KANKAKEE — A rocky start to the school year at Kankakee High School — for which the Illinois State Board of Education has plans to intervene — was the subject of frustrations voiced by students, parents, board members and community leaders during Monday’s Kankakee School Board meeting.
Discussion on what went wrong with the implementation of a new scheduling system at KHS prompted apologies from an assistant superintendent and all six school board members present at the meeting.
Nearly a month into the school year, the school is still working to clear up course overlaps and unstructured blocks of time in students’ schedules, and the overall confusion among teachers and students alike has cut into instructional time.
“We know that this did not go as planned,” said Felice Hybert, assistant superintendent of curriculum. “We know that we made mistakes. We know that we are accountable for those mistakes and for the lost learning for kids, and I want to take responsibility for that.”
A common thread from public and board comments was that the situation amounted to a public embarrassment for the district.
Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said that mistakes sometimes happen when things are rolled out too quickly, but the important thing is the district is working to make things right.
“I don’t have kids in District 111, but I have a vested interest in its outcomes, because when children aren’t perhaps raised in the home where they live or taught in the classrooms where they attend, then I see them in the courtrooms where I work, so the outcomes here are crucial,” he said.
Board members expressed the need to do whatever it takes to fix the scheduling situation and make sure it does not happen again.
Administrators laid out a timeline in which they plan to fix students’ schedules and get prepared for scheduling the next semester and school year. The board questioned how the district would follow through on those plans as well as what led to its current predicament.
About 40 percent of students so far who have registered to attend Kankakee High School in the fall have indicated they want a non-traditional schedule, Superintendent Genevra Walters said during Monday’s Kankakee School Board meeting.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
When the school year started Aug. 18, KHS was rolling out a new scheduling system whereby, instead of the traditional seven or eight class periods per day, the school day is broken up into 18 23-minute “flex mods” (short for flexible modular scheduling).
Classes are supposed to last two or more “mods,” the idea being that teachers can schedule more mods for hands-on labs and activities. The system, in principle, is supposed to give students more flexibility to choose the classes they want to take.
At the same time, the high school has also worked time into the day when students are supposed to be able to schedule different things that they need outside of class, such as tutoring, SAT prep or internships, called WIN (What I Need) time.
Additionally, each academy within the high school has a different weekly Kay Day, or colloquial day, when students are supposed to work remotely and come in as needed for support.
Clearly, these initiatives have not gone as planned.
Upon investigation of a parent’s complaint about the schedule, the Illinois State Board of Education has been in contact with Kankakee School District 111 and said it will be providing assistance with scheduling and equity at the high school, said Shameka Fountain, assistant superintendent for human resources.
Fountain said the district has been communicating with an ISBE representative via phone and asked if the state board could provide help. A meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 16, to determine what that assistance might include, Fountain said.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Jonathan Sikma, an assistant principal and head of the high school’s scheduling committee, said the committee made the decision in March to go forward with the flex mod schedule, which was based on a scheduling system at a high school in Wisconsin. The committee presented the plan to Superintendent Genevra Walters in April, he said.
Staffing difficulties at the high school have made it difficult to see implementation through, as the original committee that began working on the plans has since dwindled from 18 down to four members, he said.
Late course requests and school registrations also complicated the process, Sikma said.
Hybert noted that, while the late course requests and registrations were an added difficulty, they were not an excuse for being unprepared for the start of the school year. She said limited knowledge and information on how to implement the schedule, as well as a lack of oversight and accountability in implementing it, were also factors.
“By the time we knew [in July] that the scheduling team felt that they weren’t going to make the timeline, we were already so far into it, it would have been impossible to go back to a traditional schedule,” Hybert said.
Sikma said he feels it is important to stay the course to get the current system working like it was intended, as a complete overhaul would be even more time-consuming.
“This is not an easy time,” Sikma said. “This is not the flexible schedule that we hoped for or desired. But it’s where we are at now, and I feel like we can get to these ideals if we are given the time to do so.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Hybert said a team of administrators, teachers and guidance counselors have been working with students and families to resolve schedule “overlaps’’ that are occurring when multiple courses the students intend to take have conflicting times. The goal is to have all overlaps resolved by Sept. 20.
Additionally, teachers have been asked for suggestions on activities to fill empty WIN time blocks, though the issue will likely take longer to resolve, she said.
“It was never intended — and this is where we dropped the ball and made a mistake — it was never intended that those WIN blocks of time should be unstructured,” Hybert said. “Those should have been filled with activities and structures for students.”
Another goal was proposed to have second semester schedules figured out by Dec. 1, though board members asked if this could be done by mid-November to allow extra time for tweaks that might be needed.
