More staff, extra learning time help McHenry County schools recover from COVID-19

Efforts to help students catch up paying off after 90 schools in area graded as ‘Commendable’ by state

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Hollabaugh explains how to solve a math problem Wednesday, Oct, 26, 2022, to the students that Hollabaugh and Jim Garvalia co-teach at Conley Elementary School, 750 Dr. John Burkey Drive in Algonquin.

Students at Conley Elementary School in Algonquin may have noticed their classrooms are a little busier nowadays, with more teachers in the room to help them catch up on work they might have missed in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adding more staff to the classroom is one of many changes Huntley School District 158, along with several other school districts in the area, have made to respond to the lost learning and emotional issues that have arisen from the pandemic.

For many schools, those efforts are starting to show after state’s new 2022 school report cards were released Thursday. The report designated 90 of the area’s 98 eligible schools across McHenry and Kane counties as “commendable.” Of the remainder, six received the “exemplary” designation reserved for schools in the top 10% statewide, one fell into the bottom 5% statewide and received a “comprehensive” designation, and the last would have received either an “exemplary” or “commendable” designation except that one of its student populations fell into the bottom 5% statewide.

Schools do not serve third grade or higher do not receive a ranking.

Huntley School District 158 saw seven of its eight eligible schools receive the “commendable” designation. Superintendent Scott Rowe said coming out of the pandemic, the district had three areas of focus: academic intervention, social and emotional learning and educational equity.

“The combination of all three of those pillars are what are really contributing to the foundation we’re putting beneath our students,” he said.

Returning in 2021 for its first full year back in-person from the pandemic, Rowe said the district brought on 10 new teachers who were tasked with intervention. That is, they worked with students one-on-one to help in areas where they might be struggling.

Each elementary school received two such teachers, Rowe said, which “has worked tremendously.”

Fifth-grade teacher Jim Garvalia works one-on-one with Declan Jensen as he explains how to solve a math problem Wednesday, Oct, 26, 2022, in the classroom co-taught by Garvalia and Jennifer Hollabaugh at Conley Elementary School, 750 Dr. John Burkey Drive in Algonquin.

As a result, some areas of student performance, such as math, have bounced back stronger than the district expected, Rowe said.

Despite the improvements, Heineman Middle School in Algonquin received a “targeted” designation from the state because its English learners population scored in the bottom 5% statewide, data shows. The group includes about two dozen students, many of part of an influx of new students from around the world, including Ukraine and Russia, Rowe said.

“We’re talking about learning the English language, in addition to the culture of our country and community,” Rowe said. “And on this one particular day, they took a test only offered in English.”

Despite this, Rowe said they are taking the “targeted” designation seriously and are “going to attack it vigorously.”

“I have no doubt Heineman’s going to respond and they’re going to rally,” he said. “It’s no reflection on the quality of Heineman.”

Community School District 300, which had 16 eligible schools across Algonquin, Carpentersville and Lake in the Hills, saw two of its schools, Kenneth E. Neubert Elementary School and Eastview Elementary School, graded as “exemplary.” The rest, except for one, were “commendable,” data shows.

The one school receiving the “comprehensive” designation was Perry Elementary School in Carpentersville, a minority-majority school, with almost 90% of its students Black or Hispanic, data shows. Nearly 80% of its students are considered low income.

It also holds the highest mobility rate of any school in the area at almost 27%, meaning students are moving frequently, according to the state’s data. It is more than three times higher than District 300′s average, district spokesman Anthony McGinn said.

About 64% of its students experience chronic truancy as well, higher than District 300′s average of 24.5% and the state’s rate of 22.1%.

To address these issues, District 300 began a quarterly review process this school year and provides Perry’s staff with reading and math support, along with “effective small group strategies,” McGinn said. They are also increasing instructional coaching support and working with parents to combat the effects of chronic absenteeism.

Districtwide, District 300 also added intervention positions last year with a focus on reading and math, McGinn said.

Fifth-grader Eliona Ahmedi solves a math problem Wednesday, Oct, 26, 2022, during a math class at Conley Elementary School, 750 Dr. John Burkey Drive in Algonquin.

A summer learning program for kindergarten through eighth grade was also made available, and efforts to better track student performance is being carried out, McGinn said.

Harvard School District 50 is planning a celebration for its teachers after its four eligible schools were graded as “commendable,” Superintendent Corey Tafoya said, calling the results an accomplishment given the conditions the district found itself in during the pandemic, including staggered and remote learning.

Tafoya credited the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, also known as AVID, which aims to close achievement gaps and create college and career readiness.

Other programs, such as the extended school year program, which include summer and after school, and using performance data to determine who might benefit from these options, were a benefit too, Tafoya said.

Woodstock School District 200, like Harvard, saw all of its eligible schools receive “commendable” designations too, data shows.

The district was helped by what it did both before and after the pandemic, including a new reading program launched before the pandemic that targeted second graders, spokesman Kevin Lyons said. Data shows kids who don’t make up reading at that age will have it follow them.

Math scores, which were affected by the pandemic, were another focus, Lyons said.

“Math is where most of the focus is, and it’s probably where most of the focus is for a lot of the country,” Lyons said.

Meanwhile, McHenry High School District 156, which received a “commendable” status for its high school, “always holds [its] breath” for the school report card designations, said Carl Vallianatos, assistant superintendent for learning and innovation.

To reach this status, the district bolstered its assessments, which included more formative and benchmark assessments, Vallianatos said. It also sought to gain a better understanding how to monitor student performance over time.

Like other districts, District 156 held programs before and after school, as well as over the summer, Vallianatos said. This allowed students who were missing credits to get caught back up. Teachers worked during lunch, after school and during planning periods to help kids gain what they had lost.

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Hollabaugh works with Eliona Ahmedi as she explains how to solve a math problem Wednesday, Oct, 26, 2022, to the students that Hollabaugh and Jim Garvalia co-teach at Conley Elementary School, 750 Dr. John Burkey Drive in Algonquin.

“Commendable is good, given the circumstances,” Vallianatos said. “It is a testament to the adults who help kids catch up and succeed.”

Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 used a multi-tiered system of supports framework, Superintendent Kathy Hinz said. In September last year, the district was also recognized for its positive behavior interventions and support, or PBIS, system, which worked in tandem with MTSS to use data to help recognize strengths and weaknesses, build skills and increase consistency of instruction.

Social and emotional wellbeing have been a key theme for schools both during and after the pandemic, with several districts creating specific services to accommodate those needs.

District 158 incorporated social and emotional help into its physical education and health classes, with the goal to either help remove problems students are having or mitigate them so they don’t disrupt their learning, Rowe said.

District 200 hired “a lot of social workers,” Lyons said. They help with trauma students have suffered, both due to or separate from the pandemic. This, along with other staffing changes, came from COVID-19 federal funding.

Other districts, such as District 26, also increased their social and emotional programming, officials said.

At Cary School District 26, one of its schools received an “exemplary” designation, data shows. The rest received “commendable.”

Superintendent Brian Coleman said the results stemmed from a learning recovery plan following the COVID-19 pandemic, which included an enhanced summer school program, high impact interventions for students during the day and an after-school assistance program that targeted students in need.

“The district has worked extremely hard this last year to recover from the learning lost during the pandemic,” he said in an email.

Correction: This article was updated to correct what District 47 was recognized for last year. The district was recognized for its use of the positive behavior interventions and supports, or PBIS, model in tandem with a multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS, framework.