Friday, June 19, 2009

Peoria Rocks Hero of the Year-to-date!


The winner is... Kirk Wessler, sports writer for the Peoria Journal Star. This guy hit a home run with this article. It is so on-point and comprehensive I can't think of a single comment to improve upon it.

By KIRK WESSLER
of the Journal Star
Posted Jun 18, 2009 @ 10:30 PM
Last update Jun 19, 2009 @ 01:45 PM

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
PEORIA — When the District 150 school board finally votes on which of its four high schools to close, the choice should be a no-brainer.

Say good-bye to Manual.

It won’t be that easy, of course. For some reason, Manual seems to be surrounded by a magic force field that has made the school untouchable in this debate. That needs to change. Right now.

Much as I hate to see any school close, I believe it’s a financial necessity. Reasonable people disagree and present compelling data about the “right size” for urban high schools, to support keeping all schools open. If they can find a way to do that without drowning us in debt, more power to them.

The board, however, voted in April to close a high school but deferred specifics. The vote on which school to close will come whenever it shows up on the agenda. Could be any week now.

Closing Richwoods, the only city high school north of War Memorial Drive, is out of the question. All the talk to date has focused on Peoria High, a.k.a. Central, and Woodruff.

But why has Manual been off the table? I know one board member who wonders the same thing, and I suspect there are others. It’s way past time for them to open their mouths in public and in a loud, clear voice demand rational, substantive answers before they endorse one more lame proposal from an administration that has zero credibility with the taxpaying public.

Manual’s location alone should make it the No. 1 candidate for closure. The campus is pinned into the far-southwest corner of the city, a mere three blocks from the Limestone Community school district. The growth potential is non-existent. Residents of West Peoria and the Peoria West Bluff, a sizable slice of which falls within Manual’s attendance boundaries, abandoned the school years ago.

Manual’s future as a viable high school is a lost cause.

That’s painful to say, because the negative perception of the neighborhood is overblown and unfair. I’ll grant it can be a rough area, but not once have I ever felt unsafe there. I attend church on the South Side, three blocks south of the school. I visit Manual. I’m in the neighborhood several times a week, day and night. I’m watchful, but never worried.

Perceptions are real, though, even if they’re wrong. So, parents of kids in suburban schools don’t want to schedule sports contests at Manual, and city dwellers don’t want to attend events there. Almost nobody with a choice wants their kids to go to school there. So they don’t do any of those things.

Those are facts. Here are more.

Other than basketball, Manual’s programs have become perennial failures. We’re not talking about dismal won-lost records, which have led to ownership of last place in the conference all-sports standings for most of this decade. After all, extracurricular activities are about more than winning percentages. No, Manual’s problem is that most of its sports programs lack the participation necessary to offer reasonable opportunity to compete.

It’s one thing to play and get beat. It’s quite another to have to forfeit, or to concede victory before the starter’s gun fires, or to reschedule — over and over — because there aren’t enough kids to field a varsity team, let alone freshman or sophomore development squads.

Peoria High and Woodruff fight some of the same battles, but not nearly to the degree Manual does. They remain salvageable.

First, the boundaries for Central and Woodruff still encompass thriving residential neighborhoods that have not given up on themselves, or on their high schools.

Plus, there are other factors in play.

Closing Peoria High as an institution would be crazy. It was founded in 1856 and remains the oldest continuing high school west of the Allegheny Mountains; 17th oldest in the entire country, according to the school Web site.

My best friend, a former Richwoods basketball player, is a high school administrator in Michigan now. He was back for a visit last weekend and wanted to know more about what he’d been reading in regard to Peoria school closures.

“You know,” he said, “I never had any use at all for Central. But closing that school would be nuts. You just don’t throw away history like that.”

When the Peoria Diocese merged Academy of Our Lady/Spalding Institute with Bergan to form Peoria Notre Dame in 1988, the Catholic community here lost a lot more than two old school buildings. A part of its soul was needlessly, stupidly ripped out and flushed away, never to be recovered.

If you don’t believe me, ask an old Spalding or Academy alum.

Another thing about Peoria High, the building. Opened in 1916, it’s the oldest in the district. It’s also the largest. And it’s a fortress. What sense does it make to increase enrollment — and crowding — at the remaining schools and shut down the biggest one?

As for Woodruff, I’ve seen more overall improvement there over the past decade than at any of the other high schools, Richwoods included. The community spirit, in an area of the city that’s too easily written off, is palpable. What Tim Thornton and his staff have done to restore the football program — on the field and in the classroom — borders on miraculous. Wrestling remains strong and won the conference championship last winter. Its teams are not all doormats.

Closing Manual would be sad. From a sports standpoint, closing it barely a decade after the Rams won a record four consecutive boys basketball state titles also would be stunning.

But closing Central or Woodruff would be wrong.

