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East St. Louis Schools' Progress Depends On State Support

Illinois State Board of Education website

The state's takeover of the district aims to improve student achievement, finances and governance, but progress will be hard without more money from Springfield.

Christopher Koch knows what schools in East St. Louis need to succeed, and he has a pretty clear idea how to get the job done. He just hopes that the state of Illinois will provide the resources that the district needs.

As the state superintendent in charge of education, he knows only too well about Illinois’ recent dismal record on school spending. In 2009, general funds for education totaled $7.4 billion; by the current school year, they were down to nearly $6.7 billion.

That drop of nearly $715 million weighs particularly hard on districts like East St. Louis 189, whose budget is far more dependent on state and federal money than most districts in the state. Only 7 percent of its budget, $122 million last year, comes from local sources.

To cope with the budget crisis, District 189 officials have cut hundreds of employees and closed schools. Art Culver, who became superintendent of the district in September 2011, has worked to put improvements in place, against a backdrop of efforts from Springfield for a state takeover and resistance from the locally elected school board.

As financial support has waned, student test scores have dropped. The latest numbers from the Illinois state achievement test showed just 18 percent of the students in the district met or exceeded state standards in math and reading, compared with 59 percent statewide. That local number tumbled from 31 percent the year before.

The high school graduation rate, whether it’s figured for four years or five years, is about two-thirds of the students enrolled. And only 4 percent of the students were judged ready for college coursework, compared with 59 percent statewide.

More than 98 percent of the nearly 6,400 students in the district come from families classified as living in poverty.

Given those numbers, Koch’s job is clearly difficult. Recognizing the attention from the state that East St. Louis requires, he named himself the official liaison between Springfield and the district, working with a financial oversight panel to make sure that everything – money, achievement and governance – is on the right track.

“I just wanted to do it personally,” he said in a recent interview, the day before the state board of education discussed interventions in schools in East St. Louis and in North Chicago. “It’s taking a lot of agency time and resources, so I wanted to make sure I was communicating accurately with the board.”

He has a timetable and a financial blueprint he wants to follow. What he needs now is help from lawmakers dealing with a host of money problems.

Percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards
Credit Brent Jones/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Data: Illinois State Board of Education

  “There is a plan in place,” Koch said. “I am skeptical at this point as to whether there will be adequate funding coming forward.”

Consent decree

Even getting to the point where the state could have direct authority over East St. Louis schools took court action.

When the state school board voted in 2012 to take over the district, members of the  local school board filed suit challenging the action, claiming it was unconstitutional. The state countered that the poor academic performance by students in District 189 merited the takeover, along with the district’s chronic financial performance.

The lawsuit ended in a consent decree issued in St. Clair County Circuit Court in May. It called for Culver to grant written approval for any local board decisions on personnel, contracts, budgets, policy, curriculum or other unspecified areas.

Credit East St. Louis schools website
Art Culver

In one area that has been a longtime source of controversy in the district, the court order said specifically:

“The members of the district board will have no other involvement in the recruitment, hiring or termination of any employees of the district.”

If the local board does not go along with Culver’s recommendations, the consent decree says that any Koch will make the final decision. for a final decision.

The consent decree also required District 189 to draw up an improvement plan within 90 days. It covered several areas, including training of board members in governance procedures; specifics on how to improve student achievement; an analysis of what staff members are needed and a strategy for attracting people to fill those positions; a facilities plan; and a blueprint for bringing the district’s budget into balance.

The court order directed Culver to update the improvement plan twice a year and submit it to Koch, plus submit a report by June 30 each year on how the plan is being put into practice.

Finally, the decree called for Culver and the local board to convene community forums twice a year to discuss plans to improve student achievement with the public.

The consent decree is designed to stay in place until the court finds that the District 189 board “has demonstrated professionalism, integrity and sound governance” as well as raised its graduation and attendance rates and lowered its truancy and dropout rates to state standards. It needs to be fully accredited by an outside review team.

In any case, the court said the decree would stay in place for at least four years, and if the district does not fulfill the terms for it to end by that time, it would automatically renew for another four years on the same terms.

'It always takes time'

Koch appreciates the extra time, given the difficulty of the task ahead in both East St. Louis and North Chicago.

When it was noted that test scores have actually fallen since the state stepped in, he pointed out that the so-called “cut” scores – the standards that measure whether students meet or exceed state standards – have gone up. But he acknowledged that improving student achievement isn’t easy to accomplish.

“It always takes time,” he said. “You’ve got to have people on the ground providing high quality instruction to turn a ship around. You’ve got to start early. Everyone that advanced a grade who wasn’t adequately instructed and provided the supports they needed and was passed on without achieving a certain level has to be worked with.

“It takes time. It takes persistence. It’s not going to turn around in one or two years. We’re talking about long-term strategy here. East St. Louis didn’t get this way overnight, and they’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

Even if the district is able to make all of the changes that the consent decree envisions, Koch said, an underlying culture may persist, making it hard to achieve the progress necessary.

“This is a phenomenon that is a national one,” he said. “We have some of the lowest-performing schools in the country that are least able to attract staff who want to come there. That’s something that is a constant issue that we try to find solutions to. I think leadership matters. Building leadership matters.”

Koch points out that it’s hard to weed out ineffective teachers and other personnel when there haven’t been ways to tell who those people are.

“Teachers in many cases weren’t even being evaluated,” he said. “No one was looking at what they were doing.  That is an example of something that has been put in place in both of these districts that wasn’t happening before.”

A key part of the state’s strategy has been to concentrate on early childhood, giving kids a solid foundation as they begin their school career.

“Within five years,” Koch said, “I would hope you would start seeing some benefits in investments in early childhood. You’ll see it with the early grades first likely.”

But even that approach, given limited funding, has pitfalls.

“We attempted to reach more kids through early childhood by going to a half day,” Koch said, “and we had a huge withdrawal of interest in early childhood because parents needed students to be taken care of during the entire day. They didn’t have options.

“Whenever you’re addressing families without options, and certainly there is a high percentage of students and families living in poverty, it does take more resources. We see that in a lot of districts.”

Koch characterized the cooperation of the existing board of District 189 as good, but he acknowledged that the court order is a powerful tool that is helping.

“They’re actively cooperating because they have to be,” he said. “The agreement laid out what everyone’s behavior would be, and that we’re working toward common goals on behalf of students.

Revenue/spending per pupil comparison
Credit Brent Jones/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Data: Illinois State Board of Education

  “I’m under no illusion that if the state wasn’t here in this district, things would be different. We’ve experienced that before. That’s why we put performance standards in that everyone understands and that were crystal clear so there are no illusions about what kind of things have to be in place before the state would think about exiting.”

Figures presented to the state board last month showed a need for nearly $91 million over the next three years to accomplish all that Koch wants to get done in East St. Louis. Add another $137 million for North Chicago, and you’ve got a sum that isn’t easy to come by – and an effort that is on the radar of schools in other hard-hit areas of Illinois.

“Plenty of other districts in the state are watching very closely as to any additional funds going into a district that that was mismanaged to begin with, and whether or not it’s really the state’s responsibility to pay for that,” Koch said. “If it is for them, why not for others?

“These are reasonable questions to ask. I just think we have a responsibility to ensure that all kids in the state receive a quality education. Historically, that hasn’t been the case.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.