Susie Sendejas is among at team of Spanish teachers at Roundout Elementary School, where students begin learning the language in kindergarten. (Photo by Jon Lowenstein)

Despite the large gap in funding between Rondout Elementary School in north suburban Lake Forest and Medgar Evers Primary School in south suburban Ford Heights, both schools saw more than 80 percent of their students pass standardized tests in 2005, according to Illinois State Report Card data.

But, with $22,508 per pupil, mostly from local resources, Rondout pays for instruction covering foreign languages, fine arts, physical education, technology and life skills. And, with $12,674 per pupil, mostly from state and federal grants that fluctuate from year to year, Evers offers a more restricted program.

“Money is not everything, but it’s a firm down payment toward producing a well-rounded student,” said Gregory Jackson, superintendent of Ford Heights District 169, which includes Evers and one other school.

At Rondout, teachers work with students on how to understand and appreciate racial, ethnic and economic diversity, according to Jenny Wojcik, superintendent of Rondout School District 72.

Students are also grouped for reading and math in multi-grade clusters, in an effort to develop individual educational plans for each student.

“I want to maximize the time I’ve got to give attention to a child at the individual level,” said Michael Polite, principal of Rondout Elementary School, the only school in the district. “We’ve got the luxury that we don’t have to look too far to find [resources]. Having resources available affects how you structure your priorities.”

Rondout kindergartners meet with Susie Sendejas, a fourth-year Spanish teacher, three times a week.

Sendejas stood recently in front of her students, teaching them how to count.

“Uno,” said Sendejas, pointing to the number “one” on a calendar.

“Uno,” answered the children, who had just come in from lunch and recess.

Sendejas went on to cover the days of the week and weather conditions in the half-hour lesson before sending the children back to their regular classroom.

At Evers, however, there is little time or money to focus on much beyond the standardized tests. Evers has no foreign language or art instruction, although Jackson said he is working to bring a more extensive fine-arts program to the building. School trips are rare, and administrators must take into consideration that some children may not have money to purchase lunch on such trips. “It’s teaching to the standards,” Principal Marilyn Barnes said. “If [students] know what the standards are and are familiar with them, they will meet and exceed them.”

Since 2000, in an effort to revamp its offerings to students, the school has collaborated with America’s Choice, a comprehensive school reform program based in Washington, D.C. Consistent classroom design and teaching method are central aspects of the organization’s approach. School achievement goals are posted in every Evers classroom and some hallways. Students regularly gather as a group on a rug to learn individual skills, move back to their desks for a work period and then return to the rug to share both what they learned and how they arrived at their results.

Students who have done particularly well in reading, writing or math sit in a designated chair to acknowledge their accomplishments. The best examples of students’ work—along with relevant state standards and teachers’ comments—are posted outside the classrooms. “It’s best practices,” Barnes said about the school’s methods. “Best practices are scientifically and research-based. –¦ If you use them consistently, you will get results.”

The percentage of Evers students meeting state standards rose from 43 percent in 2002 to 83 percent in 2005.

In addition to having less control over how state and federal money can be used, the reliance on these funds often brings with it insecurity about whether those sources will be renewed year to year, Jackson said.

While she’s pleased with Evers’ success, Barnes expressed concern about the consequences for her students having such a specifically defined educational experience. “Children need a balance,” Barnes said. “You kind of feel bad that you can’t do more, like the affluent districts, letting [the children] to grow. [But], because you have to hit the ground running, you don’t have a lot of time to do those other activities.”

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....