Great Schools Together: Student Achievement and Well-Being (part 1 of 6)

There has been a lot of media coverage and talk about the Central High School relocation project, and the related ensuing referendum in November that probably will be aiming to raise our property tax for the purpose of raising funds “north of $100 million”. As I have contemplated on how we got to where we are today, I have constantly fallen back to 2008 “Great Schools, Together” initiative. That effort has subtley shaped the direction of the Administration and the Board for the past 6 years, and I would wager that most folks had no clue that it was woven into a bulk of the decision-making. Thus I am starting a 6-part series to take a careful look at the “master plan” as released in September of 2008, one part for each of the strategic goals identified by that effort:

  1. Student Achievement and Well-being
  2. Stewardship and Accountability
  3. Faculty and Staff Excellence
  4. Engagement of Parents and the Community
  5. Diversity
  6. Facilities


My intent is to analyze and measure how we are doing on these strategic goals by evaluating each of the sub-goals listed in the Strategic Plan itself. I invite you to read the document for yourself and offer your own observations. I can already tell you that the district is doing really well in some areas and poorly in others. One thing I noticed as I have studied this document and the surrounding literature (mainly more presentations) is that there is a not really a prioritization of goals, thus it is not clear if we are doing well in the “really important” matters or not. Perhaps that is up to use to decide. So my aim here is to simply evaluate things as they stand, for better or worse. I will go after numbers and objective data as much as possible, but I am not going to discount the subjective.


For those that are interested in the “3 paragraph read” and don’t have time for the rest (ie, tl;dr, #tldr), here is my condensed cliff note’s version:

Overall the district is making really good progress with Student Achievement and Well-Being, as stated in the GST Strategic Plan; having said that, I would still like to see specific actions tied to individual “action steps”, better online transparency of the gestalt of where data is and how we measure progress, and why certain goals either were not met or are not being met.

For everyone else…

One caveat – I feel it is important to measure our progress in various areas, but I have found this to be exceptionally difficult. There is no Great Schools Together website (there was one, several in fact); there is no central repository of GST reports. There are tons of reports, to be sure, scattered hither and yon, buried in Board meetings, PMPK meetings, Facility Committee meeting, Finance Committee meetings, Stated of the District presentations and probably elsewhere.

And one note to keep in mind about timeframes. The Plan has three levels of goals within each strategic goal; short, mid and long term. These are defined on page 4 as:

Short term: accomplished within 3 years
Medium term: accomplished within 8 years
Long term: accomplished within 15 years

Since the report came out in September of 2008, it seems we can say:

  • Short term goals should have already been accomplished by September 2011
  • Medium term goals are expected to be completed prior to September 2016
  • Long term goals are due to be accomplished by 2023


And finally, the Plan has a large number of pages of “recommendations”, not necessarily goals per se, but “good ideas”. I will try to keep those in context as well.


So with all that said, let us look at Student Achievement and Well-being

“Foster high academic achievement, wellness and well-being among all learners in a safe, supportive environment”

Short-term actions
A. Establish a uniform, proactive approach regarding behavior/discipline in the District that emphasizes positive models, desired behaviors, and family involvement
B. Provide more in-depth solutions to recurring and serious behavior problems
C. Implement a bullying prevention program
D. Make procedures and criteria for identifying and serving special education and gifted students transparent to professionals and families
E. Offer choices for special education and gifted students with regard to program placement, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
F. Promote engagement and active learning for all students through the use of differentiated instruction, hands-on learning, project based instruction and field trips
G. Implement programs that teach students practical work and life skills
H. Expand programming focusing on career and technical exploration
I. Improve nutrition in breakfast and lunch programs and vending machines
J. Conduct, analyze, and utilize the data from the graduating senior survey developed at the U of I


Some of these goals do not lend themselves well to measurement. I do know tha the district has implemented a number of efforts and programs towards addressing some issues. For instance, for bullying prevention and postive models we use PBIS, and to address recurring and serious behavior issues, the district has a ladder of escalations that ultimately end up in placing a child in the READY program. Additionally, the district has several programs to allow choices between special ed programs. I am not sure about gifted – I think there is only one choice there. Are procedures for identification transparent? They are documented in board policies, but is that enough? In other areas, Marc Changnon has done quite a bit of work in expanding focus on career and technical exploration, and nutrition has certainly been improved through several programs. For that last one, I have never even heard of said survey. 🙂

I am going to pick one of those action items out and focus on it. For me, “F” is at the core of what public education should be doing. I would expand it slightly by adding “critical thinking”. One of the reasons why I want to pick on this one in particular is because of “differentiated instruction”. This is exceptionally difficult to accomplish in my opinion; I think there are some people who can do this very well, but most of us struggle with meeting others at their level. I go back to Lisa Delpit’s quote of an native Alaskan who says “in order to teach you, I must first know you.” (Lisa Delpit, “Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom”, last page) We have de-emphasized relationship-building in the name of efficiency and standardization.

