Advanced Learning | The Future of Education at District 181

Advanced Learning

The Future of Education at District 181

Photos by: Marcello Rodarte

By: Mike Ellis

Gifted education has been a popular topic for a number of years at District 181, as staff members, the Board of Education, parents and community members at-large have long discussed designing a program that most adequately addresses students’ needs.

"Raise the Floor to Raise the Ceiling"

In 2011, the district contracted a program review with the University of Virginia under the leadership of Dr. Tonya Moon, a principal investigator for the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Over a two-day period in December 2011, Dr. Moon and her colleagues visited 75 classrooms at eight of nine District 181 schools (Walker School excepted). Subsequently, they published a 61-page report assessing the state of current district programming, while providing a list of recommendations as to how to improve the curriculum and better align it with "best practices" nationwide. These recommendations included opening up "advanced" courses to a greater number of students, investigating the possibility of advancing all students at least one year in math district-wide, and the elimination or revision of the current ACE (Affective Cognitive Enrichment) program.

After receiving Dr. Moon’s report, the Board of Education commissioned an Advanced Learning Task Force to look into implementing the recommendations. The 18-member Task Force was assembled in October 2012, and spent the next several months examining scholarly research and reaching out to other school districts such as District 86 and Butler, while formulating a plan to present to the Board of Education in early 2013. The Task Force was led by Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services Dr. Kurt Schneider, Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Kevin Russell, and Director of Pupil Services Christine Igoe.

As presented to the Board of Education on Jan. 28, the Task Force plan involves the gradual acceleration of education for all District 181 students.

"Our goal is to create a culture of learning," Dr. Schneider said at the Jan. 28 Board meeting, "and when we improve the education of our advanced learners, we know we create a higher ceiling for everyone to accomplish more."

"This plan keeps the bar very high for our advanced learners," Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Kevin Russell said, "and at the same time, we’re raising the expectations for all kids—which is exactly what Dr. Moon talked to us about, that our kids are capable of more."

Over the next half-decade, this proposal calls for changes to the language arts and mathematics curricula, and the ACE program, which could in turn allow more students to access honors and AP courses at the high-school level. Dr. Bruce Law, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction at District 86, noted in a letter to the district that the Task Force plan aligns with its goal to increase student participation in honors and AP courses.

"Prior to the [Moon report], there was controversy in our district surrounding identification for our gifted program—who gets in, who doesn’t," Russell said. "I think it’s fair to say you had parents who really liked the previous system and parents who were really against the previous system. When Dr. Moon came in and looked at our gifted program, she made the point that you can’t look at it in isolation, because you don’t just have a gifted program, you don’t just have a special education program—you have a system, and everything needs to work together."

Overall, the curriculum will become more rigorous, as all State of Illinois schools will replace the current Illinois State Standard with the Common Core in 2014-15. The Common Core will challenge students to think at higher levels than the state standard, placing greater emphasis on techniques such as analysis and synthesis, rather than merely assessing basic comprehension skills or solving particular problems.

"People have made the analogy that the Illinois standards ‘take it a mile wide and an inch deep,’ and the Common Core might ‘take it a mile deep and an inch wide,’" Russell said. "The Common Core is really focused on diving deep into higher-level thinking skills, versus quick, recall-type facts. You may hit fewer [topics] with the Common Core, but it’s definitely more rigorous in terms of the skillset it requires."

Curriculum Changes

The Advanced Learning Task Force has proposed gradual changes to the language arts, mathematics and ACE curricula, all of which would be completed by the 2018-19 school year. Each transition is designed to begin at the elementary-school level, before the ultimate objectives are achieved at the middle schools.

Language Arts

Across District 181, language arts is divided into two tiers: "regular" and ELA (Enriched Language Arts), a program that follows a more rigorous curriculum designed by the College of William & Mary.

According to the Task Force presentation, the two primary goals in Language Arts are:

1) All incoming sixth graders will meet the current performance-based criteria for ELA by 2016-17.

2) All graduating eighth graders will meet honors English criteria at District 86 by 2019.

Nearly 400 students are currently enrolled in ELA at Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills Middle Schools.

"One of our measures is increasing the number of students that qualify for Honors English at Hinsdale Central," CHMS Principal Griffin Sonntag said at the Feb. 11 Board meeting. "That number has been typically around 50 percent. I don’t think that that’s successful; I think we should have more students, and I believe that this program will allow more students to [rise] to the level that will qualify them for Honors English."

