The state’s latest batch of data shows fewer underperforming schools in Unit 5 and District 87, even as many are asked to serve more high-need students from low-income families.
Evans Junior High School was the only Unit 5 school to receive the “underperforming” designation, for its English learner (EL) students, according to the 2018-19 School Report Card data released Wednesday. Kingsley Junior High, Parkside Junior High, and Colene Hoose Elementary all saw their “underperforming” designations from 2017-18 improve to “commendable” for 2018-19.
In District 87, Sheridan Elementary’s designation fell to “lowest performing school,” down from underperforming last year. Stevenson Elementary (for the performance of its black students and those with disabilities) and Bloomington Junior High (black students) were both designated as underperforming.
Irving Elementary School’s designation, meanwhile, improved to commendable.
“Really, it’s the feel of the school that’s more telling about a place than what a score is or what the School Report Card says,” said Messina Lambert, second-year principal at Irving. “Of course we all want to excel and we want our students to be proficient and show growth. And we work our tails off to do that. But it’s really about relationships. It’s about how the school fits into the community and how does it support kids and families.”
The new School Report Cards also bring into focus the wide family-income gaps between elementary schools in Bloomington-Normal.
The contrast is most pronounced in Unit 5. Low-income students are concentrated in schools like Cedar Ridge Elementary School (73.6% low-income) in south Bloomington, and Oakdale Elementary School (67.5%) in Normal. At Benjamin, Northpoint, and Towanda elementary schools, just 7% of students are low-income. District wide around one-third of Unit 5 students are low-income.
In District 87 in Bloomington, 58.2% of students come from low-income families, up from 55.5% a year ago. At Sheridan and Irving elementary schools, 4 in 5 kids are low-income.
At Irving Elementary, the high percentage of low-income students means teachers and staff have a larger charge than usual to serve the “whole child,” said Lambert. About half of the 360 students take advantage of the free hot breakfast offered every morning, she said.
They’ve become creative to improve academic performance, she said. Irving has three reading teachers who go into K-2 classrooms for an hour every day to support small-group reading. And to combat lower math proficiency among fourth - and fifth-graders, the school pooled those students together and then divided them into small groups—effectively reducing class sizes.
“It’s been amazing, and it’s just the first year we’ve done that,” Lambert said.
Cedar Ridge Elementary School Principal Karrah Jensen and her staff face similar challenges.
At Cedar Ridge, about 73.6% of students are from low-income families, up slightly from last year. It also serves a bilingual population in Unit 5, meaning 30% of students speak Spanish.
“We really have to meet students’ basic needs. That has to come first when working with any student, no matter what population you have,” Jensen said.
The Cedar Ridge Promise Council is a big part of that. It was one of the first Unit 5 schools to have a Promise Council, comprised of community members who’ve pledged to help provide basic needs (clothing, food, etc.) and not-so-basic needs (employment and housing) to families.
Jensen also praised Unit 5 (and its teachers union) for providing her staff with additional training on the growing social-emotional aspects of their job—specifically how to work with students who have trauma in their backgrounds.
“The staff has had professional development around how to build relationships, how to understand the students that are coming in our doors and where they’re coming from,” Jensen said.
Low-income schools often have higher mobility rates (students enrolling or leaving mid-year). Irving Elementary School’s mobility rate is 18%, more than twice the state average.
To help students get acclimated, Irving divided its student body and teachers into four “houses.” Think Harry Potter. (It’s actually modeled after the Ron Clark Academy House System.)
“That automatically gets them into feeling like they’re part of something,” Lambert said. “So whether they attended Sheridan last year, or Fox Creek, Pepper Ridge, wherever, when they come into this school they get placed in a house and they maintain that house as they go through the grades.”
The so-called achievement gap—the difference in academic performance between students from different family income levels—has widened in the past year in Unit 5, at least by one measure.
The gap in readiness for the next level between Unit 5’s low-income students and traditional students on the SAT grew for both English Language Arts (13% vs. 55%) and Math (12% vs. 52%), according to 2018-19 Report Card data. Both of those achievement gaps are wider than the state average.
In District 87, the gap improved slightly but was still wider than the state average.
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