Grant Park Middle School science teacher John Froehner recently taught a biology lesson while wearing a grass skirt and Hawaiian shirt.

The middle school’s luau-themed spring dance was that evening, and the teachers wanted to get their students in the spirit of having fun while learning.

“Our teachers want to get on the students’ level,” principal Matt Maxwell said. “The students really buy into that and realize they can look up to their teacher for support. They realize they can have fun and relax. That is the learning environment we want.”

That is all part of what Grant Park Community Unit School District 6 refers to as “The GP Way.” The small, rural, “farm town” school district equips all students grades 5-12 with Chromebooks. It uses virtual reality.

Grant Park High School offers four advanced placement classes. It sends every high school senior off into the real world with an academic signing day.

And, it is the only high school in Kankakee County to have been nationally recognized by U.S. News & World Report during the past four years. It earned bronze awards in 2015 and 2017 before earning a silver award last year for ranking among the top 25 percent of high schools in the nation.

All those accolades made Grant Park school district the Daily Journal’s 2019 Progress Awards winner for Excellence in Education.

“We think our success is a direct correlation to the people we have standing in front of our students,” Superintendent John Palan said. “I have no doubt in my mind about that. The connection our teachers have to the students is what has set us on this path.”

Grant Park’s rise in the education ranks has spanned over several decades. In the early 1990s, there were talks about the district consolidating because of financial hardships.

Ever since Palan took over as superintendent eight years ago, the district has boasted balanced budgets.

Modern education

While balancing the finances, the district has modernized its education approach by providing technology to its 500 students.

That started during the 2014-15 school year, when the district piloted its 1:1 technology initiative that provided fifth-graders with Chromebooks. That spring, six fifth-graders made their pitch to the school board, convincing board members to expand the 1:1 program.

Now, all students from grades 4-12 have school-issued Chromebooks that they take home with them. Meanwhile, third-graders can access Chromebooks at school, and first- and second-graders can use iPads in their classrooms.

Teachers have since used technology to enhance their curriculum. They took it a step further last school year by buying and introducing virtual reality goggles to the classrooms.

“Kids need to learn how to use technology. That is where the world is going,” Maxwell said. “We need to get it into their hands as soon as possible so they can prepare for college, careers or the workforce.

“Now, learning doesn’t just have to take place in the classroom. It can happen outside. With technology, we are basically knocking down the walls of the classrooms to get students learning even outside of the school building.”

Throughout the past few years, the district also has added AP calculus, AP European history, AP literature and AP chemistry to its course catalogue to give students an opportunity to earn college credits in high school.

Culture

Palan knows a thing or two about making learning fun. Last year, he walked the halls with a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sandals and sunglasses for spirit week.

That was the kind of learning environment he envisioned when he and former high school and middle school principal Tom Sanidas took over eight years ago.

That culture is known as “The GP Way.”

“It’s not just about academic success,” Palan explained. “It’s about relationships and mutual trust between our staff and kiddos. Now, there is an expectation to succeed.”

That is evident throughout the schools. The three U.S. News & World Report award plaques are displayed in several hallways, as are motivational posters.

But, it is most evident at the end of the year, when the high school hosts an academic signing day for its graduating seniors.

The signing day celebrates the students’ success, as well as their future plans — whether it’s going to college, the military, trade school or straight to the workforce.

In turn, the students also honor a teacher or staff member who inspired them during their time at Grant Park.

“It is one of our favorite days of the year,” Palan said. “We wanted to celebrate our students’ academic success the same way we have traditionally celebrated athletics. It is monumental for our staff and students. There are tears of joy throughout the day.”

Onward

For the first few years of his run as superintendent, Palan got used to answering a simple question: Grant Park? Isn’t that in Chicago?

Yes, it is a park in Chicago. But, with the national recognition from U.S. News & World Report, Grant Park Community Unit School District 6 has put the small, rural village on the map as an academic powerhouse.

And it plans to continue down that path with its technology, small class sizes, student-teacher relationships and “The GP Way.”

“Some people look at small school districts as stepping stones,” Palan said. “But our teachers come in every day and make the magic happen. We just have a natural talent of people who work well with kids. We have such a supportive school board and community that has made it possible.

“As a small, rural district, we like being told that we can’t do something. It drives us. It helps us stick to our priorities to become the best school district, not just from high-stakes testing, but also getting students ready for their future success from the day they start kindergarten.”

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