Friday, March 02, 2007

Evanston School Reviews

We saw some low-end houses in Evanston during Epu's week off, including a couple that we love. So Thursday I toured the two Evanston schools that corresponded with the two houses, Dewey and Lincolnwood. Here are my impressions:

Evanston schools in general: HUGELY more resources than city schools. Both schools seemed to be able to do more with the budgets the district provided them, and both also acknowledged significant help from PTA funds. While exciting programs at the better city schools I toured often came from grants applied for by teachers, in Evanston anything "extra" appears to be funded by the parents. This makes sense since Greatschools.net shows that the number of low-income students, the majority in the city schools I've toured, are a minority in Evanston.

All the same, I see some drawbacks to choosing the Evanston school system over Chicago's. You largely give up school choice, since Chicago has a good number of magnet schools within a short drive of where I want to live, and Evanston only has two magnets. Evanston has no gifted program since the district strongly believes that it's better to keep the brightest kids in class with the others and simply offer them more challenging activities from time to time.

As for what Evanston is doing with its budgetary resources, some choices I like and some I don't. For one thing, if I had extra budget money in my school system, the first thing I would do is hire enough foreign language teachers for an immersion program or for instruction every day at all grade levels. But at both schools I toured, there was NO foreign language instruction during the regular school day. More on that later. However, they are doing much better than Chicago on the arts and phys ed: The district mandates both art and music once a week, plus library and an additional "enrichment" period which is usually a repeat of art or music, plus drama for grades 3-5. (Evanston grade schools are K-5, while all the ones I toured in Chicago are K-8). The kids have 20 minutes of gym class EVERY DAY, in addition to a 20-minute noon recess, which is pretty good. In Chicago, the district provides either an art or a music teacher, and if the principal wants both they have to figure out the funding on their own, unless they're a fine arts magnet school and then they generally have the extra staff to have both.

Another thing I liked in Evanston is that the class sizes ran smaller than in the city.

On paper, these 2 schools like practically identical. Low percentage of non-native English speakers, about 1/3 low income, and about half white kids. Around 80% of the kids meet state standards at most subjects and levels. The interesting thing about that stat is that a teacher recently pointed out to me that the "achievement gap" in Evanston between black kids and white kids remains large despite integration efforts. Indeed: at both schools, the test scores for white kids in most categories approaches 100 percent. For the black kids with the very same teachers it's more like 50 percent.


Dewey

Pros:

Newer building than most city schools that appears safer in terms of peeling paint, etc.

Two-Way Immersion Program in Spanish -- One class at each grade level is a bilingual class that stays together as they advance. It starts off 80% Spanish in kindergarten and gradually adds more English as the years go on. Unfortunately, there are only 10 spots for native English speakers each year, and only 1/4 of those (i.e. 2-3 spots) are available to non-minority girls. The other spaces are doled out equally to minority girls, minority boys and non-minority boys. Demand is very high for those 10 spots. Four other Evanston schools also have TWI programs.

Before school French and Spanish clubs available once or twice a week.

Getting a brand new library next year; are considering asthetics in its design. A fundraising group will raise $50,000 for fixtures and furnishings.

Principal seemed very high-achieving and dedicated.

Teachers seem engaging; kids seem interested.

$3k annual book budget, currently focused on building up Spanish collection.

Cons:

Class sizes bigger than Lincolnwood at 17-25 kids.

While all the art supplies are provided by the school, the art room was not as well stocked as some others I have seen.

No drama for grades K-3 but an after-school drama club is available thanks to PTA funding.

Despite obvious high ability, the principal also seemed slightly annoyed by parents. However he did assure us that there is plenty of parental involvement in the school. In the classroom is at the discretion of the teachers, with some welcoming it and some discouraging it.

I didn't care for principal's answer to "What do you do with gifted kids?" He said he didn't like the term "gifted" which immediately made me feel like he is discounting parents' concern about this issue. He pointed out that the definition of a truly gifted child says they occurr about one in 100, meaning there would only be 3 such children at this school. Then he said that they get differentiated instruction in class, such as Junior Great Books discussions, and left it at that.

Bottom Line: Seemed like a fine, safe place to go to school, although the principal might be a bit of a pain to deal with. Aside from the Spanish program, which seems impossible to get into, there wasn't a lot special that jumped out at me, just an aura of overall competence.

Lincolnwood

Pros:

The school building is gorgeous. Looks like a mansion or a chichi private school. Bay windows in front make the libary and one of the kindergarten rooms sunny, wonderful spaces with window seats.

The 5th grade teacher who led my tour was bubbling with enthusiasm and obviously beloved by students of all ages, who were constantly approaching her in the halls for hugs.

Every teacher except two has a masters' degree; my guide is working on her Phd.

I have never seen a public school so well supplied. My guide put it this way: "If the teachers need anything, we have it... the PTA gets it for us... resources are unlimited." Examples: A computer lab full of new Macs and a smart white board. When other schools lost K-3 drama, Lincolnwood's PTA funded a part-time teacher to continue it. They recently hired a professional sound recorder for a student project in which they created a "blues club" in the auditorium and sang blues music. The teacher's copy room was overflowing with paper of all colors, their own laminating machine, a bookmaker and all kinds of other supplies that apparently other schools' teachers have to go to the city's teacher center to use. The PTA funds a literacy specialist for the school. Parents donate raffle prizes for the school's positive reinforcement behavior program.

Smaller class sizes -- 17-19 in most grades.

Science fair.

A lot of touchy-feely programs: Each class has a "buddy" class of older or younger kids. Each teacher has an in-school "family" of 10 "sons and daughters." Students get passes to leave class and help other teachers.