In short, I would give the district an A for having at least done something to accomplish these short-term goals. It is a shame the goals were not better phrased so as to be measured in a more critical way.


Mid-term actions
A. Offer foreign language as a core component by introducing foreign language instruction in K-5 and increase the number of languages offered in the middle and high schools
B. Expand after-school enrichment and tutoring programs in all schools
C. Introduce computer technology and research at earlier grade levels and integrate it into daily activities and lessons K-12
D. Strengthen programs for gifted and special education children
E. Increase the number and variety of honors classes at middle and high school levels and establish bridge programs to enable more students to take them
F. Keep students engaged over the summer with a variety of programs
G. Increase the number of trained medical professionals
H. Work with Public Health District to offer students their required immunizations on site
I. Assist parents in obtaining foundational skills so they can assist their children
J. Partner with early intervention programs to identify children most at-risk, establish transitions from the 3-5 program, and offer transition planning earlier for those graduating from high school
K. Optimize class size to foster academic achievement
L. Adopt an accelerated school community approach which will enhance learning for all children, by incorporating challenging activities into each class
M. Establish flexible, wrap around services that promote readiness and academic success for all students
N. Increase funding for and amount of time spent on enrichment activities at all levels
O. Revise P.E. curriculum to focus on lifelong fitness


Again, most of these are hard to measure, and again, for the most part the district has done something to address these actions; kudos to the district for that. There are some goals that are actually quite measurable, but I have no idea where to find the information online. For example, “G. Increase the number of trained medical professionals ” – easy to tell if the number is going up or down, but …. well, how many trained medical professionals have we had each year? What about funding for enrichment?

However, my favorite from this group is “K. Optimize class size to foster academic achievement”. What is the optimal size? That sounds like a contentious question, one that could easily have multiple answers. Is there even one optimal size? Personally, I would just throw this out as a “action item” – it is a nice thing to keep in mind, but I do not think it can actually be done.

Overall, I think the district could take the position of saying that they have already accomplished these goals. As a community member, it is important to me to find out exactly what is being done (ie, the “action”) – it’s one thing to flippantly say “yeah, we did that” and quite another to say “we did x, y and z”.


Long-term actions
A. Expand middle school sports programs to include 6th graders and expand sports offerings for both boys and girls at middle schools
B. Offer additional early childhood and Pre-K programs
C. Institute evidence-based curriculum, which teaches to students’ individualized abilities; assess in ways other than standardized testing
D. Provide ISAT/PSAE accommodations routinely for qualified students


I believe the district has already made significant progress in many of these areas. Obviously, Common Core addresses “C”. I don’t quite understand “D” – what are ISAT accommodations?


I metioned several times above that these goals are hard to measure. One hugely positive thing the writers of the Strategic Plan did was to articulate a comprehensive list of metrics to use in this category:

Outcome measures
– Attendance rate
– Class size enrollment
– Community satisfaction
– Discipline referrals and suspensions
– English language standards
– Enrichment program participation
– Extracurricular activity participation
– Graduation rate
– Instructional time by subject
– Outstanding student performance (e.g. how many National Merit Scholars)
– Parental involvement
– Senior class student performance
– Social/emotional learning standards
– Student achievement (measured through multiple programs)
– Student participation in learning activities
– Student progress
– Student retention rate
– Students required to repeat classes or grades
– Support program effectiveness


For the most part, we can chart these. Some are still a little subjective, like “Community satisfaction”, but my plan is to focus on the numbers that are relatively easy to obtain. To that end, I look to a March 2012 presentation made to the Board that enumerates some of these specific things:

I have already started to ask about the graduation rate. For example, in the May 30th edition of “Tom’s Mailbag“, Stephanie Stuart responded with:

“The district graduation rate has increased from 81.4 percent in 2011-2012 to 86.1 percent in 2012-2013 and made significant gains in increasing the graduation rate of African-American and low-income students. For example, in 2012-2013, the African-American graduation rate rose to 78.3 percent, which is 7.4 percent above the state graduation rate of 70.9 percent. For low-income students the graduation rate in 2012-2013 was 77.8 percent, which is 4.8 percent higher than the state graduation rate and 5.2 percent higher than the previous year here in Unit 4”


According to the March 2012 presetation, the overal goal for student graduation in 2012 was 85% or higher. So we are good to go there. However, the 2012 goal specifically says “Increase AA graduation rate to 80%.” We didn’t quite make that one. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that we have increased the rate and that we are over the state average – that’s awesome! But we didn’t meet our goal. This should trigger a “why” question – what is it that prevented us from having 80%? What can we do about it?






2 Responses to “Great Schools Together: Student Achievement and Well-Being (part 1 of 6)”

  1. 2014 Annual Report | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] thing, which I have pointed out before, is the graduation rate. Yes, it is fantastic that we are making progress. However, having said […]

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