District 181 said it plans to gradually complete this transition, starting at elementary schools through the development of balanced literacy.

Task Force leaders said balanced literacy differs considerably from a traditional language arts setup. For instance, instead of having all students in a classroom reading the same book at the same time, they might read a variety of texts according to their different reading levels.

"What balanced literacy does, is [it] takes communication skills [reading, writing, word analysis, listening and speaking skills], and integrates them into one process," Igoe said. "We look at it as a much more holistic approach."

At the March 11 Board meeting,  Assistant Superintendent of Learning Dr. Janet Stutz proposed a curriculum called Reading Fundamentals (published by Schoolwide, Inc.), indicating that it is conducive with the balanced literacy model. This curriculum was piloted between January and March at select grades at all seven elementary schools, which was unanimously approved by the teachers that piloted it. The materials for Reading Fundamentals would cost about $379,000.

At the Feb. 11 meeting, Board member Yvonne Mayer questioned the efficacy of replacing the tiers already in place at the middle-school level.

"What is going to truly happen to the struggling learner who would never have been placed into ELA, and the advanced learner who is appropriately in ELA, if you now have everyone in that class together?" Mayer asked.

Task Force members said part of the solution is an approach called flexible grouping, which would involve the collaboration of MRC directors, reading specialists and differentiation specialists, in addition to classroom teachers.

"The entire grade-level [teaching staff] would come together," Igoe said, "and they would figure out, ‘What are our learning targets?—What is it that we want students to be able to learn, and how do we go about getting these 90 students between the eight of us to that point?’"

Russell said he does not believe the concept of flexible grouping is entirely novel at District 181, citing his own experience from his tenure as assistant principal at CHMS.

"The thought of bringing social studies teachers, language arts teachers [and] MRC directors together—that’s been occurring in our school district," he said. "If you walk into a primary classroom at Prospect School, you will see the reading specialist, the differentiation specialist, the MRC director [and] classroom teachers switching kids all the time.

"I don’t think this is a complete ‘180’ from what’s currently happening in our school district; in fact, I see it as a natural continuation of what’s going on [now]."


In Mathematics, the Task Force identified two primary goals:

1) All graduating eighth graders will place into at least high-school Geometry by 2019.

2) All incoming sixth graders will place into at least seventh grade Common Core Math by 2016-17.

Stated another way, by 2018-19, the objective is to have all District 181 eighth-grade students taking Algebra.

Under the current curriculum, three tiers of math are offered at the middle schools: grade-level, advanced (one grade-level ahead) and accelerated (two grade-levels ahead). "Advanced" and "accelerated" students are selected using tests taken at the end of second and fifth grades, which determine placement for the subsequent three years. More than half (835) of HMS and CHMS students (1,458) are currently enrolled in advanced or accelerated math.

The current middle-school program will continue through 2015-16. The following year, the grade-level offering for sixth graders will become seventh-grade Common Core math, putting all students from this class on a track to complete Algebra in eighth grade. Meanwhile, the accelerated tier will continue unchanged, these students already being paced to take Geometry in eighth grade.

In order for all sixth-graders to be prepared for seventh-grade math, the transition must commence at the elementary-school level. Consequently, District 181 plans to add two Common Core units for kindergarten, first grade, second grade and fifth grade next year. As third grade already began implementing the new Common Core curriculum this year, this would afford all K-5 students the opportunity for advanced math by 2014-15.

Mary Sprengnether, who teaches Algebra at Clarendon Hills Middle School, said she is confident that students will be better prepared for a more demanding middle-school math curriculum after receiving five years of more rigorous instruction at the elementary schools.

"In that five years, I know their skills are going to be honed," Sprengnether said at the Feb. 11 Board meeting. "They will be much more successful advanced students, and be ready to take on the rigors of a high-school Algebra class."

The Common Core itself will also push students to think at a higher level than the current Illinois State Standard. For example, under the Common Core, students will be challenged to "assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation."

"Our current Illinois standards are very focused on the operation portion of math—very much like you and I remember going to school," Igoe said. "Here’s the equation, and we’ll practice the equation; we’ll do 30 problems, and maybe I’ll take two or three story problems and apply that skill. The Common Core looks at it from a different perspective, and says that although [operational skills] are important, the bigger pieces are the conceptual pieces of math. It’s so much more about understanding how numbers work, rather than coming up with the correct answer [to a particular problem]."

