I went to a women’s thing at church Saturday. A women’s thing about creative journaling called The Compass.
If you’ve been around The Tumblr long enough to catch The Occasional Personal Commentary, you know “women’s thing” and “creative journaling” are two phrases you would not normally associate with Things I Like To Do.
But if there’s one word I keep coming back to for 2012, it’s “new.” And we’re far enough into the year that that’s not just in a “Happy New Year!” context. That’s one thing that was underscored by The Compass, both in the new, comfort zone-stretching experience that it was and in what came out during the creative journaling process. One of the guiding scriptures for that process was Isaiah 43:18-19:
"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."
I do not yet fully perceive the new thing God is doing this year in my life. But I heard Him Saturday whispering, “Write for yourself.” Not for the newspaper. For myself. For Him.
"He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” — Revelation 21:5
I don’t know what that will look like yet. (I’m still looking and listening and perceiving. And I’m open to ideas.) But I know that God’s words are trustworthy and true. And I know that the next verse in Revelation begins, “‘It is done,’” and that it will be.
ELGIN — Three years ago to the day, “it was hanging in the balance,” Elgin Community College President David Sam said.
The ECC District 509 Board of Trustees was considering whether to go for a $178 million bond referendum at its Jan. 27, 2009, meeting.
The economy had begun to sour, and the community college already had lost a referendum in 2006, Sam said. But its campus at 1700 Spartan Drive needed major infrastructure improvements — especially its library, which was in danger of losing its accreditation, he said.
Ultimately, the board pushed for the referendum, and voters passed it by 35 votes.
And on Friday — Jan. 27, 2012 — Elgin Community College celebrated the completion of its last major Facilities Master Plan projects on campus with the grand opening of the Renner Academic Library and Learning Resources.
“I remember the day after the referendum, somebody asked me, ‘How does it feel to have won by only 35 votes?’ ” Sam said.
“My response was very simple: ‘Come and see what we do on campus in three years and see if those votes weren’t worth it — see the treasure that is going to serve the community for many years to come.’ ”
The Renner Academic Library and Learning Resources was one of the largest of the Facilities Master Plan projects, budgeted at $26 million for completion in summer 2012. It was completed not just ahead of schedule for the start of the spring semester two weeks ago but also under budget, for $21.5 million, according to college spokesman Jeff Julian.
It also was one of the most-needed. The previous library, similarly named the Renner Learning Resources Center, was built in 1970 to accommodate about 2,500 students, Sam noted. (In the 1950s and 1960s, it had been housed in Renner Hall at Elgin High School.) By 2006, enrollment had grown to nearly 12,000; and the Higher Learning Commission, responsible for accreditation, had cited the library as “unsatisfactory,” he said.
It was the smallest community college library in the Chicago area — smaller even than many of the middle and high school libraries in the area, he said. And it was the one concern Sam had when he took the position as president five years ago, he said.
“That was not going to deter me from coming here, and I’m glad I came to ECC, because we have accomplished nothing short of a miracle,” he said.
HAMPSHIRE — There were no desks in the classroom. Just a teacher, about 30 students, a blue star flag and a question written on the chalkboard:
“What have you done to earn to earn the right to sit at your desk?”
When the students answered that question, their teacher told them, they could have their desks.
It wasn’t their grades or their behavior. It wasn’t even their good looks, Colorado-based filmmaker Larry Cappetto added.
At the end of the day, it was the veterans of the U.S. military who carried the students’ desks into the classroom. It was the very men and women who had paid the price for their freedoms, for those desks, who had fought for their “right to go to school and get a free education,” Cappetto said.
That happened in 2005 in Martha Cothran’s social studies classroom at Robinson High School in Little Rock, Ark.
The story checks out on snopes.com, and, the filmmaker said, he talked to Cothran himself.
He asked the teacher if anyone ever had made a film based on her story, he said.
And no one had — at least, not until Cappetto started filming “Where Are The Desks?” last week at Hampshire High School, casting students and teachers from the high school and Hampshire Middle School, as well as a number of area veterans.
It was a story he’s wanted to film for some time, he said, like the stories of veterans he has told in his award-winning documentaries. That’s because, he said, “If we don’t remember, we forget.”