------------------------------------------------

Full disclosure here. Four generations of my family attended Peoria High. My wife works there, and I’m a member of the school’s alumni board. Also, my brother, who is a Manual graduate, teaches at Woodruff. And I still live on the West Bluff.

Take that however you wish.

KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached at kwessler@pjstar.com, or 686-3216.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Top school reformer Paul Vallas addresses Peoria education leaders

UPDATE - Please see this excellent article by Dave Haney in the PJStar for some points that he grasped that I did not.

Paul Vallas drove through the night from New Orleans to Peoria as he rushed to keep a commitment made to his friend, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. The two friends greeted each other warmly as he breathlessly arrived at Weaver Ridge country club to address local education leaders about school reform.

Mr. Vallas has a diverse and proven career reforming troubled school districts around the nation. Currently he is the Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School district which includes schools in New Orleans rebuilding from the devastating consequences of Katrina. He has also successfully reformed, among others, Chicago Public Schools and Philadelphia Public Schools - districts that have demographics, poverty rates and academic challenges similar to Peoria. In short, it seems that Vallas has never met a district that he couldn't improve, and he is widely accepted as the "go to guy" for all the tough cases.

Mr. Vallas shared his insights with an audience of approximately 50 people including leaders, legislators, Board of education members and administrators. I was most likely invited as the token complainer, haha.

Vallas is very familiar with Peoria. He has often wondered why when wealthier suburban school districts perform well, nobody seems to notice. But when poorer, inner city school districts do well people are incredulous. "Poor school districts suffer from a racism of lower expectations", Vallas said. In other words, a community develops a complacent attitude towards poorer children and begins to believe and accept that poor children can't learn.

Mr. Vallas very much disagrees with that assessment, and has dedicated his career to demonstrating otherwise. "Sometimes you have to deconstruct before you can reconstruct", Vallas said. "Sometimes the reforms needed are so drastic that the only way to succeed is to dismantle, and then start from the ground up."

He feels that a big part of the systemic problem in the declining effectiveness of public education is the security blanket that surrounds public schools in the form of government funding. "A privately owned business that is failing must respond and change or go out of business". Public Schools on the other hand continue to be funded no matter what. There is no urgent need to change. "When you have repeated failures you must re-think your strategy."

Vallas attributes a large degree of his success in New Orleans to the fact that he was able to start "from scratch". "I had some buildings, the kids, the teachers, and the money that followed the kids, and that was it". I was able to leave behind the bureaucracy, the contracts and the establishment. Many of his early efforts in New Orleans simply focused on figuring out where he would put everyone. To his critics who have suggested that Mr. Vallas' success was due largely to an influx of federal disaster funds into the district he simply states that a majority of his funding went towards capital improvements. He feels that the dollar amount of educational funding available for each child is not the driving force behind the child's prognosis for academic success.

Mr. Vallas recommended six reforms that could be implemented immediately by any school district that would virtually guarantee positive results. They are:

1. Establish a superior comprehensive data driven curriculum that aligns with the next grade level. Provide a continuum of instruction from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

2. We must extend the school day and the school year. "The U.S. competitive advantage is deteriorating and we are getting our butts kicked abroad. We must restructure and lengthen our school day and school year to mirror the schedule of working men and women."

3. Parents must be given school choices. Poor families don't have the choices that affluent families have, and wealthier parents tend to vote with their feet. All parents should have acceptable choices so that they remain in their homes and keep their neighborhoods stable. School choice also creates competition and an entrepreneurial environment. School choice empowers parents, promotes innovation and naturally allows the school to attract a larger pool of talent.

4. Allow choice for schools. Allowing some schools to pick the best and the brightest students creates an environment of high expectations for everyone.

5. Every school must have a human resources strategy. The biggest struggle for public education is attracting the best and the brightest educators. The community should not fear alternative certified teachers. Many have extraordinary talent. They work like there is no tomorrow because they are used to a regular work day and work year. Many have unlimited energy, optimism and high expectations. Non certified teachers expand the talent pool and can be your top performing teachers. Put your best and brightest in superior instructional systems - just like the military. The better you perform, the more you get paid. He recommends Teacher Alternative Preparation Programs, or TAPP. The top performers also become your leadership team. HELLO SANITY!! According to Vallas, first teachers resist and fear these changes. They soon learn to welcome and embrace them as they see the benefits they deliver to students, the district, and consequently themselves!

6. Classroom modernization - In addition to reasonable class sizes, every classroom should be equipped with the latest in technology. At the very least the classroom of the inner city school should be equivalent to the classroom of the school in the suburbs. Smart boards, laptops - whatever it takes. I asked a question during the Q and A portion of the lecture about air conditioning in classrooms. Mr. Vallas feels that central air in our classrooms is indeed a necessity to expect peak performance from students.

