The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

District 95, Transparency, and Accountability

with 11 comments

Before I began this post I knew it would be one of the most difficult I’ve written. It’s difficult because I don’t have much background knowledge on the school districts. I’ve followed the city council for over ten years, but I haven’t paid much attention to the school districts until recently. I’m going to do the best I can on this post because the school boards are important and they don’t get much coverage in the old media.

When people talk about the obstacles to Carbondale’s growth, there are a few items that are frequently mentioned. There is the claim that Carbondale is unfriendly to business, the perception that crime is high in Carbondale, the fact that taxes are higher in Jackson County than in Williamson. There is also another problem: the schools in Carbondale – especially the elementary schools –  don’t perform as well as the rural school and the schools in surrounding towns.

District 95 first attracted my attention back in March when the city was considering providing funding for a summer reading and math program at the district. Although I didn’t cover it on the blog, I also noticed that there was an active campaign for a seat on the District 95 school district. More recently, I heard about some disparaging remarks made by an incumbent board member to newly elected member Amy Erickson at the April 28 meeting. And last week, a letter appeared in the Carbondale Times criticizing some of the board’s incumbents for their behavior at that meeting.

I learned last month that the disparaging remarks made at the April 28 school board meeting were not included in the minutes of that meeting. I decided to attend the June 23 meeting. It wasn’t as eventful as the last two meetings, but there was some controversy over the minutes of the May meeting. I’m still learning about this issue, but I want to offer some preliminary comments.

First, it’s important for public bodies to keep accurate records of their proceedings. When one official publicly berates another official, that behavior should be part of the record.

Second, public officials must respect the outcome of elections. Even when their preferred candidates aren’t elected, public officials have a duty to work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I’ve seen a transcript of the remarks made at the April 28 meeting, and they aren’t kind. It isn’t appropriate for public officials to behave that way toward one another. I’m not going to publish the transcript today, but I may post it in the future.

Third, all units of government, from Congress to the school board, should operate in the sunshine. There can be no accountability without transparency. I’m not alleging that the school board has violated the law; they haven’t. I have no information that would suggest that the school board has failed to publish the dates and times of its meetings or that the board hasn’t allowed the public to attend.

But sometimes it isn’t enough to do the minimum. It’s time for the school board to televise its meetings on channel 16. The city council and various city boards and commissions televise their meetings. District 95 should follow that example. Televising the meetings would enlarge the audience and it might encourage better behavior by the board members.

I’m going to continue to monitor District 95, and I’m going to continue to learn about the relevant issues. I expect to write more about this in the future.

Comments are welcome.

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Written by The Carbondale Observer

June 30, 2011 at 7:45 am

11 Responses

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  1. I’m very glad to see that you’re covering district 95. My own feeling is that the district gets a bad rap. Test scores are lower in Carbondale than in the suburban/rural districts surrounding the city. But it is certainly the case that many kids–including, of course, many faculty brats–get solid educations there. And the disparity between performance levels in Carbondale and those in the surrounding districts correlates extremely well with the relative poverty levels in Carbondale versus the surrounding areas. That is, you can explain underperformance in Carbondale almost entirely via higher poverty levels in the city. One can confirm as much by crunching some numbers on the Illinois “Interactive Report Card” site: http://iirc.niu.edu.

    It’s the standard American story: well-off parents hear the schools are better in the suburbs, so move to the suburbs. More well-off families moving to the suburbs, and less well-off families remain in town, perhaps due to transportation issues, perhaps because the well-off parents have driven up housing costs outside town (rentals aren’t exactly plentiful outside the city, for example); hence the disparity increases. Whether the city schools are run well or badly (or the suburban schools), the underlying trends are tough to counter: kids from wealthier families do better in school. So districts with wealthier kids score higher. It’s a bit like expecting SIUC to churn out as many Rhodes scholars as Champaign-Urbana.

    None of this, of course, means that we shouldn’t scrutinize the local schools. It’s just that we shouldn’t expect Carbondale #95 to produce tests scores as high as those of Unity Point, Giant City, etc. if it continues to have a vastly different pool of students. And none of it lessens the apparent misbehavior of some on the school board. But I’m afraid that now that you’ve opened this can of worms you’d better let us know just what was said, and by whom. The sunshine could have the proverbial disinfectant effect–at least if enough voters are paying attention.