One in four people will appear on a TV show in their lifetime, according to a statistic Shannon Wapole of DeKalb read.
So when she was stuck inside on a rainy day this May at her parents’ home in Elgin, watching a “Four Weddings” marathon on TLC, the then-bride-to-be said, “I was just thinking, ‘What a once-in-a-lifetime experience to say I’d been on reality TV!’ ”
And now she can: Wapole and her husband Andy Stoker’s Nov. 11 wedding will be featured on a new episode of the show, at 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27.
“Four Weddings” sends four very different brides from the same area to each others’ weddings to choose the best, scoring everything from the food to the dress. The highest-scoring bride and her groom at the end of the episode win a dream honeymoon.
Eight episodes into the marathon, Wapole checked out the show’s website and saw it was filming an upcoming episode in the Chicago area. She filled out a short questionnaire online and got a phone call from the show about an hour later, she said.
Four months, a longer questionnaire and a Skype interview later, Wapole and Stoker learned their wedding would be featured on “Four Weddings.”
“When I was going through it,” Wapole said of her then-fiance, “he was really supportive, and then when I told him we got picked, he said, ‘Are you serious?’ ”
But then, she said, “He was very laid back to the 10th degree.”
ELGIN — Ushma Shah invoked universal design in her debut before the School District U46 Board of Education at Monday’s regular school board meeting.
That’s the architectural idea that designing a building to be accessible for people with disabilities — “with the widest and most inclusive vision” — really makes it better for everyone who uses it, Shah said. Curb cuts aren’t just used by people in wheelchairs, she pointed out, but also by people pushing strollers or carts.
It’s also the idea behind Shah’s controversial position, created this summer, as the Elgin school district’s chief of equity and social justice.
“These ideas are beginning to be translated into the field of teaching and learning. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, universal design for learning asks, ‘How can we design curriculum and classroom experiences that are as effective and inclusive as possible?’ ” she said.
“When we do this in the design of our curriculum and how we design our classroom instruction, then we will serve the needs of more students and we’ll see better results for everyone.”
Monday night, Shah called her role a “facilitator,” a part of the national conversation about how to close the achievement gaps between white and mostly Hispanic and black students.
That’s not a position unique to U46, she told The Courier-News in an interview Tuesday. Similar positions are “beginning to pop up” in school districts in Highland Park and Boston, she said.
But it is one that has brought some controversy to Illinois’ second-largest school district, which created the position with a six-figure annual salary even as it has made some tough budget cuts. Those come as the state has reduced or fallen behind in its payments to the district in the past few years.
LAKE IN THE HILLS — The fifth-graders in Jamie Soprych’s classroom at Lincoln Prairie Elementary School already have learned about fairy tales, folk tales and tall tales.
Last week, the students learned about mythology, writing stories and drawing pictures of their own gods and goddesses. Sitting back-to-back on the floor, they read their stories to their partners, trying to guess the other’s god or goddess.
When they finished, they pushed their backs into their partner’s, trying to rise to their feet as Soprych clapped and cheered on students Sofia Nichols and Sarah Tenuta: “Push! Push! Push!”
They lined up, calling out a word that described their god or goddess and peeling off to a different part of the room as the teacher passed, then huddling up in the middle of the classroom for a cheer. Finally, they pushed their desks back to the center of the classroom for a pop quiz.
“If you were to come in as a stranger, you’d be like, ‘What are you doing? It’s so chaotic!’ But it’s not,” Soprych said.
There’s a method to the teacher’s madness.
“It’s kinesthetic, visual and auditory. When you hit all those types, you hit all learners,” she explained.
That method is called Quantum Learning, and it’s one of Community Unit School District 300’s top priorities this school year.
Those priorities — announced by members of the superintendent’s new Teaching and Learning Leadership Team at the District 300 Staff Rally at the start of the school year — include the district’s restructured special education program.
They also include RtI and PBIS, which are intervention programs for students struggling with learning or behavior; and aligning curriculum and testing with the Common Core Standards adopted last year by the state of Illinois.
