Metro-East News

State education chairman says ESL could regain local control of school district

New Illinois State Board of Education Chairman James Meeks, in a visit to East St. Louis, offered hope that the city’s school district could again be controlled by a local board.

Meeks also challenged community members to mentor students in preparation for upcoming performance tests, and promised 600 new computers if the test scores improve.

Meeks, who was appointed chairman of the state board by Gov. Bruce Rauner, met Thursday with East St. Louis school and community leaders. He said the state would like to be able to give back control of the school district.

“We wanted parents to ask any and every question they have about the takeover,” Meeks said. “And we wanted to explain to them how they could get involved in helping to improve academic performance.”

East St. Louis School District 189 has been under the control of the state board and a state-appointed superintendent since 2013. District 189 still has a local school board, but its authority is essentially limited to offering suggestions on the operation of the district. That arrangement is the result of a consent decree, which was reached after the state board took steps in 2012 to dissolve the local school board.

Meeks asked that parents, church leaders, civic organizations and others volunteer for two hours on Saturday for the next six weeks to help mentor the district’s 489 third-graders. Those students in six weeks will be taking the state’s standardized performance tests. Meeks said if the district’s scores go up, he’ll return to East St. Louis with 600 computers that have been requested by District 189 Superintendent Art Culver.

“This is an emergency, this is a crisis,” Meeks said. “If you want to change the statistics, make sure students are reading at third-grade level. We need you all as individual mentors for the next six weeks to make sure the students are prepared to take the test.”

The consent decree spells out various goals the district must reach in order to regain local control. They include improved performance on standardized tests, lower truancy rates and higher graduation rates.

The state superintendent, Christopher Koch, joined Meeks for the visit.

“We want to give hope to the district, listen to the parents and teachers, and see what the issues are,” Koch said. He added that the state board is trying to give the district additional money.

Third-grade teacher Tiffany Jackson, who attended the meeting, left feeling optimistic. Jackson said she had feared the purpose of the visit was to announce a dissolution of the district, and dispersing its students to other districts.

“The state is supporting us and is willing to work with the district so we can get the district back, if we can continue to work toward and make improvements,” Jackson said.

Culver outlined a number of programs that have been undertaken in the district as part of a plan to improve academic performance, improve the district’s finances and restore the public’s trust. Culver said the district 10 years ago was losing about 450 students per year, but in the past two years, the decline has lessened to about 200 fewer students per year.

“We want to get to the point where we’re adding kids,” Culver said.

The district serves about 6,300 students. In 2012, only about 10 percent of high school juniors in East St. Louis were meeting or exceeding the standards of one state test, compared to about 50 percent of juniors statewide.