    David Johnson

    June 30, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    • Thanks for the comment! You raise some good points.

      On the poverty issue: I think you’re right that a higher proportion of impoverished students makes it difficult for a school district to perform as well as we might like. But I also think we ought to aim for greater equality in our society and a good education is a prerequisite for a good career and a higher earning potential. The high proportion of students living below the poverty level works as a reason it’s harder for District 95 to perform, but it isn’t an excuse for the district to fail to perform.

      You’re also right that plenty of students get great educations in District 95. A lot of people who criticize our education system like to focus on the teachers, but (in most cases) I think a better focus would be the parents. The son or daughter of a faculty member benefits from resources in the home that aren’t available to the children of low income, poorly educated parents. I don’t know how a teacher would compensate for a poor home environment.

      I mentioned in the post that I’m fairly new to these issues and I’m still learning, so I hesitate to suggest solutions. One thing that comes to my mind is sorting students by achievement. Take the poorest performing 20 or 30 percent of students and place them in one school, tailor the curriculum and teaching methods to bring them up to speed, and try to get them back into the general population (that sounds like a prison term, but I’m at a loss for a better one). It would be nice if we could do something similar for the top performers.

      Of course there is a problem with that idea. Poverty rates are higher among racial minorities. If it’s true that poor performance correlates with poverty, then placing low performers into a separate school might look like segregation, which is obviously unacceptable. Even if we grant that the intentions would be noble, it still might look like paternalism.

      It’s a tough problem to solve, but basic fairness requires us to look for solutions.

      Thanks again for the great comment!

      (By the way, I enjoy the Deo Volente blog.)

      Update: As I read my reply, I thought of another problem with sorting students by achievement. It could stigmatize them as the “dumb kids.” I don’t think failure to achieve means a child is dumb – lots of low achievers are really smart – but kids might tease the low performers and reinforce the idea that they’re stupid.

      Second update: I just realized I forgot to reply to your suggestion that I post the transcript of the remarks and name the speaker. I’m still thinking about whether that’s the right thing to do. When I think about these kinds of things, I try to anticipate the consequences. Would releasing the transcript help the situation, have no effect, or make things worse? What I want is for the board to work together and make a good faith effort to bridge their differences and achieve compromises that improve the district. I could see how releasing the name and the transcript might cause that person who delivered the remarks to dig in.

      On the other hand, the parents have a right to know what’s going on at these board meetings. Most parents don’t attend every board meeting and if I don’t post the comments, who will?

      I’m going to think about it a little more. My instinct says release everything, but I need a little more time to think things over.

  2. Very thoughtful remarks both in the original post and in David Johnson’s comments.

    I’m not sure about the recent history of the elementary schools in Carbondale, but I believe they were subject to a plan to insure “integration” a number of years ago. As a result, the only elementary school on the West Side of Carbondale is Parrish School that serves K-1. The rest of the schools, along with the Middle School are in the East side even though the majority of children of school age are in the West side of town. The schools are attendance centers that serve just two grades at a time. Thomas Elementary is grades 2-3, etc. Some families have several children in the District and have a difficult time going to meetings or events at the various schools. Contrast that with Giant City Schools and Unity Point. Children stay in the same schools, the parents know the administrators, and take “ownership”.

    Parental involvement is paramount as both of the posters suggest. The system that is presently in place goes counter to insuring parental involvement, shifts children at arbitrary points in their lives, and decreases loyalty.

    The new census figures may hold some surprises about the ethnic demographics of Carbondale. I have noticed that the NE, the traditional African American sector of Carbondale, has lost population. At the same time I have encountered increasing integration in housing all over Carbondale, but especially the West and North Side. The other shift is the apparent increase of multiracial families. It may be that all of the hard work to create a multiracial society is paying off. In which case it may be time to look more closely at the advantages of neighborhood schools.

