ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Quality review process transforms achievement
by Jim Hook
Jim Hook is the director of communications in North Palos School District 117. He spent the last 22 years as a newspaper reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times News Group.
When Ken Sorrick took over in 2003 as superintendent of North Palos School District 117, he knew he had his work cut out for him.
Students were performing at or below the state average on sections of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), and the district was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
The board of education believed the students should be performing at a much higher level ... and so did the new superintendent.
“It is our goal to have this district become ‘the beacon of excellence’ among school districts throughout the state,” said Sorrick, who spent 22 years as a high school administrator before coming to District 117 as superintendent. “We will strive to fulfill that role because a quality education is vital to the future of our 3,100 students and their families.”
Sorrick rolled up his sleeves and huddled with his new school board.
They immediately started developing a vision and mission as well as a set of core values that would guide all actions and decisions. Then they focused on creating a system to increase test scores while demanding accountability from everyone ... from the superintendent on down.
The system they created — now known as the “Student Achievement Quality Review Process” — is credited with transforming District 117 from “average” to one of the highest-performing districts in the entire state of Illinois.
Last year, 93 percent of North Palos students scored at “meets or exceeds” on the ISAT as compared with 80 percent statewide, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card (IIRC).
But before Sorrick and his team could work on implementing the Quality Review System, he had to take care of one other piece of business.
He met with his school board and administrative staff. Together, they set out to pass a tax rate increase. This was no small feat, especially in a district that had rejected 13 consecutive tax rate increase requests.
But this one passed. And it provided the financially struggling district with some much-needed cash to pay for resources that would help students learn.
With the district’s financial health no longer on life support, Sorrick could now concentrate his efforts on helping improve student test scores.
Implementing a system
Known as a “systems guru,” Sorrick wasted little time. He and his team of administrators and board members set out to work on implementing the Quality Review System, a process to address the critical success factors that would guide all learning.
Throughout the process, student achievement and district goals were developed and all financial decisions were made based on these shared goals and vision. By aligning academic goals with the district budget, school boards and school districts are assured that the focus throughout the district is based on student learning and increased student achievement.
This data-driven, systematic accountability process would ensure that the percentage of students meeting and exceeding state standards would increase significantly.
And it would accomplish this by providing strategies and interventions in areas where students and teachers needed improvement.
For example, as areas of strength and improvement were identified, reading specialists and other resources were allocated or reallocated that aligned with those improvement areas.
By collecting and then disaggregating data, learning community stakeholders were held accountable for student achievement. Building administrators and team leaders began meeting quarterly with each teacher to discuss student learning data. Although all students and their results are discussed, the focus is on any student not meeting grade-level expectations.
Teachers are asked to develop individual action plans for each of these students. Then teachers outline the role they play in these individual action plans.
If teachers need additional assistance (staff development, coaching, etc.) the building/district administration fully supports these needs.
The question during these meetings, as well as in all professional learning community meetings, is: “If a student is not making it, what are we doing and going to do?”
The ultimate responsibility lies — with the district and administrators’ support — with the classroom teacher.
Each quarter, student achievement data is disaggregated and shared with individual teachers, whole faculties and district office personnel.
This helps District 117 maintain a constant focus on how to use student learning data to inform instruction. The data is not the end product, but rather the information needed to make sound instructional choices for the students.
Another difference is in the amount of support given to meet goals. Teachers are provided the resources they need, whether it involves professional development, financial resources and/or materials, or just additional time for collaboration even if it involves providing a substitute teacher.
District 117’s process is unique in that it breaks down data on every single student and evaluates every single support system that student has in place to make sure it is working to ensure that child is learning.
Sorrick cites the Quality Review Process with being instrumental in promoting the district’s mission of advancing student achievement.
Chris Slowik, former board president, credits Sorrick for having the vision and leadership to “take us to a whole new level.”
“Plain and simple, Ken had a plan and a vision for us,” said Slowik, who served 20 years on the District 117 board and who was president when Sorrick was hired. “He had that plan ready when he came to interview for this job.
“I remember (Ken) telling us we were a good school district, but that we could become a great school district,” she said. “There were some things that needed to be fixed. And he fixed them. Ken definitely is the driving force behind our success.”
Although District 117 always has had committed staff and quality programs, the district never had a system to guarantee alignment and focus. Random acts of good intentions that existed previously could never be directly correlated to student achievement.
By creating the Quality Review Process with strict accountability, District 117 now is assured that all stakeholders have a keener sense of not only the district’s mission and vision but that everyone is focused on working together to achieve shared goals.
Success is now measured directly by the improvement in student achievement.
The Quality Review Process provides a system in which “every student in the district is now on the radar screen,” Slowik said.
“If one kid is struggling, Ken wants to know what interventions we are providing to help him or her improve,” she said. “He wants to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to help that child succeed.
“He believes so strongly that every single child in this district can succeed,” Slowik added.
Under the board’s leadership, District 117’s quality review process has been extremely successful in view of the program’s primary objective.
Current board president Mark Gambla said the “entire organization has focused its time, energy and resources on increased student achievement.”
As student achievement has increased, he said, the need for remedial classes has decreased from three sections to one, the number of honors reading classes has increased from one to three and the number of honors math sections has increased from one to four.
Throughout the improvement process, Gambla said, the school board “supported the schools — and the district — in order to make these significant changes possible.”
“Quality Review is an on-going process,” he said. “We are continually looking at student achievement to make sure our students are making strides.”
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