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Low-income students lag peers in DeKalb County

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Jefferson Elementary School Principal Cristy Meyer is proud of her staff and her students.

But she’s not exactly proud of the data showing significantly fewer low-income students at her school in DeKalb meet state reading standards than their peers. On this spring’s ISAT standardized tests, about 80 percent of Jefferson Elementary students met reading standards; only 62.7 percent of the school’s low-income students did.

“When we get this information and they say we’re in corrective action, it doesn’t reflect how we know we impact our students every day,” Meyer said, referring to the label given schools that have not met the No Child Left Behind law’s adequate yearly progress for at least four consecutive years.

The school, nestled near Northern Illinois University’s campus, is a hub for English language learners whose primary languages include Mandarin, French and Korean. To the extent that those students are also low-income students – about 53 percent of the school’s enrollment is low-income – she’d expect that to affect reading test scores.

She’s also continuing and improving programs that could close that gap.

A Daily Chronicle analysis of Illinois School Report Card data shows that at one-third of DeKalb County’s 24 elementary schools, low-income students lag their peers by 10 percentage points or more in reading. Three schools had a gap of 10 percentage points or more between the percentage of low-income students meeting math standards and students overall meeting math standards.

Nine of the county’s 24 elementary schools did not have enough low-income students for the subgroup to be reported on the Illinois State Report Card.

Students are considered “low-income” if they meet one of several criteria, including receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

The achievement gap is not unique to schools with many low-income students or to a particular school district.

Sycamore District 427’s North Grove Elementary School has the county’s largest performance gap between the percentage of low-income students meeting reading expectations and the percentage of students overall meeting reading expectations – and 28.7 percent of its enrollment is low-income.

North Grove Principal Ryan Janisch said test scores for the low-income subgroup at his school have improved in the last two years, but school leaders embrace a culture of continuous improvement.

“It wouldn’t matter where our numbers are at, we would make a plan for improvement,” Janisch said.

For the past two years, students who struggled with standardized tests were rewarded for completing extra homework based on test concepts. This year, the school plans to start an after-school homework buddy program for low-income students.

Meanwhile, District 427’s school with the highest percentage of low-income students (West Elementary School at 51.8 percent) has a small performance gap: 87.2 percent of its students meet or exceed reading standards, compared with 84 percent of its low-income students.

Similarly, 95.3 percent of West students meet or exceed state math standards, compared with 93.8 percent of its low-income students.

The low-income population has been increasing for Sycamore schools, District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman said. Its current level of 28.4 percent is the highest the district’s ever had, although it’s well below the statewide level of 49 percent.

West Elementary School’s low-income population is markedly higher than other district elementary schools, but Countryman said parents were committed to maintaining neighborhood schools when the district discussed redistricting about 4 years ago.

Conversely, DeKalb District 428’s elementary schools range from 50 percent low-income to 65 percent low-income, except for Malta Elementary School, which has 37.9 percent low-income students. But some schools have small performance gaps and some have gaps that are among the largest in the county.

For Meyer, the principal at Jefferson Elementary School, improving those numbers involves working with struggling students both in and outside school. Through “response to intervention,” teachers regularly test students and provide extra help for students who need it based on those frequent test results. The school also provides study club during the day and adult mentors for at-risk students.

Based on their corrective action status, district leaders are looking at turn-around schools throughout the state and developing an improvement plan based on those schools’ programs and what likely would work in DeKalb, Meyer said.

Meyer also realizes that time and transportation can limit participation in some programs. For example, Jefferson Elementary School has received funding for the past two years for low-income students to attend tutoring at an outside accredited agency, such as Sylvan Learning. But, the funding doesn’t include transportation.

“For our students who are bussed, if their parents don’t have transportation to get them when tutoring is done, those students can’t access that,” Meyer said.

But, when school leaders tweaked a program last year that allows low-income students to take home special reading materials, such as Leap Frog and other educational games, participation tripled.

“Every parent I meet wants the best education for their children,” Meyer said. “It’s not that they don’t want to [participate in extra programs]. They are meeting basic needs.”

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