Quantum Learning is a five-part teaching and learning methodology that addresses all learning styles.
District 300 first offered a five-day summer training in the methodology about 12 years ago, according to Audrey Lakin, the district’s facilitator for the implementation of Quantum Learning.
Then came a different district administration, financial difficulties and a priority shift, Lakin said. The Carpentersville-area school district “never lost contact with” Quantum Learning, she said; it just outsourced its training to National Louis University, on that school’s Elgin campus.
Between 1999 and 2010, about 350 District 300 employees were trained in Quantum Learning, Lakin said.
This summer alone, the district trained more than 100, including staff from every school, she said.
That’s because, the facilitator said, when Superintendent Michael Bregy took charge of the district this school year, he announced another shift in the district’s top priority — back to core teaching and learning.
That included the creation of the Teaching and Learning Leadership Team. It also included a new goal for Quantum Learning.
“Over the next five years, we would train everybody — that’s not just our teachers, but our administrators and our support staff,” Lakin said.
“What we’re trying to do now is implement Quantum Learning so it’s not an intimidating thing. It’s part of the way we do things. It’s not an add-on. It’s a part of the way we do business.”
ELGIN — Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has released a report on the state of the state’s community colleges, and has proposed a number of reforms summing up her fact-finding tour of every community college in the state over the past year.
That report found that four out of five recent high school graduates who enter such colleges do not complete a certificate or degree within three years, making community colleges, in Simon’s words, “revolving doors.”
“We’re doing a good job of getting all types of students into the doors of community colleges,” she said in a written statement. “But now we need to do a better job of moving them across the stage at graduation with a certificate or degree that leads to a good-paying job here in Illinois.”
To do that, Simon’s report lays out four steps community colleges can take to “focus on the finish.” She set a goal to increase the number or working-age adults in Illinois with certificates or college degrees from 41 percent to 60 percent by 2015.
And she singled out several programs at Elgin Community College, which she visited in late September, both in her report and in remarks she made Thursday morning at The City Club in Chicago.
“We have a lot of strong professionals at the college who have worked on this a long time and finally, they are being recognized,” Elgin Community College President David Sam said.
“It’s a step ahead of many places, and we are pleased with that.”
The lieutenant governor’s report puts ECC about in the middle of the 48 community colleges in Illinois for certificate and degree completion. ECC awarded certificates or associate’s degrees to 25 percent of students in three years or less between fall 2007 and fall 2010, Simon said.
That’s a percentage that has held steady over the past decade, even as enrollment at the school has grown, according to ECC spokesman Jeff Julian. The community college awarded 2,529 total certificates and degrees in 2011, compared to 1,793 in 2008, according to the college.
And, Julian noted, that puts the Elgin school at the top of the community colleges in the Chicago area.
SOUTH ELGIN — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin surveyed the display of Raid cans, jars of Miracle Whip and Welch’s jelly, bottles of International Delight coffee creamer and Tide-to-Go sticks at Hoffer Plastics Corp., all made at the South Elgin company.
Touring the South Elgin facility Wednesday, he joked, “I’m going to learn something today. The education of a senator is a daunting task.”
Durbin’s visit to Hoffer Plastics was one of many he has made across Illinois to hear stories from businesses that are “doing well in the recession and hiring people,” he said. He had just visited Kraft Foods Inc. in Champaign, “where they fill the Miracle Whip bottles,” Durbin said.
The senator said he was glad Hoffer was one of the last stops.
That’s because part of Hoffer’s story is the WorkKeys assessment, part of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Partnership and 1,000 Workers Skills Initiative.
Durbin also took part in a roundtable discussion about that initiative with Hoffer Plastics President William Hoffer, Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain and Elgin Area Chamber President Carol Gieske, among others. Area government, schools, businesses and the United Way of Elgin all are part of the initiative.
“This is good. This is good news,” Durbin said. “After all these travels to Danville and all over the state, Macomb and Champaign, all these places I’ve gone, I’m glad this is one of the last stops because you’ve kind of explained to me what we need, and it’s there. We just need a commitment to it.”
ELGIN — The students at the experimental primary school U46 Superintendent Jose Torres visited loved to be photographed, he said.
