Hosts public hearing, visits new riverfront campus
MOLINE – November 2, 2011. Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, who serves as Governor Quinn’s point person on education reform, hosted a Classrooms First Commission public hearing at Black Hawk College today before taking a tour of a new Western Illinois University-Quad Cities Riverfront campus.
The public hearing provided parents, taxpayers and educators the opportunity to give testimony on how K-12 school districts can improve learning and efficiency. This is the third of four such hearings scheduled this fall by the Classrooms First Commission, a statewide group tasked with finding ways to improve learning and efficiency at the nearly 870 schools districts in Illinois.
“These hearings are all about the commission keeping an open mind and gathering ideas on efficiencies that promote what is best for students,” Simon said. “There is no cookie cutter approach to improving student learning and district efficiency, which is why it is so crucial to get input from as many citizens as possible from across Illinois.”
“The top priority of this commission is to ensure that we are maximizing our resources so that our children have the best possible educational opportunities,” added State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), the House Democrat on the commission. “I look forward to hearing the testimony as we work together to continue to improve our school system here in Illinois and I commend Lt. Governor Simon on her outstanding leadership of this commission.”
Among those who testified was the superintendent of Leepertown Community Consolidated School District 175, Amber Harper, who discussed the challenges her school district has faced in efforts to consolidate. The district, which is on the state’s financial watch list, will close next school year according to Harper.
Leepertown, in the Bureau County region, has been unable to consolidate with nearby school districts because other schools are overcrowded, lack the funding necessary to absorb additional students and staff, or because legislation would be required for certain proposals such as two non-contiguous districts consolidating.
Because of the financial difficulties Leepertown faces, teachers have been forced to teach several grade levels in the same classroom; but despite these challenges, 85 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the 2011 ISAT, above the 82 percent statewide average.
“Throughout the nine years I've been at Leepertown, student learning and social emotional support have been the primary focus of the staff, community and board,” Harper said. “Despite the loss of revenue and job positions over the years, and having one of the lowest salary schedules in the state, we have remained focused on our primary reason for being here.”
Also testifying was Dr. Norm Durflinger, Director of the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, who discussed aspects of school district consolidation and the state’s existing incentives for consolidation. The superintendent of Bradford Community Unit School District 1 in the Stark County region, Dr. Ellin Lotspeich, told commission members about the effect the deactivation of Bradford High School in 2001 has had on the community and other challenges rural schools face.
After the hearing, Simon visited the site of the future WIU-Quad Cities Riverfront campus, which is located along the Mississippi River in Moline. Phase I, the renovation of a 60,000-square-foot building that once housed the John Deere Tech Center, is nearly complete. Building One on the Riverfront campus will serve as home to College of Business and Technology programs, which includes the new engineering program.
The engineering program offers a plus-two degree program allowing students to complete their junior and senior years at WIU, while completing their freshman and sophomore years at the WIU campus in Macomb or community colleges in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.
“It is this type of innovative programming we must build upon in Illinois to ensure all of our citizens are receiving a high-quality affordable education,” said Simon, who is working to increase the proportion of working-age adults with a college degree or certificate to 60 percent from 41 percent by 2025.
The three-phase project at WIU will host an initial enrollment of 3,000 students, support 100 jobs, and deliver an annual economic impact of $50 million. The project was partially funded using $57.8 million from the Illinois Jobs Now! capital construction program signed into law by Governor Quinn in 2009.
"It is exciting to watch the community's dream of the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities Riverfront Campus become a reality,” said WIU President Jack Thomas. “We take great pride in serving as the public university choice for the Quad Cities and beyond and we look forward to working with Lt. Governor Simon to continue improving higher education in Illinois.”
Vice President for Quad Cities, Planning and Technology Joseph Rives added, "Western will continue its diligence in working with community leaders and organizations to continue the pursuit of Phases II and III of the Riverfront Campus. We look forward to celebrating the start of classes at our new facility in January 2012."
The Classrooms First Commission members represent various stakeholder groups including teachers, school boards, principals, superintendents, parents and urban, suburban and rural areas. In its first phase of study the commission will collect public input and review local and national research on educational efficiency and student performance.
Tomorrow a fourth public hearing is scheduled in Des Plaines. To view the hearing schedule, watch streaming live video of the hearings, or to fill out an online survey regarding district efficiency, visit www.ltgov.il.gov.