East St. Louis School District team honored for turnaround effort

By Bob Pieper For Chronicle Media

The East St. Louis School District Office of School Turnaround team
(Photo courtesy of East St. Louis School District 189)

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is honoring the East St. Louis School District 189 Office of School Turnaround (OST) for implementation of a state-of-the-art, data-driven, academic improvement program in, what has often been called, one of the nation’s most troubled school systems.

District 189 Deputy Superintendent of Achievement and Administration Devon Horton and four fellow OST leaders were presented an ISBE Award of Excellence during the state school board’s annual “Those Who Excel” banquet in Normal, Oct. 28.

Though best known for the Illinois Teacher or the Year award (technically the ISBE Classroom Teacher Award of Excellence), the state school board’s annual awards program bestows honors at three levels (excellence, meritorious service, and special recognition) in seven categories (classroom teacher, school administrator/principal, student support personnel (licensed), educational service personnel (unlicensed), school board member/community volunteer; team, and early career educator) for significant contributions to public or private elementary or secondary schools.

The East St. Louis Office of School Turnaround garnered the ISBE’s 2017 top level award for a coordinated team effort to improve academic performance.

Receiving the award were District 189 Deputy Superintendent of Achievement and Administration Devon Horton; Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment Jennifer Brumback; Elementary School Turnaround Specialist Roshanda Johnson; Secondary School Turnaround Specialist Lelon Seaberry Jr., and Data Management Specialist Lauren Thomas.

As part of the school districts MIRACLES Turnaround Strategy, the team has implemented a district-wide data dashboard platform (known as “Domo”) and the nationally recognized Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) to track improvement in student academic outcomes and the overall “climate” at each district school, according to district Director of Strategic Partnerships Sydney Stigge-Kaufman

“They are constantly analyzing a range of indicators including student achievement in academic subjects based on the statewide PARCC as well as the district’s Northwest Evaluation Assessment (NWEA) for level of student achievement, SAT scores for high school students, freshmen on track, Advanced Placement (AP) credit success for high school students, attendance, suspension rate, graduation rate for high school, college enrollment rate upon graduation, and the school environment checklist,” said Stigge-Kaufman

Just seven years ago, in 2010, the ISBE took control of the East St. Louis schools for poor academic performance.  It was only the second such school takeover in Illinois history. In addition to academic achievement problems, the district spent years on the ISBE’s financial watch lists.

Although the state initially established a transition officer in the district to implement reforms, District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver, who took over as the district’s top administrator in 2011, convinced state officials to allow a team approach, establishing the district’s Office of Transition in 2015 and bringing in Horton to run it.

An 18-year classroom teacher, Horton came to East St. Louis after 14 years with the Chicago Public Schools for 14 years, with a passion for reform and expertise in developing accountability systems educational institutions. Some of his strengths include concentrations on performance management and real-time data use to improve instructional practices and administrative decisions, Culver said.

“I charged Deputy Superintendent Devon Horton with developing a system for managing and monitoring progress in key areas of importance across the building and district level,” said Culver. “(This) is systematically changing our culture to one that values the use of data to drive instruction and that values coaching and public practice.

Based on the data, the team provides intensive support to building administrators and a framework by which they can lead their staff in producing improvements, Culver said.

So far, the turnaround program appears to be working, he adds.

The four-year graduation rate at East St. Louis Senior High has increased by 10.2 percentage points from 62.8 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2016.

In 2015, only 7.5 percent of district students met Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) national norms for mathematics but in 2017, 18.3 percent did. In reading, 12.9 percent of students met NWEA national norms in 2015, but that rose to 24.1 percent in 2017.

East St. Louis District 189 is now in the state’s highest financial health category for the third consecutive year.

Administrators readily admit that District 189’s problems are far from completely solved.  The district continues to operate under terms of a 2013 consent decree with the ISBE.  Overall, standardized test score and other academic indicators remain far below state and national averages.

However, district staff and administrators are “elated that the Illinois State Board of Education is recognizing the profound impact of our District 189 Office of School Turnaround,” said Stigge-Kaufman said; adding that “Our district’s motto for this year is ‘Committed to Excellence.’”

“We believe that students can be successful in a rigorous academic program,” said Culver. “Their zip code will not determine their destiny.”


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