A tightly structured program and continuous assessment at Edison Primary School in Kankakee has contributed to the school's hefty test score gains. (Photo by Audrey Cho)

Even though it doesn’t get a ton of money, the Edison Primary School in far south suburban Kankakee has witnessed a sharp increase in test scores.

The percentage of Edison students meeting or exceeding grade level on standardized tests rose 34 percentage points, from 52 percent in 2002 to 86 percent in 2005. The school’s 2002 score covers five subject areas, while the 2005 figure reflects just math, reading and science assessments.

Kankakee School District 111, which includes Edison and 10 others schools, spent about $9,000 per pupil in 2005, a few dollars less than the statewide average.

While more money would be helpful, Principal Richard Harris said the school owes its success to individualized instruction, high levels of parental involvement and a committed group of teachers. “There are three things you have to look at: a relevant curriculum, rigor and the relationship the staff has with the student body,” Harris said. “They have a relationship of respect [with the] students and are going to do anything they can to help.”

A core of Edison’s instruction is an intensive literacy program with a focus on phonics and vocabulary, according to Jenny Way, the school’s literacy coach. Edison uses a system of ongoing assessments to diagnose where students need help and to determine if they are making the gains they should.

Each day, there’s a mandatory 90-minute block of reading and at least an hour of math. And, each week, students get a minimum of two hours of writing and two-and-a-half hours each of science, social studies and health.

Harris said school officials make phone calls to students’ homes in an effort to reach the school’s goal of 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences.

The school sends books home in both Spanish and English so that Spanish-speaking parents can read to their children. And, while the school has no Latino teachers, the school now has a teacher fluent in Spanish. That teacher occasionally assists with phone calls and translation.

While the student body is mostly African American, Edison’s Latino population has grown from 9 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2005. Of Edison’s 250 students, 93 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 2005.

“We have teachers that focus on individual students,” Harris said. “They don’t believe in excuses, and they’re not going to use poverty or parent support as an excuse. They are going to focus and work as hard as they can.”

He said this work can lead to long hours for teachers and administrators, whose work days exceed the typical school days, often stretching from early mornings to early evenings.

In 2005, Edison was among just 38 schools in the state to be awarded the Academic Improvement Award and to be honored as an Illinois Spotlight School by the Illinois State Board of Education. The improvement award was given to schools showing a 7.5-point improvement in both reading and math tests from 2004 to 2005, or a 15 percent jump in both reading and math from 2003 to 2005. Spotlight schools were those where a majority of the students were low-income and meeting state standards in both reading and math in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Sometimes the school pays a price for its academic success.

For example, based on its reading scores, Edison no longer qualifies for a “Reading First” grant that helped pay for a literacy coach. District 111 has provided the funding to keep the literacy coach in place.

In 2004-2005, just 31 percent of the district’s funding came from property tax revenue and other local sources, another 21 percent was supplied by the federal government. Nearly half of the district’s funding came from the state in 2004-2005, but Superintendent Brian Ali would like for the state to provide more. Ali said he has had to make cuts in custodial, food service and teaching positions during his two-year tenure.

The district has used specialized state grants to help fill the void. Ali said new grants for 2006-2007 include a three-year, $1.3 million literacy grant, a $300,000 library grant and a $120,000 preschool grant. “[Seeing] how the state has abdicated responsibility for funding in a fair and equitable manner, it is incumbent on districts to aggressively pursue opportunities that advance the objectives of the district,” he said.

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....