials who made the decision to reconfigure the schools admitted it didn’t work out.
“Quite honestly [parents] don’t feel like they can trust what [Schlomann] is saying,” McNally said. “He said he was going to fix this in the past. I think the parents almost kind of have to have final say on things, in order for them to feel like they are involved.”
Timothy Dwyer, a lawyer for the parents, said his clients are disappointed that the district isn’t planning to restructure the schools, but sees the mandate to develop a revised improvement plan as a win.
The parents he represents are still deciding if they will file an appeal, Dwyer said Thursday.
“My clients are always going to be watching the district, regardless of the litigation,” Dwyer said. “Unfortunately, they’ve proven that they need to be watched.”