BOE DISCUSSED THINK TANK CONCEPTS
(Click here for the Think Tank information page--bookmark it for your reference.)
Board members discussed the Think Tank concepts for the elementary schools that were presented to it on Nov. 26. They asked questions of Think Tank members to clarify key points and offered some of their perspectives. Superintendent Dr. Ann Riebock said that the Think Tank will digest the feedback and then bring its thinking back to the BOE. She also noted that the FAQs posted online will continue to be updated to address the themes that are emerging (click here for updated FAQs). "The plan is still being developed," she said. BOE members noted that the Think Tank work was in response to the BOE request to investigate ways to better prepare students for the 21st century. They assured the public that they were listening to their viewpoints and want the public to be part of the process. (Public comments are summarized at the end of Board Highlights in the Public Participation section.) Among the points of clarification were:
Reasons for change: Although many parents have said that they regard district schools very highly, US students are losing ground as they compete for college and for jobs with students worldwide. Science and math are of particular concern. BOE members John Kenwood and Dan Smith Jr. mentioned their workplace experiences relative to this achievement gap. Nearly every state, including Illinois, has adopted the New Common Core Standards which are significantly more rigorous than the Illinois standards they replaced; these new standards focus on college- and career-readiness. The Think Tank's goal is to give all children what they need when they need it.
What happens in school today: BOE members asked for clarification on the scope of the change versus what occurs today. Today's elementary students see several different teachers and other adults during the day, are in small groups for guided instruction at ability level, and mix with students from other classrooms during Targeted Learning Time (TLT). Think Tank concepts are an evolution which build on the instructional effectiveness of guided groups and enhance the ability of schools to offer students more challenge.
Student groupings: The BOE asked about the difference between tracking and the heterogeneous groups the Think Tank is proposing. Think Tank members reiterated the group's belief that heterogeneous (meaning mixed learning levels) groups are important and that students would not be grouped in "low, medium and high." Student groups would be fluid and students would move as they progress. This is not tracking, which is when students are identified at a learning level and don't move out of their level; in tracking, struggling students tend to get further behind.
Teacher specialization: Specializing in literacy/social studies or math/STEAM allows teachers to be content experts who go deeper with students. This is important in light of the increased demands of the New Common Core Standards.
Multi-grade: Think Tank is proposing mixed grades of 2/3 and 4/5 (K and 1 would not change). Most of this would occur during literacy/social studies as that curriculum is well suited to multi-grade; math is more sequential, so most (not all) students would be in grade-level groups. No student would receive core instruction below their grade level. Today, teachers have wide ranges of learners in their classrooms and district data show that there is a lot of overlap in learning levels between grades 2/3 and between 4/5. Multi-grade groups provide greater flexibility to create classrooms that are heterogeneous but with somewhat narrower ranges of learners. Think Tank will look at how it might create these benefits without the multi-grade component.
Track record of success for multi-grade: Some have suggested that multi-grade has failed in other districts. Multi-grade can mean many different things and is often done as a practical measure to accommodate short-term enrollment spikes with little instructional planning or intent behind it. Think Tank members have visited and talked with other schools where multi-grade classrooms were designed as part of an instructional strategy and are working well.
STEAM labs: STEAM is an integrated approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (math would also be taught separately to ensure that students have the math skills needed to bring to STEAM projects). STEAM labs would be classrooms that the buildings identify for use as both math classrooms and STEAM labs. When no STEAM activity is underway, the space would be a math classroom. The STEAM labs would be places where students become scientists, focus on innovative thinking and have the space needed for larger engineering projects.
Social-emotional factors: Think Tank members shared what they'd learned from other districts and the research regarding the positive impact multi-grade can have on social-emotional factors, as well as a reminder that teachers and principals will continue looking at each child as an individual and to make adjustments needed for every child to succeed. The opportunity to have either the literacy/social studies or the STEAM teacher for two years is another support for social-emotional health. District teachers have strong social-emotional skills and that would continue to be the case.
Transitions: Think Tank clarified that students today have several transitions during the day and see many adults; the new plan adds another teacher into this mix since students in the affected grades would have two core teachers rather than one, and might be with a different mix of students in those two classes.
Teacher support/readiness: Teachers would not have a new curriculum next year; the new STEAM curriculum would come into play for 2014-2015. The district has identified some professional development opportunities and will continue to look at that. Teacher support has not been quantified at this early time, but teachers have been attending building meetings for information and to ask questions, most of which have been about the practical logistics of the plan. Teachers are being asked now to consider which subject they would like to teach.