    Incidental to this idea of returning (going forward?) to neighborhood schools are some real advantages in costs. District 95 spends nearly $1M a year to bus all those children around town. That may go much higher as oil prices increase, and as the state government cuts back on its financial support for transportation.

    The issue of poor children that David raises as a suburban vs town divide could be addressed in part by neighborhood schools that have carefully thought out boundaries. Not all of Carbondale is poor. Indeed some of the most prosperous of David’s colleagues at the university live in Carbondale, including members of the coaching staff at SIUC. Their children along with the children of single parents, working poor and others would learn from each other and make for a stronger school system.

    D Gorton

    July 2, 2011 at 9:13 am

  3. As a parent who has been heavily involved in District 95, both in my daughter’s schools and in district committees, I can attest to the fact that there is plenty of parental involvement. I’ve seen parents of all races and incomes involved, as well as involvement by parents with kids at different schools. Of course there is always room for more involvement, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the attendance centers suppress involvement.

    And I have lots of evidence to suggest that there are benefits to the attendance centers. I’ve met or seen almost every parent in Carbondale with a child my daughters age. And that is not restricted to particular parts of town. The way the schools are organized allows us to offer gifted programs which, as I understand it, is not the case in Giant City (I may be misinformed). The schools are incredibly diverse, with a tremendous amount of diversity and tolerance that hasn’t had anything but good consequences.

    The bus issue makes little sense to me. Most kids wouldn’t be able to walk anyway.

    To be clear — I don’t think the school district is above criticism. I’d wanted to point out that Mr. Gorton’s comments don’t match my personal experience.

    Anonymous

    July 2, 2011 at 9:59 am

    • Hi, Scott McClurg, thanks for your note.

      I would like to see your “evidence” for the benefits of the Attendance Centers. Just today I listened to a parent as she described how she and her husband were part of a highly engaged group of parents at Parrish School. When their child moved to Thomas School, she said that she and her husband found themselves practically alone in parental engagement, and when the child moved to Lewis School, the Principal forbid the organization of a PTO. By the way, the principal is retiring this year. I noted her conversation as to the issue of parental involvement. Reasonable people can differ on the causes of her experience. In my case I think that the attendance centers can lead to less involvement by parents.

      I disagree that the “bus issue makes little sense”. I think that having schools closer to the school age populations will lessen the costs of bussing. How could it not? In an era of volatile energy costs the transportation budget is a significant item. Its presently nearly $1M a year.

      The “gifted program” in my view is a way of allaying the concerns of professionals from the university while neglecting the profound issues facing the children that are at risk. Ironically, the social capital that children from highly educated family backgrounds bring to the school almost ensures their success – with or without a “gifted program”. But this week we have the beginnings of a Summer Reading and Math Academy that is paid for by taxes from Carbondale citizens – not the school. Perhaps the emphasis on the “gifted” program was misplaced, else why do they need the money from the city?

      You mention that the schools are “incredibly diverse”. Of course I’m not sure what you mean, but the ethnicity as reported by the District 95 as a “district total” of all the schools is 31.99% white, 44.22% black, 10.89% multi racial, 8.38% hispanic and 3.94% Asian. I believe that the last census had Carbondale’s demographics at 64.31% white, 21.22% black. 9.13% Asian and 4.59% Hispanic. There appears to be a disparity with whites and Asians. Perhaps you have other figures that you can share.

      I have been to numerous School Board meetings and have never seen parents speaking to the Board. In fact, until this past few times there was barely a place on the agenda for public comments. That is changing now due in large part to efforts by Amy Erickson. I don’t know if you have attended Board Meetings or not, but it has been a very disappointing experience.

      In the official packet at the last Board Meeting were the enrollment figures for June 3, 2011. I don’t know if you have had a chance to look them over but here is how I read it:

      Kindergarten -155, 1st grade – 163, 2nd grade – 146, 3rd grade – 136, 4th grade – 133, 5th grade – 122, 6th grade – 128, 7th grade – 98, 8th grade – 113. There appears to be a troubling trend in these numbers. I cite numbers since these discussions have a tendency to be opinions and not factually based. I’m sure you can appreciate that.