ACE Program

ACE (Affective and Cognitive Enrichment) is a pullout program in which select students currently participate once per week. ACE students are selected towards the end of second and fifth grade; those selected in second grade remain enrolled from third through fifth grade; those selected in fifth remain enrolled throughout middle school. About 150 students at HMS and CHMS collectively participate in ACE.

"If you qualified for the ACE program, one day a week you would be put on a bus and go to a different school," Russell said. "Let’s say you’re in fifth grade—you wouldn’t go to your home school on Wednesday, you would go to Monroe."

"There was a conundrum over identification—who gets the service and who doesn’t—," Dr. Schneider said, "versus saying, ‘How do we provide high-quality instruction for all of our kids?’"

The Task Force plan strives to:

1) Integrate the essential components of ACE into the general curriculum, such as application of higher level thinking and inquiry- and problem-based learning.

2) Address the academic needs of current ACE students by developing individualized learning plans.

By 2016-17, the current ACE Social Studies course would be the standard for all middle-school students.

In order to gradually attain this goal, additional sections of ACE social studies will be devised in each of the next three school years—2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16.

"I think our social studies teachers at the middle-school level are already starting to get there," Russell said. "[They’re] moving away from notecard-type instruction, and moving into higher-level thinking."

So how, you may ask, does ACE social studies differ from a "traditional" social studies course?

"When you look at traditional social studies classes, you find that they’re very textbook-driven," Russell said at the Feb. 11 meeting. "They’re very fact based—memorize, take a multiple choice test at the end. ACE social studies is a little different; it is centered on themes. It’s not so tied down to chronological order."

For example, Russell said that while a traditional social studies course may examine Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power, an ACE social studies course, studying the same unit, might require students to write an essay evaluating the question, Was Napoleon a tyrant or a hero?

At the Feb. 11 meeting, Monroe School Principal Dawn Benaitis said the needs of advanced learners must be met every day—not just once a week, as the current ACE program does. The aforementioned Moon report also noted that ACE is essentially a "part time solution to a full time need for services."

"Dr. Moon identified that [ACE] is just a small percentage of [advanced learners’] school-week," Dr. Schneider said, "but they have that need every minute of every hour of every day."

The Task Force indicated that the differentiation specialist would essentially perform the role of a "case manager"—that is, constructing individualized learning plans to meet the academic needs of individual students.

"Once the capacity for our staff has been built, and all the social studies teachers are teaching social studies this way, it frees up the differentiation specialist to be more of a coach across all grade levels," Hinsdale Middle School Differentiation Specialist Danielle Scacco said at the Jan. 28 Board meeting.

Questions & Feedback

The question every District 181 parent wants answered is, Does this plan provide the best opportunity for my child to excel?

According to a survey conducted by the Advanced Learning Task Force, District 181 teachers and staff members indicated they approve of the plan on the whole. 80 percent of staff members surveyed indicated they feel the Task Force proposal is likely to meet the needs of advanced learners—with 34 percent of respondents awarding the proposal the highest score of "5". And 64 percent of staff surveyed indicated they believe the plan is likely to improve all students’ educational experiences.

But some parents, teachers and staff members have expressed uncertainty about various aspects of the proposal. In the same survey, which requested comments and feedback, over 80 staff members presented questions as to how the plan would affect students currently performing below grade-level, or concerning the ability of students currently at grade-level to adjust to the proposed curriculum changes.

"All children should be given the opportunity to reach as much of their potential as possible," said Michele Kelly, a mother of two children at Monroe School and one at CHMS. "We need to foster these children who learn differently [and] keep them motivated."

Igoe said she is confident that changing the manner of instruction will help teachers and staff better assist struggling learners.

"If we were talking about providing instruction in the same exact manner that we currently are, then [I would have] some concerns," she said; "but as we change the focus of our instruction, I think the flexible grouping model really addresses the needs of our struggling learners."

Dr. Schneider said the district will continue to employ Response to Intervention (RtI)—a framework designed to provide high-quality instruction to students in conjunction with ongoing data to determine whether students responded to instruction (Howard, 2009)—to accommodate struggling learners.

