State hand getting tighter on suburban North Chicago schools

The state board of education plans to replace the locally elected school board

May 14, 2012

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(Becky Vevea/WBEZ)
The North Chicago school board held its April meeting just hours after State Superintendent Chris Koch announced plans to remove them.

The state of Illinois helps run the public schools in a handful of local districts with financial and academic problems.  Suburban North Chicago is one of them. State education officials stepped up involvement there last month, announcing plans to do something they’ve never done before—replace the locally elected school board.

Edith Lopez moved out of Chicago when her son was in third grade. Her budget was tight, but she lucked out and found a house she loved, except for one thing.

“My real estate agent said, absolutely not, not North Chicago, the school district there, her words are, sucks,” Lopez said.

The public schools in North Chicago are a sharp contrast --both in academics and demographics-- to other schools that line the North Shore.

Just 53 percent of North Chicago students graduated last year. The average ACT score is 15.5. Sixty-five percent are low income. Ninety percent are minority, divided nearly equally between Hispanics and African Americans.

Lopez says a lot of families, including many from the nearby Naval Station Great Lakes, send their kids to other districts, private schools, or even homeschool.  

Lopez volunteers in North Chicago elementary schools almost daily, but even she says she can’t be loyal past eighth grade. That’s when she sent her son to a private school, which she also intends to do with her two younger children.

Like Lopez, many people WBEZ interviewed said a lack of consistent leadership has damaged the district.

“I’ve had seven different principals in seven years, when you count the building leadership,” said Karen Gordon, a freshman English teacher at North Chicago Community High School. “And not just seven principals, seven assistant principals, seven sets of guidance leadership, just across the board, it has been a revolving door.”

Since 1991, the district has had at least 12 different superintendents.

A former board member and the former school transportation director were indicted last summer for allegedly getting more than $800,000 in kickbacks from school bus contracts over roughly 10 years.

Financially, the North Chicago school board has been deficit spending for about a decade as well.

The district has also been on the state’s academic watch list for five years.

So, the state’s department of education stepped in.

Ben Martindale, the state liaison in North Chicago, said the move is not something the state does often. Only nine other districts in in Illinois have some sort of state involvment.

“It’s usually only reserved for those situations where everything else has pretty much failed,” Martindale said.

The local board and the state signed an intergovernmental agreement in December 2010 to work together to improve the schools.

The agreement allows the local board to continue functioning the way it always has, but gives the state the final say on decisions over local budget, curriculum and hiring.

Education officials say it’s messy work, but the idea is to keep local people involved so everything doesn’t fall apart when the state leaves.

One year into the agreement, the changes in North Chicago mirror those being pushed on state and national levels—charter schools, attention to dropout rates and new curriculum.

The new superintendent Milton Thompson, who lives in Wisconsin, set out to get national foundations and local businesses, like Abbott Labs, involved in the district, like they once were.

“They would call and they’d say we’ve got five scholarships for kids; no one at the high school or any place else would respond to them though they were giving scholarships away,” Thompson said. “Now, people are stepping forward and giving us those things and reengaging.”

Last year, the high school got a $6 million grant to change its curriculum and culture. The three-year grant requires the school to select an outside partner to help make those changes.

The state chose the Chicago-based Academy of Urban School Leadership, or AUSL, to run the place.

AUSL does the same kind of turnaround work in Chicago, but there also replaces the school’s teachers.

Joel Pollack, the AUSL advisor in North Chicago, said no teachers were replaced here, partly because the goal is to get the community on board.

“I think a lot of people were hesitant to embrace changes and initiatives really just because of questions they had about, ‘Will this be here next year?’” Pollack said.

Teachers and students at the high school say they’ve seen positive differences already this year.

“My freshman year everybody was in the hallways and skippin’ and stuff but now, I see a lot of kids in the classroom getting an education,” said senior Jamal Jackson.

But better attendance at the high school hasn’t translated into widespread community support. 

Resident Betty Harris said she’s not convinced the state can do a better job.

“They have financial problems themselves. How can they fix us and they can’t fix themselves?” she said.

And because schools are an intensely local—and sometimes volatile—issue, outside “help” can be seen as interference.

Parent Edith Lopez points to a controversial charter school vote a few months ago. Local board members voted down a proposal to open a charter school, run by Chicago-based LEARN, on the nearby naval base.

They cited concerns, which were echoed by the district’s new budget director at a recent local board meeting, that if the charter school opened now, the district’s deficit would balloon and cause staffing cuts or increases in class size.

Illinois Superintendent Chris Koch overruled the board’s “no” vote, (http://www.wbez.org/story/state-overrides-local-school-board-orders-charter-school-opened-north-chicago-97343) saying it was not in the best interests of children or the district.

“The parents voted no, they didn’t really, really get asked, but the parents that were there voted no, the board voted no, and the state said sorry, you have to have it anyway,” Lopez said. “Then why do we have a board?”

But North Chicago may not have its elected school board for long.

Superintendent Koch plans to do something his office has never done before—remove the local board and appoint an independent, five-person group.

But that may not help the community in the long run, says North Chicago Alderman Charles January.

“When you force the state to come in and tell you this is the way it’s going to be, that’s not good,” January said. “There’s no buy-in to that.”

For his part, Koch  says no matter what changes he makes, the community will still have a strong voice in its schools.