ISAT Consultants: A Look at District 205

By: Tina Stein
By: Tina Stein

10PM VERSION
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ROCKFORD (WIFR) -- Under the federally mandated "No Child Left Behind," 100% of public schools are expected to meet federal testing standards by the year 2014. And that's going to be a tough feat for most school districts, especially Rockford. Last year, just 16-percent of Rockford Public Schools fulfilled that requirement. The District is now pouring millions of dollars into boosting test scores. But some question if the money is being spent wisely.

There's a lot riding on how well Mrs. Worley's 4th graders perform this week on the ISAT's. There's student/teacher success and federal funding on the line, along with a five million dollar investment. It's a contract signed last school year with Arizona-based Evans Newton Incorporated.

"Last year they helped us realign our curriculum so that everything was matched completely 100% to the standards, so this year it's maintaining it and continuing for growth," says Chief Academic Officer Tracy Stevenson-Olson.

Evans Newton was paid via federal stimulus dollars and in exchange promised at least a five-percent bump in test scores. Turns out, test scores went down slightly.

"I thought that was one of the reasons we hired the Superintendent to have our test scores rise," says school board member Harmon Mitchell.

Administrators says the consulting firm is continuing its work in Rockford Schools this year free of additional charge. There is an ongoing fee for two other consultants though, long-time educators Nilsa Gonzalez and Dr. Thandiwe Peebles. Peebles was forced to resign from her most recent Superintendent job in Minneapolis.

"She was released because she forced improvement in 30 of her schools and had significant growth that her city hadn't seen for some time," says Superintendent Dr. LaVonne Sheffield.

District 205 hired the women to coach principals how to become better leaders. This is separate from the state-funded Principal Mentoring Grant, run by the Regional Office of Education. Since the work is similar, Regional Superintendent-elect Lori Fanello agreed to let the consultants bill through her office.

"We were just trying to get that continuity and fidelity in the program," says Fanello.

The Principal Mentoring Grant pays local retired principals 27-hundred dollars a year to mentor new principals. Consultants Peebles and Gonzalez work with all under-performing principals and charge 700-dollars a day plus travel expenses. So far this school year, Gonzalez has made 14-thousand dollars for eleven days of work. Peebles worked 45 days and made over 38-thousand dollars.

"We do a lot of different grants and we don't have any contracts with them because that's just not how it has been done in the past, lesson learned. We probably would check into it, but we've never had to," says Fanello.

There is no contract. And since they didn't bill over ten-thousand dollars at one time, their work didn't require school board approval.

"It's not that we need to give approval to every cotton pick'n thing going on, it's just that you'd like to be in the loop and know," says board member Alice Saudargas.

"For a district that preaches transparency, this school district seems to take a 180-degree turn on that transparency thing and works very hard to keep things from being public," says Harmon Mitchell.

These board members say it's essential they're kept apprised of these decisions, especially when they're the ones forced to cut the budget. Now, it's important to note like other fairly recent hires, Peebles and Gonzalez worked with Dr. Sheffield before.

"Knowing a Superintendent or knowing an educational expert shouldn't preclude you from being able to come and offer your assistance, I think it's healthy," says Dr. Sheffield.

It's outside perspective some staffers hope will soon translate into higher test scores and stronger performing schools.

Dr. Sheffield says Peebles and Gonzalez are paid through funds set aside for professional development. Peebles is expected to be back working in the schools next year. The Principal Mentoring Grant most likely won't be around next year since it's state funded and the Regional Office of Education has yet to be reimbursed.

5PM VERSION
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ROCKFORD (WIFR) -- Students throughout the Stateline spent most of the week taking the Illinois State Achievement Test. THE ISAT's help determine federal funding and whether our teachers are doing a good job. Rockford Public Schools spent millions of federal stimulus dollars on a consulting firm to help raise test scores. And tens of thousands more on independent consultants to work with principals. But some feel this money hasn't been wisely spent.

ISAT performance serves as a gage for not just student/teacher success, but will help District 205 determine whether hiring Evans Newton Incorporated last school year was worth it.

"They're helping us use data to inform instruction using data to make changes in the delivery of instruction and really helping us sculpt what our best practices should be," said Tracy Stevenson-Olson, Chief Academic Officer.

The Arizona-based consulting firm charged Rockford Schools five million dollars, with a promise to raise test scores at least five-percent. Administrators say Evans Newton is back in the district this year, free of additional charge. That's because test scores actually went down.

"I thought that was one of the reasons we hired the superintendent to have our test scores rise," said Harmon Mitchell, school board member.

District leaders are hopeful test scores will rise but can't say confidently it will happen.

"We have new reading materials this year. There may be a dip," says Stevenson-Olson.

"I feel pretty good about it. One of the reasons I feel good about it is that our teachers are asking for additional professional development," said Dr. Lavonne Sheffield, Supt., Rockford Public Schools.

Principals are getting extra leadership training this year as well from two independent consultants; Nilsa Gonzalez and Doctor Thandiwe Peebles.

"There are a lot of things going on in this district that as a taxpayer in this area makes absolutely no sense," said Andrew Boyce, Auburn H.S. teacher.

Andrew Boyce teaches Special Education at Auburn. And questions why the district has paid these two consultants 50-thousand dollars for less than two months of work. Much of their fee stems from travel expenses.

"We can find people right here in this area that can help with whatever it is the administration feels the teachers need to know in order to be successful," said Alice Saudargas, school board member.

Dr. Sheffield supports these consultants' presence and expects Dr. Peebles' work to continue in District 205.

"She's one of the brightest women I know in terms of instruction and I've learned a lot from her. Whatever happened between the politics between the school board and the superintendent should not have any merit on her ability to move principals where they need to be and believe me she has moved some of her principals," Sheffield said.

According to Minneapolis news reports, Peebles' leadership style wasn't well received and was forced to resign. I'm told that's typical for leaders who make major changes in a school system. The school board signed off on the contract with Evans Newton.

The board is required to approve contracts over ten-thousand dollars. Since the consultants bill 700-dollars a day and not ten-grand at one time, their work didn't require board approval.


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