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By Theresa Kelly Gegen

The leaf project is a rite of passage for students and parents in many districts, including my family’s high school in central Illinois.

I say parents because the project is assigned in the first year of high school, before kids are old enough to drive themselves and each other to the local leafy hotspots. No park, preserve, or arboretum has every leaf on the list; we know this because we have tried. The project is assigned in late September, as dusk arrives earlier, which is why you’ll see people prowling side roads and backyards with flashlights, after practice and dinner if you’re lucky, in the rain if you’re not.

It’s a community-wide annual event, with social media firing up with leaf lists, crowdsourcing of key locations, and cries for help.

The leaf project is a really fun outdoor learning experience, a community challenge, and an incredibly stressful assignment, sometimes all in the span of an hour. The list changes every year, lest anyone get complacent with subsequent children. Each student is required to identify, collect, press, and label leaves from a list provided by the teacher. There are two dozen to find, but in recurring dreams (OK, nightmares) it might as well be two hundred.

The emerald ash borer destroyed most Illinois ash trees but ash leaves remained on the list. Dogwood has hybrids and multiple varieties but you must find the right one. The teacher knows the difference. The shagbark hickory leaf looks a lot like a black walnut. It would, of course, because we’ve learned that hickory is a member of the walnut family so you have to examine the leaf stems and bark ... but I digress. Both are on the list. Each leaf must be maintained in a pristine freshly picked condition until the grade is in the gradebook. If in the meantime a leaf curls, crumples, or changes color, the student may be allowed to go pluck another one for half credit. Everyone recalls the year when one teacher — presumably and understandably overcome by the distinct anxiety of 13- and 14-year-olds — told one class that a photo of the leaf was sufficient, sending gusts of leafy rage among the other students who were still required to collect and preserve.

The legendary leaf project assignment hits at the same time every year, just as boards of education approve budgets and districts begin anticipating the release of the School Report Card. This issue of the Illinois School Board Journal looks at rites of passage in the education community and, like the hickory to the walnut, we compare Illinois to neighboring and comparable states in certain data-driven facets of K-12 education.

After we’ve considered those comparisons, and drawn what we can from them to assist us in our work, we can let them go until next year. In this issue’s Practical PR, we are reminded by Eric Steckling, Director of Communications for Deerfield SD 109, to set comparisons aside and “highlight the unique and special things that your district has to offer.”

By the way, there is a ginkgo just inside the playground at the community park. There is a sassafras on the bike path halfway between the park and the first bridge. And there are cypresses in the lake at the public gardens; bring a ladder.

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal and can be reached at