They insisted on showing the superintendent how to build an electric circuit. He got to “throw the switch” at the end, he said.
The students were attending school in Tianjin, China, which Torres visited in November as part of a Chinese Bridge Delegation sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, a division of the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The superintendent called that visit “pretty impactful” and said it has him talking now to the city and School Board and thinking of ways Elgin schools might partner with schools in China.
That comes almost exactly a year after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s four-day visit to the United States, in which he stressed building partnerships between the two countries. And it comes as both Elgin Community College and Judson University continue to strengthen their partnerships with schools in the Asian country.
Right now, Torres said, “It’s just a visionary thing, and I haven’t put any legs to that.”
But, he added, “It makes sense from my perspective in terms of Destination 2015 and our goals. I’ve begun to do some research around this.”
The travel, lodging and all other expenses for the superintendent’s trip were paid for by the College Board and Hanban, according to Karen Fox, chief of family and community engagement in U46.
Torres said he “must have visited seven schools in four days” while in Beijing and Tianjin.
There, he spoke with secondary school teachers, who said most classrooms had 45 to 50 students, and watched all 2,000 students at one school participate in “morning exercises” — supervised by only one teacher. Those students attended school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a 90-minute lunch break in the middle of the day and an average two to three hours of homework at night.
By comparison, U46 targets about 33 students in its middle and high school classrooms, according to Fox. Lunch recesses are staffed one adult to each class — about 22 to 34 students. Middle school students attend school from about 9 a.m. to 3:25 p.m., and high-schoolers, from 7:40 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., she said.
Things are looking up for businesses in the Fox Valley.
And I’m not just saying that because — full disclosure — my husband works in commercial real estate in Kane County. (Although being a newlywed does lend itself to all kinds of optimism.)
I’m saying that because the U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday a burst of hiring in December has pushed the unemployment rate to its lowest level since February 2009. With that, employers added a net 200,000 jobs last month, and the national unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent.
The unemployment rate hasn’t dipped quite that low in, say, Elgin, where Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka noted the persistent 11 percent unemployment rate, while hosting her second employment expo last month at Elgin Community College.
But chambers of commerce across the Fox Valley noted that same optimism among business owners in 2011.
As a winery, Village Vintner was going to close up shop after six years on Randall Road.
In fact, owner Steve Boyer closed the Carpentersville winery on Dec. 31, blaming his drop in production on the gloomy economy.
“But,” he said, “I’ve been watching, and restaurants have been doing pretty good.”
Plus, he added, “Microbreweries are big right now all over the U.S.”
And that makes it the perfect time to uncork an idea he’s been aging a while: a restaurant with its own winery and microbrewery. That was his original concept for Village Vintner, he said, but he lacked the experience to run a restaurant.
Enter some private investors and his brother Bob Boyer, who previously ran a 300-seat restaurant.
The new Village Vintner Restaurant, Winery & Brewery, is expected to open in April at 2380 Esplanade Drive, right off Randall Road in Algonquin. That will make it just the third combination winery and brewery in Illinois — and the only one in the Chicago area, Boyer said.
Despite what you’ve heard about the economy, some businesses across the Fox Valley are doing well — even expanding.
That comes as business owners adjust to “the new norm,” according to Melissa Hernandez, executive director of the Northern Kane County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s actually a really a good time to expand,” she said, “because you can get into a new location much cheaper than you could five years ago or even five years from now.”
And the conversation Hernandez has heard in 2011 has changed in the last couple years. “People are more willing to barter. People are more wiling to be creative. It’s almost like we went back to basics.”
Business owners still are nervous, she admitted. Five years ago, the good times were good enough to sustain business through the bad. And Patrick Skarr, vice president of advocacy at the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that “there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there,” based on this year’s elections.
That will impact employment costs, regulations and taxes, he added. Health insurance, payroll taxes and provisions in the Affordable Care Act are coming, and no one’s sure exactly how that will affect the cost of doing business.
Still, Skarr noted, “One of the big things we’ve heard from our members is that things have kind of stabilized over the past year.” That includes government budgets and financing with banks.
