Gold star, District 95

Paris school district leads state in academic improvement and community inclusivity

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Paris Union School District 95 is a model for other Illinois school districts for its approach to school improvement and its partnership with the Paris community.

Paris 95 Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Larson and the district’s principals — Kyle Shay, Megan Carroll and Gary Doughan — have been featured speakers about the district’s approach to continuous improvement at the Illinois Association of School Board’s convention, the Illinois Principals Association as well as a superintendent’s conference. The district’s approach is featured on the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) web site explaining the plan.

The ISBE article emphasized, “This ongoing public conversation about a growth mindset gets to the heart of how this district has found a way to tie together broad but interwoven areas of focus for continuous improvement. Placing a commitment to community at the center of the school improvement process has helped SD 95 partner with Paris families to create new growth with shared values.”

Paris 95 began the two-year process of school improvement in January 2017, using the Illinois Quality Framework and Supporting Rubric, “to focus district improvement efforts on ambitious instruction, support services, wellness and safety, student activities, and a commitment to community,” the ISBE article noted.

Larson explained each of the areas was selected in an effort “to address the needs of the student population that the district serves, but school and district leaders see commitment to community as the overarching objective that makes the whole process possible.”

The article continues, “Paris school leaders had already begun creating community partnerships to support student learning outcomes the year before, and the results were clear. District test scores in reading and math were both below the state average. Paris leaders held parent meetings to discuss key instructional shifts and identify support systems to help students through the transition. These meetings between parents and school leaders became a joint committee of stakeholders that would decide on districtwide areas for improvement. They established an emphasis reading and writing by establishing common expectations for performance. The combined focus resulted in ELA scores increasing by 13 percent over the past two years.”

Larson emphasized although the commitment to the community was already a cornerstone of Paris 95 improvement, “We knew we were going to rely on a community partnership in implementing continues improvement. We wanted to include our families and community members in developing the plan.”

The ISBE article explained Larson was inspired by the Illinois Quality Framework in 2016-17, “to begin conducting a needs assessment based on prioritizing family and community collections.”

For each standard in the framework, the ISBE article noted, “Paris leaders asked aligning questions with a simple scale of one to five stars or short answer response. They then aggregated this data to create their strategic two-year plan.”

The results of the work — including internal meetings with teachers and administrators, “ended with board members, administrators, and teachers holding a meeting, after which Paris leaders drafted an early version of the districtwide strategic plan. They called this plan “Strong Schools, Strong Community Partnership.”

In March, 2017, Paris 95 hosted what the article described as, “uniquely inclusive, as families and community members were invited to gather after school in the gym.” Students and teachers presented at tables for programs and activities featuring everything from band to nutrition to the gifted program to special education and various clubs.

“The feedback collected from this evening led Paris leaders and teachers to reintegrate choir into the school day, create STEM and creative writing summer camps, and bring back (competitive) cheerleading to Mayo Middle School,” the ISBE feature noted.

“Perhaps one of the most important components of the implementation of the ‘Strong Schools, Strong Community Partnership’ is the District Improvement Task Force, which remains a community-driven committee of joint stakeholders involved with overseeing the two-year plan. The District Improvement Task Force has been meeting regularly since the plan was adopted by the Paris board and the official implementation phase started in July 2017. The task force reviews and adapts the District Continuous Improvement Plan to identify and address changing areas of need and is accountable to alignment with the Illinois Quality Framework’s first standard, which is Continuous Improvement,” the ISBE assessment said.

“Opting for transparency and open communication in decision-making has changed the relationship between parents and district leaders in Paris. When student advocates from every side are able to work together, students get the support they need when they need it,” the article concluded.

Larson said superintendents from throughout the state have contacted him about the Paris process — which will begin again this spring. While he is proud of the Paris 95 recognition for the plan, he noted the district ticked off each of its school improvement plan goals.

“Sometimes as an administrator, you’re so wrapped up in the educating of our students, you forget important things like facilities and school lunches, which are important to parents and community members,” he said. The first school improvement plan led to changes within the district’s school lunch and breakfast program, which he described as successful.

“I still have all the index cards those who attended our first meeting turned in about changes that they believe needed to be made for improvement,” he said. “It’s a reminder to us on a daily basis.”

The meetings for the next strategic plan for the district are scheduled March 20 and April 10 at Mayo Middle School, Larson said. More information will be made available as the meetings approach, he noted.