District 97 schools ready for Common Core

District officials discuss challenges with initiative's full fall rollout

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

After two years of training of faculty and staff, and educating parents about changes in curriculum, testing and classroom teaching, Oak Park's school districts are readying for the full implementation of the federal Common Core initiative this fall.

School starts this month at districts 200, 97 and 90. And with the opening comes the full implementation of Common Core, which has been adopted in more than 40 states, including Illinois.

With a greater focus on how students learn versus what they're learning, Common Core has been rolled out steadily yet slowly. Common Core requires a more rigorous style of teaching and learning particularly in math and language arts.

For instance, rather than simply reading a story in a social studies class and being tested on what they remembered, under Common Core, D97 students develop their own questions from that story, and with the teacher's help, gauge their understanding of what they read. In math, students have been studying fewer concepts but of those that they are studying, they're doing so in greater depth.

But the implementation in D97 hasn't been easy, admits Supt. Al Roberts. The district, he says, has struggled, like other school districts nationwide, with how to best implement Common Core.

"I was at two conferences a number of months back with superintendents from, literally, every state, and virtually every one of us identified as one of our biggest challenges is the heat that teachers are feeling with Common Core. It's a real, real issue," he said.

And that heat, in Oak Park and nationwide, hasn't come just from the dramatic change in teaching with the initiative itself, but from a growing backlash from anti-Common Core critics.

The Washington Post reported on that backlash in 12 states last week. Legislatures in such states as Oklahoma have voted to ditch Common Core and to instead rewrite an all new set of educational standards for their states. In Oklahoma, its state education board is required to come up with those new standards by 2016.

Oak Park's critics question whether Common Core is able to accomplish all that it promises.

Beye Elementary School Principal Jonathan Ellwanger has heard such criticisms. His School Improvement Team, similar to the staff and faculty leadership groups at other D97 schools, has worked to educate parents as much as training themselves on Common Core.

"There are some parents who, quite frankly, are concerned and wondering 'What does this mean for my child?' That education piece is an ongoing effort," Ellwanger says.

Other concerns involve the new testing assessment under Common Core, which will replace the decade-old state standardized testing implemented under the federal No Child Left Behind, itself a soon-to-be relic.

PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assesses students in math, English and language arts. The computerized assessment is taken by students from grades three to 11. It launched in D97 last spring.

Parents, though, are concerned if this adds to the "over-testing" already happening in the district, Roberts acknowledged.

And Ellwanger and Roberts noted that concerns remain among some D97 teachers over how Common Core will fit into the myriad of other initiatives the district is undertaking, including the International Baccalaureate program implemented in 2012.

"I know there may be a feeling of 'What idea is going to come up with next,'" Roberts said, "but these are all things that I believe will make us better tomorrow than we are today, and better the day after that. I would not pursue these initiatives if I didn't think they were beneficial to students, and that's what's most important."

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