Turnout robust for District 203’s Future Focus project
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org March 12, 2013 3:37PM
Sharon Rezac takes notes as other Future Focus participants listen while District 203 superintendent Dan Bridges discusses the state of the district during the first of a series of community engagement sessions on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at Grace United Methodist Church. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
The “State of the District” launch of the Future Focus 203 project that took place Tuesday morning will be repeated from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria at Naperville Central High School, 440 W. Aurora Ave.
More information about the initiative, including a full schedule of the remaining meetings, can be found online here:
Updated: April 14, 2013 6:07AM
The conversation has begun, and the future is now.
With the road ahead marked by unknowns — but assured of myriad change — Naperville School District 203 has launched a new study of what its community sees as most important over the coming few years. The Future Focus 203 community dialogue kicked off with an orientation and early strategizing session Tuesday morning at Grace United Methodist Church, drawing about 140 district residents interested in joining the discussion. The inaugural gathering will be repeated Wednesday evening at Naperville Central High School.
“The work we are about to commence is extremely important,” project cochairman Mark Trembacki said in his opening remarks. “These sessions represent a first-hand forum to learn about the challenges and opportunities ahead, directly from district leadership.”
Superintendent Dan Bridges emphasized that the endeavor is not about celebrating the district’s well-recognized academic successes.
“Future Focus 203 is about taking advantage of an opportunity as a school community to ask ourselves, ‘What do we need to do to be better?’” said Bridges, who began the conversation after he was appointed to the district’s top administrative post last spring.
Finding the right fit
The district’s enrollment was about 9,000 in 1972, when the unit school district was formed after the dissolution of the local elementary and high school districts. Today its 22 schools are attended by about 17,500 students who come from a broader ethnic and socioeconomic background than ever before. The administration wants to ensure that its facilities are being used as efficiently as possible; that its programs are placed where they can do the most good and are furnished with the necessary resources; and that its instructional practices are right for its quickly diversifying student population.
Dave Zager, associate superintendent for finance and chief financial officer, told the group that 85 percent of the district’s funding is provided by property taxes and just 8 percent comes from general state aid. The state average is 58 percent, with 28 percent of other districts’ funds coming from state sources.
“Our district receives less from the state and federal government, so we are more dependent on property taxes,” Zager said.
The state’s contribution in the years ahead is uncertain, Zager said.
Jennifer Hester, associate superintendent for learning services, reported that the growth in students from less wealthy homes has translated to a wider range of scores on standardized tests.
“We have some pretty significant achievement gaps between groups within our population,” Hester said.
About 70 percent of students from low-income households perform on reading tests at a level that meets or exceeds the level considered a barometer of sufficient progress, Hester said. Meanwhile, the segment of kids from more economically comfortable homes performing that well is “in the high 80s,” she said.
New learning map
Adding to the district’s upcoming changes is next year’s implementation of Common Core State Standards, which will increase the academic rigor needed to reach test scores considered indicative of success. Hester said the language arts and math segments of the new standards have been set, and science and social studies will come next.
When the participants broke into small discussion groups of six to eight people, the achievement gap was one of several issues that emerged repeatedly as subjects that warrant focus.
Each table was asked to share what its occupants had found most surprising and of greatest concern in the overview they had just heard, and to devise a set of study topics they would like to pursue in the series of daytime and evening sessions scheduled over the next three months.
Several of the working groups had not realized the district isn’t first academically, despite its recognition statewide and nationally as one of the best. Many participants also were surprised at how diverse the district’s learners have become.
The apparently demographics-driven discrepancy on test scores was disconcerting as well for many of those involved in the discussions.
“Focus should be on the kids, and why is there a gap, and how do we close it?” participant Pat Harrison said.
Several of the groups also were uneasy about the state of the state’s finances, including its $97 billion public pension shortfall, and how that could affect the district’s operations.
“Money is pretty much going to drive how everything else falls into place in the district,” Chris Gurke said.
Trembacki and cochairwoman Kathy Ruiz were pleased with Tuesday’s turnout and the exchange of ideas among those who came.
“You could feel the buzz in the room,” Trembacki said.
The two project leaders said they now have a clearer picture of where the work will lead, saying that academics and finances at this point are clearly primary topics of focus.
“I thought the discussion was very animated, and everyone was listening to each other,” Ruiz said. They appeared ready to take on the second session Wednesday night.
“We’re glad to have one under our belt,” Trembacki said.
Bridges pointed out that in the coming few years, relatively little about the district will remain the same as it is today.
“Who we are is changing, what we teach is changing, the resources we use are changing, and how we are held accountable is also changing,” he said. “As a result of these changes, in order for us to continue to improve the school district, now is a critical time for us as a community to discuss who we are, what we do and how we get it done.”