"You have to come with an asset-based or strength-based belief that kids can do it," Dr. Schneider said. "We know that the field and the research says that when you have that frame, kids rise to the challenge. That being said, there are times where a student may be performing off grade-level, either above or below. What the plan calls for is to individualize what [those students] need at those times. For a student who may be struggling, the district has a strong depth of resources already."

In addition, nearly 30 staff members posed questions as to whether the needs of advanced learners would be met under the proposed curriculum.

"I completely agree with the [Task Force], that we need to open the door for as many students as can achieve," Yvonne Mayer said at the Feb. 11 Board meeting; "but if opening the door is going to result in watering down the top end, then we’ve completely defeated the purpose that we started out with. Not every child should be accelerated."

Dr. Nichole Dawson, a CHMS and Monroe parent and pediatric neuropsychologist who gives evaluations to both gifted and struggling learners, said advanced students learn differently, and thus their learning needs must be addressed in a different manner.

Task Force leaders said differentiation specialists will work to develop individualized learning plans to accommodate the needs of advanced learners, and they do not believe opening the door to more students will water down the curriculum.

"Differentiated instruction is proactive," Dr. Schneider said. "It assumes that different learners have different needs. The teacher proactively lesson plans to ‘get at’ one’s learning. It makes available different learning options for varied learners in the classroom. By using multiple approaches related to what students learn, how students make sense of information, and how students show us what they have learned, the needs of each student will be met."

Another salient question posed is how increased rigor will balance with the social and emotional needs of the student. One staff member asked if the "whole child"—i.e., as an entire person—is being considered under the current plan.

Russell said District 181 always takes the social and emotional needs of students into consideration, and that no matter how learning is conducted, it always involves a delicate balance.

"I can’t make a general statement that there are going to be huge social and emotional consequences from [our plan], just like I couldn’t make a general statement that there are huge social and emotional consequences from what we’re doing now," he said. "Every child is an individual, and we’ve got great structure in our school system, through our classroom teachers and our social workers, to handle students when they feel like they’re struggling."

The proposed budget calls for the hiring of a math coach and an elementary literary coach in 2013-14, as well as a science/inquiry coach in 2014-15. (A more detailed account of the budget can be found at But some staff members and parents believe additional costs will have to be applied in order for the plan to be implemented—including Oak School parent Dr. Warren Schillingburg, Superintendent of La Grange School District 102.

"Having grand ideas is wonderful, but supporting them and making sure they work is a different story," said Dr. Schillingburg, who also holds a Master’s degree in gifted education. "If this plan is approved and moves forward, I am quite certain there will be the need for more and more staff. You simply cannot do what [the District is] suggesting without a lot more staff to lead all of these various groups and these multiple RtI meetings."

"My biggest concern is, are the teachers going to be prepared for these flexible programs and this differentiated learning?" asked Suzanne Wychocki, an HMS and Madison School parent who has one child in ACE. "I don’t think it’s impossible; I think it’s completely attainable if the teachers are open to it, and they’re able to work with each other."

Task Force leaders acknowledged that it would take time to acclimate staff members with curriculum changes and prepare them to perform tasks such as in-class differentiation. The plan calls for the organization of District leadership, school leadership and grade-level teams to conduct regular meetings.

"We can’t teach in isolation anymore," Dawn Benaitis said at the Jan. 28 meeting. "This has to be a team endeavor."

Task Force leaders said they are working to devise schedules that would enable grade-level meetings to be held without interrupting classes with frequent substitute teachers.

"[In the past], the master schedule may have called for a teacher to have a planning period," Dr. Schneider said. "There wasn’t necessarily thought as to whether it was first hour, third hour, seventh hour or sixth hour. Now we’re going to focus on, ‘What particular hour does this group of teachers need to have so they can naturally come together?’"

Also, the role of specialized staff such as reading and differentiation specialists would evolve, as they would no longer be conducting pullout programs.

"If the reading specialist isn’t pulling and seeing kids individually and in small groups, and she’s in the classroom and ‘coaching’—that’s where building capacity [happens]," Igoe said. "[Our current employees] will do their jobs differently to meet the needs of our kids."

Wychocki said, at bottom, she believes parents, teachers and administrators all have the same goal, and just need to continue working towards the best possible solution for everyone.

"I view it as, we’re all on the same team—the board, the administrators, the parents, the staff," Wychocki said. "So, what’s the goal?—It’s [making] the kids well-adjusted, good citizens and active learners."

Click HERE for the Advanced Learning Discussion Group.

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