Looking ahead to next year, students will be asked to fill out their course requests by January to prepare for the 2022-23 year schedule, with the goal to have complete student schedules ready by June 1.
Difficulties also arose when school started and teachers did not all have assigned room numbers, causing some confusion on where to go. Teachers have since been given their room assignments, she said.
Hybert said systems will need to be in place to support the lost instructional time, including Saturday school, online tutoring, summer learning, and extra time to complete assignments.
“I’ve heard from many students, they were in homerooms, there weren’t that many assignments coming in the beginning, and now it seems like they are coming fast and furious,” she said. “We need to give students a little bit more time to make sure they can build the stamina for completing all of those assignments.”
During Monday’s meeting, the board approved the hiring of a new high school administrator, Vernita Sims, whose primary responsibility will be “supporting and implementing building-wide scheduling and instructional accountability in response to the ISBE complaint,” according to board documents.
Sims, who has a doctorate in instructional leadership and master’s degree in administration and supervision, will start Sept. 27 with an annual salary of $101,000, the documents show.
Fountain said this will be an interim position with the possibility to make it a permanent position after one year.
Board member Christopher Bohlen noted his support for hiring outside help to address the situation.
“I really want to consider hiring an outside master scheduler who will come in and get the information, someone that has full-time responsibility to get this in place, because this was a disaster and we can’t do this again.”
The volume of recent teacher resignations in Kankakee School District 111 prompted questions from the school board about the reasons they are leaving, particularly from Kankakee High School.
Kankakee High School students’ schedules will more closely resemble college schedules next school year, according to school administrators.
Editor's note: This event has since been canceled because some State's Attorney staff are quarantining after COVID-19 exposure.
KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County State’s Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board is hosting an event Saturday in hopes of working against gang and gun violence in the community.
“The Youth Field Day is an event that was brought up because of the recent events in Kankakee County,” said Rosalinda Chavez, president of the board, which is comprised of eighth-graders and high school students from school districts in the county.
One of those events was a shoot-out near the Kankakee County Courthouse that left two men dead and another man seriously wounded.
On Aug. 26, Antonio Hernandez ambushed Victor Andrade, his cousin Miguel Andrade and a 28-year-old man as the three left the courthouse following a Victor’s appearance on an unrelated case. With Hernandez a current member of the Latin Kings and Victor a former member of the Latin Kings, police say the shooting was a result of the gang’s internal struggles.
Another recent incident of note was on July 6 when 15-year-old Davarion Jones was shot dead in front of his family’s home in the 1100 block of East Merchant Street in Kankakee.
“The members of the youth advisory board saw a great need in our community because there is not enough conversation regarding youth involvement in gangs and gun misuse,” Chavez said. “As a group of youth in this community, we wanted to involve games, education and fun into the day.
“The hope for this event is that the youth will be face-to-face with ex-gang members and that they will be able to hear their testimony,” she continued. “It is important for youth to hear real-life experiences and listen to the real effects this lifestyle can lead to, all while having an exciting day packed with games.”
The Youth Field Day will be from 2 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Beckman Park, located at Cobb Boulevard and South Osborn Avenue in Kankakee.
BRADLEY — The Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School School Board heard from some district residents about the school’s mask policy during Monday’s meeting — again. The board had also heard from residents during its August meeting.
In question is the mask mandate for all K-12 schools announced last month by Gov. JB Pritzker as a means to slow the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19. It requires that all students, employees and visitors to schools wear a mask.
Public schools that do not comply run the risk of being put on probation by the Illinois State Board of Education and lose state funding. For nonpublic schools, a loss of accreditation is among the consequences for non-compliance.
There to speak out against students forced to wear masks at school, required masks also became an issue for those wishing to attend Monday’s meeting.
Superintendent Matt Vosberg dealt with those attendees without a mask, and two Bradley police officers joined the department’s school resource officer as standby assistance.
Bradley Deputy Police Chief Craig Anderson addressed the audience prior to the start of a public hearing on the district’s 2022 fiscal budget, an agenda item for the meeting.
“This is not a police incident,” Anderson said. “You are asked to follow the mandate. If you are asked to wear one and do not, the administrators will ask you to leave. I will gladly talk to you and listen to you outside. If you do not comply and do not leave, school officials can ask that you be arrested for criminal trespass.”
Anderson asked audience members to exit the auditorium. Then, to regain admission into the auditorium, each person was asked if they were going to wear a mask. If refused, that person was not allowed back into the auditorium.
There were no incidents and the public hearing began with approximately 50 people in attendance, half of which backed a no-mask policy.
During his presentation on budget facts and figures, Chris Hammond, the district’s chief school business official, made mention of the larger-than-normal attendance.
“Most times I do this at a public hearing, there normally aren’t this many people in attendance,” Hammond said.