If you think that these changes will cost exorbitant amounts of money, think again. Mr. Vallas says that it is entirely possible to implement reforms and cut spending at the same time. He said that as school choice emerges through the development of charter and choice schools, the schools become highly autonomous and the need for a central administration and the obstructions associated with it decrease. The central administration becomes lithe and effective, whose only purpose is to support the charter schools. No more micromanagement! He has seen districts that have central offices that are only 2% of their overall operating costs. Many districts could easily achieve a 60% reduction in their Administrative costs.

Finally, Mr Vallas noted that all of his recommendations were in line with the new directives of the Obama Administration. All of the reforms he noted would put the district in an ideal situation to qualify for the new stimulus funds. "I don't like to leave any federal money on the table when it comes to public education", Vallas said.

A lengthy Q&A session followed which was almost more revealing than the lecture itself. In addition, Mr. Vallas lingered behind after the program and addressed individual concerns. I was amazed at not only the depth of his knowlege, but also how willing he was to openly share his expertise. He told Board member Racheal Parker after the event that if the district needed anything or had any questions they should feel free to call him. What an amazing resource available to our community.

The only thing that bothers me about the whole thing is he makes it appear so easy. He speaks with such ease and confidance - oozing the common sense we have all dreamt about. Much of what he says falls into the "no-brainer" category. My neck hurts from my head bobbing up and down like a bobble head. As we look back over the past few years though, my heart sinks. How do you get this administration and this board of education to even begin making these changes? Personally, I vote for the do-over.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A new relationship...

I'm in a new relationship. It is still relatively early, so I'm not sure that I can or will commit fully, but all indications are that this will be a lasting and worthwhile relationship.

Last Saturday for example, I greeted the day with great anticipation. We were going on our first road trip together. It was a little nervewracking given that the relationship was still new and somewhat tentative, but in my heart of hearts, I felt it would go well. I yielded to the excitement, threw caution to the wind and away we went!

At some point during the day we had our first moment of reckoning. We started turning down a frontage road, and off the familiar beaten path. I hesitated, and then decided that if were ever going to make it to the "next step", I would have to impart some blind trust. Without protest I acquiesed, and felt pure elation upon noticing some familiar landmarks close to our destination. Not only had our relationship advanced to a deeper, more trusting level, but I now knew a more meandering, scenic route to some of my favorite destinations.

Like old sneakers, it's hard to let go of established relationships. Yahoo! Maps has served me well. But the paper and printing had become cumbersome... and it was so unyielding if I changed plans. My new Garmin Nuvi GPS is fresh and exciting, has all the bells and whistles and I can mold it to what I want it to be. His name is Andrew. If he gets on my nerves I can turn him into a woman. He is very patient most of the time, but does get a little short if I pull rank on him and ignore his directions. Sometimes just for fun I try extra hard to rattle him. RECALCULATING! RECALCULATING, he shouts. It's kind of sinister to intentionally challenge him for my own amusement but what the heck. He never seems to hold a grudge.

The beauty of this relationship is that Andrew has an "off" switch. What a dream date. I love the new millenium!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Civility - 1, Thug Punks - 0

That's the score so far for the Summer '09 Event Season.

Yesterday's PJStar reported that Holy Family Heritage Days was held without incident following the execution of a collaborative community effort to reduce teen violence. Last year unexpected random teen violence caused the same event to end sooner than planned. It's a great article and is some welcome good news for the city of Peoria.
PEORIA — If you plan to attend summer festivals this year, expect to be greeted with a list of rules: No baggy pants, no plain T-shirts, and no cursing.

Because of fights breaking out among crowds of teenagers during 2008 summer festivals, more than two dozen certified volunteers through Carl Cannon's ELITE Youth program are being called to action.

Their first stop was Holy Family Church's Heritage Days during the last weekend in May.

"We went incident free, knock on wood," Cannon said. "We raised the bar and put it on the youth to live up to the standards that we expect."

No arrests were made at the event, according to Capt. Lisa Snow of the Peoria Police Department.

Before entrance to the event, youths had to agree with a code of conduct and dress code, which were posted on signs at the entrance.

We are all quick to criticise our city leaders for their perceived shortcomings, but we tend to fall short when it comes to offering the appropriate accolades for a job well done. According to the article, the services and counsel of Carl Cannon will continue to be retained throughout the summer at Riverfront and city sponsored events. Thank you to the Peoria Police Department, Mayor Ardis and the City of Peoria, and particularly Carl Cannon and his Elite Youth Program and volunteers for their collaborative efforts, their innovative problem solving, and a willingness to continue to serve our community.

I found this point in the PJStar article to be the most revealing:
While some thought event attendance may be lowered because of these stricter guidelines, the last two days of Heritage Days saw an increase in attendance, according to Sollberger.

If people feel safe, attendance and participation will be enhanced - basic common sense we can apply to all city and school district business. The efforts undertaken to stop teen violence sends a strong message that we will not surrender our community or our schools to thugs!