Peoria Public Schools students are set to return to in-person learning Jan. 19, and according to Peoria City/County Health Department Public Health Administrator Monica Hendrickson, District 150 is as prepared as it can be.
“When Dr. Kherat and her team approached the (Peoria) Health Department in April to talk about coming back to school this year, the planning process that started and what they had developed was, I would say, one of the strongest return-to-school plans that I had seen,” Hendrickson said.
At Monday night's Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat presented an update on the district’s return-to- school Plan, one that features widespread testing and a hybrid schedule.
“First and foremost, there’s no such thing as zero risk,” Hendrickson said. “But based on your A/B schedule, your staff being trained for contact tracing and the accessibility you have to testing, I would say that you have one of the strongest plans to bring back students, as well as staff, into school.”
Despite the district’s mitigation measures for the new semester, it still might face roadblocks in long-term safety, as 29% of 1,000 surveyed staff members said they would not get the vaccine when it becomes available. Hearing this, Hendrickson made clear that even if staff members do not get the vaccine initially, once the inoculation is available for teachers in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, they can always seek out doses through other providers.
Plus, as there are many remaining unknowns about COVID-19. Hendrickson recommends continuing to take preventative measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing after vaccination. Kherat assured the board that, in her eyes, this is the best plan for the future--especially for students who were not able to succeed without in-person instruction. Students of color and low-income students in particular were negatively affected by remote learning.
“What we’ve noticed (is) that grades, attendance and participation have dropped during remote learning, and really low-income children and African American children have continued to be the most affected,” said Kherat. “We are ready to welcome our students back into our buildings, and we will continue to prioritize their safety and our staff’s safety as we provide the top-notch education that is entitled to them and that we have been entrusted to provide to them.”
Justice Advocates program
After one year, the Peoria Public Schools Justice Advocates program has seen a positive response from District 150 students.
The Justice Advocates program, led by Director of Social Emotional Learning Derrick Booth, seeks to provide day-to-day assistance to high school students who are “involved in the criminal justice system.” Through direct communication and outreach for students, the primary goal of the program is to put students on a path to graduation, especially those who have dropped out.
“Until December of 2019, we had a lot of proactive strategies in place to increase our graduation rates, but there was no initiative in place to follow up with and support students who had fallen through the cracks by dropping out of school,” said Booth.
The program has seen 114 total caseloads since December 2019, with the majority of students enrolled at the freshman grade level. When the program began, 34% of involved students were on track to graduate, but that number has since risen to 44%.
Another point of pride for Booth and the program is the recidivism rate for students involved: just 39%. According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, the 2019 juvenile recidivism rate for the state of Illinois was 87%.
Marla Marbley, one of two Justice Advocates currently employed by the district in the federally-funded positions, emphasizes that each day, staff is interacting with students and making sure they have the support they need when facing legal issues.
“In the course of a year, we’ve seen students go in and out of court at least a dozen times, it just depends on the severity of their case and how much monitoring they need,” said Marbley. “We’re very involved in their daily processes and what obstacles they’re facing."
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