Possibility of piloting: Think Tank has talked about piloting and will further discuss this.
Timeline: The existence of an implementation timeline does not mean that the proposal is a "done deal" but the timeline is part of creating a picture of how the plan could work. The administration hopes to have a clear direction by the end of February or beginning of March, 2013.
Foreign Language: Foreign Language at elementary is not part of the Think Tank work, but is a separate plan coming out of the Foreign Language Planning Committee. It will be discussed by the BOE in January. Think Tank has been aware of the work and taken it into account in its planning.
BOE DISCUSSED WHETHER FUND BALANCES COULD PAY FOR CAPITAL PROJECTS OR LAND
Each year, the district spends from $1 million to $1.5 million on capital projects to maintain and improve its buildings. These projects are laid out in a 20-year capital improvement plan according to priority; the administration reviews this plan regularly and makes adjustments to the proposed timeline. A number of expensive projects are in this plan, including major roof repairs, HVAC work and paving projects. Land acquisition for a new school is also a district focus. BOE policy states that when fund balances (undesignated dollars that have accumulated over the years) exceed 25% of the annual budget, the administration must bring forward a plan for using funds beyond that 25% threshold; currently fund balances are 33%, or $5 million above the threshold. The BOE discussed putting an additional $5 million from fund balances toward major capital improvements over the next five years; maintaining the existing schedule of improvements and putting any fund balances over 25% toward buying a parcel for a potential new school (the BOE has been looking for such a parcel for the last two years); or a mix of the two approaches. Other financial factors the district has to keep in mind have to do with state funding: the expectation that the state will transfer its teacher pension costs to local districts and that the state will reduce General State Aid to districts. Both of these would take dollars out of the district budget in the years to come and mean there will be less ability to accumulate further fund balances in the future. The administration is proposing that the BOE consider using fund balances in a planned way for one-time expenses. The administration is not proposing dipping into fund balances to pay for ongoing programmatic or operational expenses, which is not a fiscally sustainable approach. The BOE will discuss the matter further as it begins the budget process for 2013-2014. The BOE previously discussed fund balances at Finance Committee and at the Nov. 26 BOE meeting.
BOE ADOPTS TAX LEVY
After a public notice and a period of public viewing and comment, the BOE has adopted the 2012 tax levy, which is how the district requests tax revenues. The amount the district is allowed to ask for is determined by the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, or PTELL, commonly called the tax cap. This law says that the levy cannot exceed 5% or the Consumer Price Index (3%), whichever is less. This year's levy is expected to be $43,492,000, an increase of 11.71%. While this is a higher percentage, it complies with the cap because last year the district abated $2.7 million. Due to the way the abatement was structured, it did not reduce the base against which the 2012 levy was calculated. Before tax bills are cut, the county clerk reviews the calculation and makes sure it complies with the cap. The levy was previously discussed at the Nov. 12 Finance Committee meeting and BOE meeting. Click here for more information on the levy and related matters.
SUPERINTENDENT AND BOARD REPORTS
Superintendent Dr. Ann Riebock shared the monthly enrollment report. BOE member Sam Black updated the BOE on the Policy Committee and on the Forest Glen PTA meeting he attended and complimented the district orchestra program and winter concert. BOE member Dan Smith Jr. reported on the Benjamin Franklin PTA meeting. BOE President Erica Nelson noted that PTA Council discussed the Think Tank work; she also thanked the district and the larger community for generously giving to Holiday Sharing, a collaborative effort of many groups in the community which provided holiday gift baskets to 221 needy families. Finance Committee Chairperson Drew Ellis reported on the evening's meeting preceding the BOE meeting in which use of fund balances and the upcoming Foreign Language recommendation were discussed (matters concerning money always go to Finance Committee before they go to the full BOE for discussion).
Several parents offered perspectives or asked questions about the Think Tank recommendations. Among their viewpoints were: the implementation is rushed and should be slowed down and/or piloted; seeing a need for teachers to improve; concern about blocks; concern that students will be tracked; ideas for other approaches; praise for the work and concern that parents with positive viewpoints are being intimidated; advising the district to set the bar high for all; and concern about teacher support and preparedness for change.
About the Glen Ellyn School District Board of Education
Board members are unpaid volunteers, each representing the whole district. The board is accountable to the public and makes decisions as a unit based on what is best for the whole district. The board hires the superintendent, sets instructional policy, approves the budget and ongoing expenditures, and is ultimately responsible for the performance of the district. Board meetings are working sessions held in public during which the board conducts its business, and ample time is always set aside for public participation.