Jose Torres Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Elgin is working to reform its classrooms, but the effort is set against a backdrop of stark differences among schools in different neighborhoods.

Since 2005, Elgin has spent nearly $4.6 million fighting a lawsuit charging that these disparities are unfair to black and Latino students and result in inferior educational services. 
Such segregation is becoming more commonplace in suburban communities, according to Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles. “A lot of districts just let it happen,” he notes. 

In Elgin, the contrasts are illustrated at two middle schools, Kimball and Kenyon Woods.

Kimball, surrounded by more affordable housing than other areas in the district, enrolls a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students and posts lower test scores than any other middle school. The school shows signs of age and overcrowding. Some bilingual classes, for example, are held in a woodworking shop that has been only partially converted to accommodate the classes.

Last year, Kimball missed reading achievement targets set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for low-income, Latino and limited-English-proficient students.

Kenyon Woods, on the other hand, is a 4-year-old middle school that still gives off an air of newness. Located in a tranquil setting among wooded hills and open fields in South Elgin, the school enrolls a disproportionate number of white students—about 60 percent. Just a quarter of students are low-income, and 84 percent of students met state standards in 2007.

Sue Welu, the school’s principal, acknowledges that demographics give Kenyon Woods a head start when it comes to achievement. Still, she credits much of the school’s success to the timing of its opening. Kenyon Woods enrolled its first students just as the district rolled out its new curricula. That gave the school, she says, a chance to get “everyone going in the same direction on day one.”

Math courses, in particular, have improved with the introduction of quarterly assessments and a tighter alignment with the programs offered in elementary feeder schools, Welu says.

 Her school has also added a pre-algebra class that fits nicely with the district’s push for more rigorous coursework.

Tackling mobility

Despite the differences, both principals at Kenyon Woods and Kimball have identified a common problem that they say is getting worse: students who routinely transfer in and out during the year.

Kimball’s mobility rate (17 percent) is twice as high as Kenyon Woods. Principal Al Tamburrino says students from Chicago and nearby towns like Carpentersville routinely join Kimball when their parents change jobs or move because of a family crisis.

“It’s not uncommon for a student to start the year at our school, transfer to another district like Chicago mid-year, and return before the year ends,” he says.

Mobility poses significant academic hurdles, including the difficulties of identifying a student’s special needs when their records are slow to arrive. Tamburrino and Welu both say Chicago schools are particularly slow to share records—a problem that’s been cited by different schools within the city as well.

Tamburrino says mobility can also lead to discipline issues. He says some students will act out or misbehave until they find a “fit in the pecking order.”

To help combat the problem, Elgin has revamped its data systems to better track students within the district. A more cohesive, standardized curriculum for all schools will make it easier to keep transferring students on track.

Under the watch of superintendent-designate Jose Torres, who is leaving his post as Area 14 instructional officer in Chicago—where mobility is much higher—schools will have little wiggle room for mistakes.

Torres tells principals to work with every student, no matter what the circumstance. “No excuses.”

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