      I am curious why you, as an appointed public official and close adviser to Mayor Fritzler, chose to remain anonymous with your comments. Though I know that is the policy of this blog, I think that standing up in public is an important act. I think its a policy that everyone who wants to improve our schools and our town should adopt.

      D Gorton

      July 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  4. As a parent of two graduates of the District 95 system, I get annoyed at the criticisms leveled against the district. The real problem, as I see it, was white flight. When my children were junior high age, many families were distressed about Lincoln Junior High and its large minority population. What our family experienced was an outstanding education from District 95 and children who grew up being comfortable with people from all ethnic backgrounds. From my perspective, however, many families fled to the outlying areas of Carbondale to be in the Giant City and Unity Point districts because of incorrect perceptions about Carbondale’s schools.

    As an educator, I question the current situation of judging schools on the basis of test scores–test scores by the way which have been changed several times over the last 15 years, making longitudinal analyses impossible. Anyone familiar with schools in general today realizes that children come to school hungry, dirty, and ill-prepared. They are often victims of poverty, adult substance abuse, and dysfunctional home situations. This was not true when I had children in school or when I taught. Most adults cannot understand the situations our teachers must deal with in 2011. Our schools must parent, nurse, feed, and nurture many students in addition to teaching.

    We gain nothing from casting dispersions toward any school in this day and age. Schools need full support from the citizenry and a clear understanding of the unique problems educators face today–problems unimaginable 25 years ago. I appreciate and support the hard-working teachers and administrators of District 95, and I am wary of criticisms recently addressed in this blog. Any member of a board must work with his or her peers in order to be successful. Having a personal agenda and trying to impose it on a group is never successful. I urge others to attend the board meetings to see firsthand what is happening, and not relying on the filtered views offered by some individuals. District 95 currently has a caring, well-informed Board of Education that works hard for the best interests of Carbondale’s children. We should celebrate that fact and show them our full support.

    Gary Hartlieb

    July 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm

  5. Like many discussions about Carbondale, this one seems to lack a view beyond Carbondale’s boarders. The problems listed here and elsewhere about education (at all levels) are national.

    Here are some of my comments –
    There are children in 3rd grade who can’t read. Heck, there are children graduating from high school who can’t read. Should a child be passed on to 3rd grade without reading?

    About 30 years ago, the child entitlement/self-esteem movement swept through education in the US. Before that, the children were broken in to tracks. Today, teachers have to prepare for 3 or 4 “reading groups” in each class. This is a large burden on the teachers and doesn’t allow many students to receive any instruction in class for weeks at a time. Makes for bored, high performing kids. You will notice that when the child self-esteem movement came in, that was about the time of the tipping point for education in the US.

    Does anyone think that a child in 3rd grade, who can’t read, doesn’t know that another child reads at 6th grade level? Does it help their self-esteem to be one of the dummies in a class or is it better to be in a class with other kids at their own level?

    Half of American’s don’t believe that working harder makes you smarter. Parents who believe in hard work have kids that pull straight A’s or very close to it, in every grade. The work before high school is pretty darn easy. Of course, straight A’s aren’t what they used to be.

    Grade inflation is over 1 point out of 4, over the last 25 years, at every level of education. There is nothing more bracing that interviewing 10 new college grads, all with a 3.5 GPA (or so), and realizing that 6 or 7 of them, know nothing about their field. SIU grads are much worse on this score than real schools (University of Ill, and University of Washington, seem to have some correlation between knowledge and GPA).

    Many children receive great educations, beside students who receive poor education. Who owns this problem? In our house, it is the parents. Bored is one thing, bad is another. I wouldn’t trust my kids to the morals of the BOE, would you?

    School board members are spineless. Teachers unions know what needs to be done to improve the product, but they prioritize the bad teachers over the students, their ethics or society. Makes it tough to be a teacher.

    3rd grade students who perform 4th grade work are “talented.” If you don’t have your kids doing Kumon or Khan Academy, you are a fool.

    Most parents are far more interested in their child looking good at 16 or 18, than doing well at 30. Sports and other parent ego based activities are emphasized over academics at every level. It is OK with me, their jocks work for my kid’s companies.