Spanish and CHINESE after-school clubs once a week.

The library: The cosiest and most inviting of any I've seen on my tours. The librarian gets authors in to speak four times a year, a recent visitor was David Shannon ("No, David!")

Other involvement from outside community -- proessional artists come in to work with kids, local pet store maintains a beautiful tropical aquarium in lobby.

Teachers seem engaging, kids seem very happy and excited.

One kindergarten class, Mrs. Matin's, stood out to me: It had a playhouse for reading and Mrs. Matin helps the kids make "class books" on topics they're learning about. When I visited the kids were lying down for 20 minutes of nap/quiet reading.

The PTA is pushing for foreign language instruction during the school day, and there is a possibility the school might find time for a once-a-week class.

According to my guide, this school is a very desirable school for teachers to work at, and has also been experiencing a boom in new students, prompting them to add a fourth class at the 1st and 2nd grade levels.

The school hosts a Chinese exchange student each year.

I loved my guide's answer when I asked what they do with gifted kids. She said the teachers have had a lot of continuing education in differentiated instruction within the classroom; she personally went to a gifted seminar this summer at Northwestern. She assured me that the teachers are looking out for kids with advanced abilities as well as those who need extra help and help get the kids started on independent projects and reading because "we want to value their curiosity and their wonderment." For young advanced readers, "we spend a good deal of time looking for books" that are advance but still age-appropriate. She offered to send me a video she shot as part of her PhD work that shows the kindergarten teachers using centers for differentiated instruction. While this concept of differentiated instruction within a class has been mentioned at several other schools, this was the only time a teacher spoke to me about it with excitement and pulled out concrete examples to show that it is really happening. She also recommended that we look into the center for talent development at Northwestern, which we have already planned to do.

Cons:

Well, hardly any except for the lack fo foreign language in the daily schedule.

Unless I am just being overly influenced by the enthusiasm of the one teacher who gave me the tour. On greatschools.net, the reviews of this school are mixed. There are several very positive ones from current parents, but then there are a couple that say that above or below average kids are ignored at this school. I certainly didn't get that impression, but it's certainly possible that my guide painted a rosier picture of the situation. Also, several reviewers note that the PTA is very insular and discourages the involvement of new people. From the pictures of their promlike fundraiser in the school newsletter, I can imagine that this is a group of rich snobby people, but you know, whatever.

Bottom Line: This school knocked me out with its resources and with the teacher enthusiasm for special projects, as well as all the hugging and affection going on between teachers and students. It really reminded me of an expensive private school -- except for the diverse student body. The school is surrounded by mansions and that explains the generosity of the PTA, but the district actually includes plenty of working class and poorer neighborhoods, including the one we're looking at. I'm really surprised that I don't hear more about this school.

6 comments:

ashley said...

Sounds like you foudn a winner.

ashley said...

First, oops on my typo a minute ago.
Second, just thought I would add that Lincolnwood makes me wish I could go back and do elementary school all over again.
My parents were very involved in ours. A good PTA is a real asset to any school. Those people made a huge inpact on all the kids in my school. As it turned out, a majority of the highest performing students (honors) in my highschool were graduates from my elementary. I attribute a lot of that to the "extras" our PTA allowed. Note, we are far from the wealthiest neighborhood in the district, but the parents in our neighborhood knew how to work the programs (i.e. cambell's soup labels for education - I don't know if that is still around.)

I know from your blog, you will be very involved in your girls' education. They are very lucky to have you for their momma.

Notta Wallflower said...

Geez, Lincolnwood makes me very jealous from the standpoints of parent and educator. I have to scrounge for materials and buy things with my own money when my meager budget runs out. Also, if I go over the "limit" on my copies, it comes out of my paycheck at the end of the year, which is BS. I know I may seem critical at times or may not agree with your school reviews, but the bottom line is that I'm impressed that you take so much time to really do your homework. Also, I wish we had a "Linconwood" type place where I work. /sigh

tiffany said...

I personally work at Lincolnwood Elementary. I'm an arts educator with the Shanti Foundation for Peace and teach every other Monday. I currently work with the 5th grade class, integrating theater and performance with their school social studies curriculum. I think perhaps I know who your guide was?

I offer extreme enthusiasm for Lincolnwood. The students are very behaviorly advanced and are great communicators. I experience very little discipline problems. The principal visits every time I am in class, and the parents are very involved (right now my students are working with a parent to inform the community about Darfur and are organizing a grassroots campaign.) The students take to the non-violent practices well, and are always looking for new and better ways to solve problems in a calm and peaceful way.

The teachers talk to the students as adults and use language that enhances their vocabulary. The students are also allowed to snack during class (which, by the way, special attention is paid to those with allergies).

If you'd like more info, email me at jaildiet@yahoo.com. I'd be happy to provide you with some more.

Shanti Foundation for Peace also works with other grade levels at Lincolnwood, as well as Dewey (though I've personally never taught there), as well as King Lab (I have taught 6th graders here).

Hope this info helps...

tessence said...

Wow, Tiffany, thanks so much for your input. What a huge coincidence. Your point of view is really valuable to me as someone not part of the regular school staff, since I was starting to wonder if I was falling victim to really good PR.

Bert said...

Dude. You found the school for the Nut. It sounds like she would thrive there. She's an out-of-the-box thinker, which often gets so squished in public school... as a former teacher and, before that, squishee, I know, as I'm sure you do, too. I vote Lincolnwood. (Especially because a teacher there read your blog and wrote to you!)