Don Harmon

For almost seven years, education leaders from Oak Park School District 97 have advocated for non-unified school districts to have a more streamlined process to share student information. They teamed up with local legislators, helped draft a bill — and waited.

Now the fight is finally over.

Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that allows elementary and high school districts with “overlapping boundaries” and an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) to share student records and information. That means faculty and staff from District 97 and River Forest School District 90 — which serves as a feeder to Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 — will have easier access to students’ files and information to build better datasets across grade levels.

“I kind of did a happy dance. I was so excited,” said Lou Anne Johannesson, an administrative liaison for the Committee of Legislative, Intervention and Monitoring (CLAIM), the D97 organization that lobbied for the bill.

Johannesson and CLAIM co-chair Theresa Jurgus, along with several other members, started working on this effort in 2014. They met with school district officials and Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), one of the bill’s major supporters.

Johannesson said “somewhere in 2015” their initiative was paused, as stories surrounding data breaches surfaced, and representatives in Springfield grew wary of issues related to sharing data.

“Anything that has to do with data-sharing got shut down for a couple of years in Springfield,” Johannesson said, noting she, Jurgus and other CLAIM members revisited the conversation time and time again, inviting more people to join in. They connected with area lawmakers, including state Rep. Camille Lilly, who also sponsored the bill. The rest is history.

Johannesson and CLAIM co-chair Theresa Jurgus explained that teachers from a unified school district, a single district that includes both elementary and high schools, can seamlessly obtain students’ files. “They just pass it on to the next teacher or the next group of teachers because they’re all in the same district,” said Johannesson, a longtime administrative assistant at D97.

For non-unified school districts such as D90, D97 and D200, administrators often require parents or legal guardians to sign a release form just to attain student records, a crucial step that needs follow-through. When there’s a delay in getting those signed forms, it causes a setback for students in need of support and services, said Johannesson, an administrative assistant at District 97.

“The thing we’ve been dealing with is the border between eighth grade and freshman year,” she said, adding that the new law gives high school-bound students a more solid, steadier learning experience.

Whatever support a student received in elementary school will now be sent “over to the freshman team at the high school, continuing whatever is working and what has been established,” Johannesson shared.

From a big-picture perspective, this law opens up a world of opportunities for the three districts to collect data from and study groups of students.

“If we taught this in first grade, how would this affect fourth grade?” Johannesson said about the possibilities of what the data could reveal. “And if we taught this in fourth grade, how does it affect ninth grade? Is it a predictor of how successful a kid is going to be in high school and even post-high school?”

“We couldn’t share that kind of larger group data freely until this bill,” she continued. “So there’s the individual student who is supported, and educational instruction is enhanced by this.”

Jurgus reiterated, “It creates a functionality we didn’t have before.”

In an emailed statement to Wednesday Journal, District 200 spokesperson Karin Sullivan wrote that the law was a “significant step forward in opening the lines of communication.”

“Now we’re able to do a much better job of planning for the actual students we’re going to receive, so that when they walk through our doors, we’re ready for them,” Sullivan wrote. “It also will help us understand the impact and outcomes of different initiatives. For example, if the middle schools create new practices around attendance, we can track the effect through their high school years. Overall, this is going to help us do a better job of serving all the students in our community.”

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