    In the end, there is little doubt that regardless of all the buzz words, the kids don’t get as good an education as they did 30 years ago, but we spend far more money, and far more parent volunteer hours. Could it be that TV and Video games, parent discipline, poor teaching methodology, are failing the kids?

    Does anyone think that low standards make a better result?

    Kind of wonder how much better things would be with Charter Schools, tuition vouchers, and no teacher’s union? I guess that is called private schools now, and they are better.

    Sooner of later, the school results have to be fixed. Not sure you are going to do that without changing the whole model for education. I’m certain that you aren’t going to do that in Carbondale. A town full of education professionals/civil service employees, aren’t going to look hard at the status quo.

    You own your children’s education. Don’t delegate (too much) to the schools or you might well be sorry.

    PtG

    July 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  6. I agree that our educational system has plenty of problems, but I’m confused how that rambling missive has anything to do District 95.

    Anonymous

    July 5, 2011 at 7:38 am

  7. […] week I wrote a post criticizing comments made at the April 28 District 95 school board meeting and I want to follow up […]

  8. Some brief responses to Mr. Gorton,

    1. You’re asking me for evidence that the attendance centers increase involvement, but you’ve asserted it as fact that its decreased or is low. I was pretty clear in my post — I’ve seen seen no evidence that it hurts parental involvement. I’d be lying if I said I had anything but anecdotal evidence (though I could talk about the hundreds of people who show up for reading nights, the volunteers I’ve personally seen on field trips and in the classroom, and so on). But I’ve send tons of time in my daughter’s schools and I’ve personally seen plenty of parents involved in a variety of ways.

    2. I won’t belabor the point about the buses because we’re both guessing. The basic logic of my position is this — 95% of the kids don’t live by the schools and therefore couldn’t walk if they wanted to. Any “cost savings” are marginal. But that’s opinion and I freely admit it.

    3. The Summer School money from the city was given to the District. If District *asked* for the money, that’s the first I’ve heard of it and I’d like you to point to where you found it so I read it firsthand myself. Personally, I don’t think the city should be funding the schools, but no one (literally) asked me.

    4. Suffice it to say, I don’t share your view of gifted education. I benefited from it as a kid and I can see my daughter benefiting from it as well. I’m not sure why you think education should be targeted from the median down, but you’re certainly entitled to such an opinion. I’m willing to bet that most parents with kids in the program see similar benefits to me.

    5. I’d say that the numbers you posted support my anecdotal observations — the schools are diverse. In my view, that has been nothing be a benefit for my child.

    6. I’m happy to hear you attend board meetings. But if that is the basis for “parental involvement is low” comments, then its based on a very narrow slice of district/parent activity. I was co-president of the Parrish PTO for three year, so my wife and I were in the schools multiple times a week. There were lots of parents there, the staff was engaging and involved, and in general terms the environment was conducive to learning.

    7. I’m not sure what my recent appointment to the Planning Board and involvement in local campaigns has to do any of this. If I was trying to hide my identity, I would not have posted. I thought I had posted under my name. Apparently not.

    In any case, my point remains the same — my personal observations suggest different conclusions to me than what you outline in your original post. The District is not beyond reproach, but I know plenty of parents that are happy with the education received by their children.

    Scott McClurg

    July 9, 2011 at 8:08 am

  9. In reply to Scott McClurg:

    (3) I personally heard Brad Cole say that the District approached him. This was also confirmed by Barton Lorimor in his blog (http://btljuice.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/mayor-insists-cesd-proposal-isnt-his-budget-discussion-round-up/) “Cole said the proposal is not his and any questions regarding its specifics should be directed to CESD Superintendent Linda Meredith”.

    (5) I don’t understand your definition of “diverse” if one ethnic group is over represented by double and other groups are under represented by half.

    (6) I was told by a highly active parent that Parrish School had a terrific PTO. At Thomas the engagement fell off so that she and her husband were sort of holding things together. At Lewis the Principal would not allow a PTO. That Principal is now retiring.

    (7) Glad to hear about the mix-up on the posting. Things happen.

    D Gorton

    July 17, 2011 at 7:01 pm


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