State education could see vast changes

Moves may include 5-year high schools

Eliminating bilingual education, creating five-year high schools and lengthening a kindergartner’s school day are all initiatives the Illinois State Board of Education is heavily weighing, State Superintendent Max McGee pledged Monday night.

The issues were among many raised by parents, educators and community leaders at Larkin High School in Elgin, where McGee held this fall’s first schoolhouse meeting – an open forum designed to bridge the gap between local taxpayers and the state’s policy- making education agency.

Monday’s forum drew about 100 people from throughout Kane County.

While the state’s new, rigorous learning standards – the benchmarks by which state educators measure student achievement – have sparked much debate among educators and parents, they did not dominate Monday night’s forum.

Instead, the audience peppered McGee with questions about the future of bilingual education, high schools and kindergarten.

Dan and Dena Keller of Elgin asked him if the state would consider emulating California, whose state test scores improved after bilingual education was eliminated and students were immersed in English as soon as they entered school.

“I guarantee we are going to study it very closely,” McGee said. “What that told us is we really need to look at bilingual education and study it.”

McGee also vowed the state board would be watching to see if Chicago’s new five-year high schools – which target students not meeting the state standards after four years – should become standard in Illinois.

“I think we need to start asking some difficult questions about America’s high school and what’s best for students,” he said.

For the youngest students, many experts and educators agree that all-day kindergarten best prepares students for first grade.

Kathleen Miller, principal at Willard Elementary in South Elgin, wanted to know why it is not funded statewide. Currently, about half the state’s kindergartens extend all day.

Cost and space are biggest obstacles districts face, McGee said. He added that the state board plans to make all-day kindergarten the norm in two to three years.

To McGee’s talk about future plans, John Duffy, chairman of the board of trustees for Elgin Community College, said he is concerned about the “now” and particularly what the state is doing to prepare juniors for the new Prairie State Exam – a high school exit exam they will take in April.

The exam, which was made up using the ACT test, measures students’ progress in mastering the new state learning standards. Students scores on the test will be reflected on their transcripts.

“My concern is with the students who have traditionally never taken the ACT before and with students who have traditionally taken the ACT and not been very successful with it. I’m concerned about the results showing up on their transcripts if they have not been properly prepared. Do they need (that) for their self esteem?” Duffy said.

Rather than hurting students, McGee believes, the test will motivate students to work hard through high school. And to help prepare students, the state is bearing the cost of test preparation materials for all districts, McGee said.

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