Due north: Winnetka seeks stability in hiring of Supt. Thomas Hagerman.FILE 2008/STAFF

Thomas Hagerman is leaving one top school district for another come June when the superintendent departs the River Forest elementary schools and heads north to Winnetka. Beyond the usual upsides of a larger school district and a larger paycheck, Hagerman has said he was attracted to the Winnetka elementary schools post because of the district’s history of “progressive education.”

What is progressive education and how does it compare to the educational approach Hagerman will leave behind when he departs River Forest after a three-year tenure?

The Winnetka public schools are famous nationally among educators as one of the cradles of progressive education. From the architecture of the schools – Crow Island School is deemed architecturally significant worldwide because of its child-sized dimensions — to a curriculum that emphasizes “experiential learning,” Winnetka, with a student body of some 2,000, has a long history of seeking new ways to educate children based on their social and developmental levels.

But recently the “Winnetka Way” has been criticized by some local parents who argue that progressive education is too vague and ineffective.

“So-called Progressive Education (one classroom for all kindergarten and 1st grade students, 45 minutes of yoga each day, frequent faculty offsite meetings) is now just a slogan to justify out of touch practices and total stonewalling of parents and their input,” complains a District 36 parent on a local school-rating bulletin board.

“It is a difficult philosophy to enact,” says District 36 School Board President Nancy Fehrenbach. “Parents are concerned about consistency across the district in terms of the execution of that philosophy.” Parents feel the pressure, as a New Trier High School feeder district, that their children will not be prepared, says Fehrenbach. In 2009 the district began a soul-searching series of surveys and focus groups to clarify whether children from Winnetka were prepared for New Trier and how parents viewed the schools.

Survey and data show that Winnetka students do well in high school, even though they may take an unorthodox path to success. Fehrenbach says the “outcomes” are the focus at the end of elementary school. Surveyed parents were concerned that fifth grade may be taught completely differently between classrooms and district schools, based on different teacher styles and personalities. “One teacher may teach mathematical principles with economics and another with an architecture unit, so the classrooms may look different. It’s hard for an outsider to know that each child is reaching the desired outcome.” Fehrenbach also says surveys confirm the Winnetka community strongly supports progressive education. A teacher vacancy recently generated 650 resumes, she said. “We can take advantage of the economy to get better hiring opportunities.”

For its part, River Forest school officials expressed no surprise that recruiters came calling on Hagerman. District 90 school board President Juliann Geldner, called Hagerman a “rising star.” And fellow board member Jan Pryce said, “I knew given his age and career goals that he wouldn’t be here forever. Winnetka is a respected and high performing school district and we know that recruiters come talking with our leadership. It happens in the business world.”

The district has hired a search firm to help replace Hagerman, who will get a salary bump from $199,000 to $220,000 in Winnetka.

Innovations adopted by District 90

Many of the John Dewey-inspired innovations begun by progressive schools generations ago have been adopted by educators as best-practices throughout the country, including in District 90 — such as school projects that cross the curriculum and teach concepts in math, literature and current events.

River Forest’s elementary and middle schools — with 1,369 students —have a “whole child” approach to education, says Pryce. “We have a commitment to integrating five elements of the whole child: the intellectual, physical, emotional, social and aesthetic.” She says the staff and teachers are driven to improve. “Our work is never done. The environment’s dynamic. We are proud of what we offer our children and are very open to growth and development and improvement.”

Hagerman says he was looking forward to a more ‘developmental’ approach to children’s education. Progressive education discourages the system of “tracking” by academic ability — which is considered controversial among educators because it can cause some children to fall through the cracks. As one Winnetka principal put it, “you never know when a child’s light will go on.”

“River Forest has a balanced approach to what we do. We know that no single approach takes care of all children,” says Curriculum Director Joanne Trahanas, who was principal at Roosevelt School for 11 years. “Do we have courses that are tracked? Yes we do. And there are criteria you have to meet. We believe our differentiated curriculum appeals to personal to needs of students.”

District 90 uses MAP and literacy testing to build an appropriate education plan for each child, says Trahanas. “It is testing that informs instruction. It gives teachers a goal area and shows where kids score in goal areas.” Pressure from state and federal governments will always make high-stakes testing a reality, she says. “Our teachers have always handled that well. As long as state testing is published in newspapers, the schools are going to feel the pressure.”

“State testing keeps us accountable to the community,” says Pryce. “We have parents who go to the state report cards — and that’s why they move to our community.”

Trahanas says that in District 90 it’s the teachers who make the difference. “It’s really our outstanding teaching staff. The teachers in the classrooms are the ones doing a phenomenal job in reaching our kids. The staff really wants the best for every single child.”

Winnetka hopes by hiring Hagerman to regain some stability after a two-year term by a superintendent who wasn’t a good fit. Former superintendent Mary Herrmann resigned in June 2010 to accept a position at the Clayton Public School System outside St. Louis. She has now moved on from that position the Clayton school board announced last week, asking to be released from her contract. Two interim superintendents have been in charge in Winnetka this year. Before Herrmann, Winnetka District 36 had superintendents who stayed for 12 and 15 years, according to Fehrenbach.

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Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...