Following the conclusion of the budget hearing, the board started its regular meeting with public comment first on the agenda.
School board president Justin Caldwell reminded people that the board would only listen and not respond to comments during this portion of the meeting.
Five adults and one BBCHS student spoke against the school’s alignment with the state mask mandate.
Junior Alex Altmyer said her parents — and everyone else in the community — pay taxes and should have a say in the process.
“I feel if my parents don’t want me to wear a mask, I don’t have to because my parents pay for this school,” Altmyer said. “Before school started, they sent out a survey to parents. It showed 80 percent didn’t want their kids wearing a mask in school. You guys completely ignored it. It really is our choice.”
Altmyer pointed out one of her teachers who has taught with their mask under their chin and also said the mandate doesn’t make sense.
“I find it funny because we sit next to each other at lunch with our mask off,” she said. “But when we go into the hallway and classrooms, we have to wear our masks.”
BBCHS parent Dan Gagnon, of Bourbonnais, said he appreciates the board but acknowledged that it comes down to money and power at the state level.
“You would not be wearing a mask if it wasn’t mandated,” Gagnon said to the board.
SPRINGFIELD — Expressing concern that the Illinois State Board of Education might have overstepped its bounds by threatening to withhold funding from school districts that do not enforce its mask mandate, a legislative panel on Tuesday urged the agency to put its policies into formal rules.
The unanimous vote by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR, represented one of the few times that Illinois lawmakers have pushed back against the enforcement of Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it came after intense questioning of ISBE officials, especially from Republican members of the panel.
Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, said he personally has no problem with wearing masks or getting vaccinated and that he encourages others to get vaccinated as well.
“Having said that, I do have concerns with government overreach and those who act outside their authority,” he said. “That is the purpose of our questions today. As one member of JCAR, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask questions to ensure government is acting within its authority and in line with state statute.”
On Aug. 4, Pritzker issued an executive order requiring all public and nonpublic PreK-12 schools to follow joint guidance from ISBE and the Illinois Department of Public Health by requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks indoors at school.
Since then, the state board has taken an aggressive stance in enforcing that rule by either placing districts on probation or, in the case of nonpublic schools, revoking their official state recognition.
According to data from the state board, 47 public school districts have been placed on suspension for refusing to comply, although all but four of them have since agreed to come into compliance. Beecher City CUSD 20, Hutsonville CUSD 1, Cowden-Herrick CUSD 3A and Nauvoo-Colusa CSD 325 remained on probation as of Tuesday, meaning they are at risk of losing state recognition and state funding.
A total of 15 nonpublic school systems have had their state recognition revoked for noncompliance, although six of those have since had their recognition restored. Losing recognition can mean, among other things, that their graduation diplomas are not recognized by state colleges and universities and they are ineligible to take part in interscholastic events.
DeWitte and other Republicans on the panel questioned whether the state board had any statutory or administrative authority to take enforcement action against schools that refuse to comply with “guidance” issued by state agencies.
“Guidance is guidance. Guidance is not a rule,” said Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego. “A rule is enforceable. A statute is enforceable. I don’t believe that an executive order is enforceable to the same degree as statute or [a rule].”
But Kristen Kennedy, deputy legal counsel for ISBE, said the agency was relying on an existing administrative rule that says, “A school district shall be placed on probation if it exhibits deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff” as well as Pritzker’s executive order and the joint guidance issued by IDPH and ISBE.
She also cited a 2020 Sangamon County court ruling involving the Hutsonville school district — one of the four public districts still on probation — that held Pritzker’s executive orders and the joint guidance were all legally issued and enforceable.
Wheeler, however, compared ISBE’s actions with the situation lawmakers faced in the early phases of the pandemic, when JCAR pushed back against emergency rules issued by the Department of Public Health that would have allowed for criminal prosecutions of businesses that violated Pritzker’s initial stay-at-home order.
“And we went through lots of iterations and hours and hours of discussions trying to land on something that was better than what we started with, and I think we actually did that last year,” he said. “But it was all done by emergency rulemaking. When it comes to how you direct things toward the public, guidance says ‘should’ and rule and law say ‘shall.’ And rarely can you cross over those two, because otherwise there’s no point in us having a legislature to oversee these things, to set the policy.”
Soon after that, the panel went into recess behind closed doors. Several minutes later, members emerged and voted on a motion expressing “concern that policies outside of rule may exist” and encouraging ISBE “to place all policy and guidance in rule.” The motion specifically urged ISBE to propose rules that more clearly defined process to be used before revoking a school’s recognition.
The motion passed, 10-0. JCAR’s next scheduled meeting is set for Tuesday, Oct. 19, in Springfield, which is the first day of the General Assembly’s fall veto session.
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