As those from my hometown of Rockford, IL know, my mother has been a tireless activist on behalf of education, particularly for gifted students, since I was a child. After all three of her children were out of Rockford Public Schools District 205 (RPS205), she ran for and currently sits on the school board. While I have a continued interest in education overseas, I’ve also stayed connected to my home district out of personal interest and through my mom.
To give you a little bit of background, RPS205 is known for its massive 1989 desegregation lawsuit – People Who Care. The suit found the district guilty, to the tune of $239 million, and the district has suffered ever since from massive budget deficits and lingering tensions. Rockford currently has the highest unemployment rate in Illinois, and was suffering from movement of manufacturing facilities to offshore locations before the market collapse and subsequent recession.
Despite the many challenges for the city and the district, some remarkable programs remain. The Academic Gifted Program and select honors and AP courses have been district gems and provided rigorous and challenging coursework to students willing to challenge themselves. Unfortunately, due to a unilateral decision by the current superintendent, Lavonne Sheffield, honors courses across the board are on the chopping block and enrollment requirements (minimum number of students) will be more stringently enforced for AP courses.
The result: marginalized opportunities for students in District 205 who are able and willing to challenge themselves with honors courses, hoping to be better prepared for college. In a district where 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the percent who go on to attend a four year university is already low, truancy is high, and parents are pulling children out of public schools due to legitimate concerns for their safety, I cannot comprehend why removing upper level and advanced course offerings is a smart choice. The basis of the decision was not budget savings, but rather the blunt fact that honors courses do not necessarily have a different written curriculum. I understand the downsides of tracking, but in a district where students’ opportunities for accelerated learning are quite limited without leaving the public system, even taking a few select honors courses can be invaluable to the education of an individual, especially if it can instill in him or her a life long love of learning, hard to come by when your teacher is more focused on discipline issues than engaging students.
I wrote a guest column on the issue for Sunday’s Rockford Register Star, cosigned and supported by over 80 other district alumni, and Ellie Kiefer (Auburn High School, 2005) and I have started a tumblr – Rockford Education Matters – where interested parties can post comments, ideas, or simply look for up to date information. As the city looks for ways to attract young professionals back to the city, continued decision making on the part of Dr. Sheffield that decimates the school system and gives little incentive for businesses to set up shop is disheartening and discouraging.