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. An in-person 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.