“That optimism is carrying over as we look to 2012,” he said.
This was my pick for the Courier’s year-end “Faces of 2011” series. Certainly the biggest story I covered this past year was the battle against legislation to extend the Sears EDA in Community Unit School District 300, part of Superintendent Michael Bregy’s first year at the head of the suburban Chicago school district. Here are some of the videos I took at board meetings and rallies, as well as videos posted by District 300 and the Village of Hoffman Estates, that helped tell that story.
To watch this playlist in its entirety (more than an hour-and-a-half!), visit my YouTube channel.
This was my pick for the Courier’s year-end “Faces of 2011” series. Certainly the biggest story I covered this past year was the teacher layoffs (363 in one meeting!) and battle against legislation to extend the Sears EDA in Community Unit School District 300 — all part of Superintendent Michael Bregy’s first year at the head of the suburban Chicago school district.
CARPENTERSVILLE – In a marked departure from his predecessor, Michael Bregy painted the white walls of the superintendent’s office tan. He pulled up the blinds and hung curtains, usually open.
He covered the walls with shelves full of photos — all 26 building principals on one wall, central office staff on another. He displayed memorabilia from his six years as principal at Jacobs High School in Algonquin and six months heading up Community Unit School District 300 next to books, or next to potted plants on windowsills.
In the middle of the principal photos — on top of a box labeled “happy,” a gift from his assistant Linda Keyes — is a framed drawing by a student at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville.
The colorful artwork shows all seven members of the Dstrict 300 Board of Education, sitting in front of a group of teachers numbered one through 363. In the foreground, a student addresses the board from a microphone that’s been unplugged, a pair of wire cutters behind his back — “to free the teachers, cut the chains,” Bregy said.
It’s a student rendering of the contentious March 2011 school board meeting in which board members _ in the middle of contract negotiations and facing reduced and delayed payments from the state — voted to release 363 teachers. Those teachers later were recalled after District 300 reached nearly $5 million in concessions with its unions, but not before student protests at all three district high schools.
Bregy was superintendent-elect at the time, taking on decision-making responsibility even as longtime superintendent Ken Arndt remained at the helm.
“I wanted it to be a reminder that this was the most difficult time in my entire professional life,” Bregy said.
“I believe experience is the best teacher, and I wanted this to be a reminder — there are always options, and there are always different ways to look at situations.”
Bregy’s gotten plenty of his experience in his first year on the job, from the layoffs at the end of last school year to the legislative fight that ended this year and has attracted District 300 national attention.
“I think it’s a real trial-by-fire first year for him,” said Nancy Zettler, chair of community group Advance 300. “I think he’s gone through some things this year other superintendents don’t go through in decades-long experience.”
No way, EDA
Zettler, a District 300 parent and retired lawyer, has been part of the School District since 1999 and first became “heavily involved” with Advance 300 during the district’s 2006 referendum, she said. Most of her work with the new superintendent, she said, has been on “the Sears issue.”
As “awful” as pink-slipping 363 teachers was, Bregy said, he had an “even more difficult time with Sears.”
This spring, just two weeks into the job, he said, District 300 CFO Cheryl Crates alerted him: “We have a problem.”
That “problem” was an amendment to Senate Bill 540 that would extend the economic development area around the Sears Holdings corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates. That EDA, which the district has said has brought about $14 million in property tax dollars from the district to the EDA each year, was set to expire in 2012.
As the amendment to Senate Bill 540 became amendments to House Bill 1883 and finally Senate Bill 397, Bregy led more than 1,000 students, staff and district residents to Springfield to protest the legislation outside the Illinois State Capitol. He testified at committee hearings, sat in on sessions in the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives and visited legislators’ offices.
And just before the final legislation was drafted in December, the superintendent finally was invited to negotiate with representatives of Sears and Hoffman Estates. The trio agreed to — and the Illinois General Assembly passed — concessions that doubled the amount of money District 300 will receive from the EDA from about $3 million each year to $6 million.
“I think Michael was uniquely suited in his personality and drive to make sure the district was well off. He didn’t hesitate in getting involved,” Zettler said.
“The whole thing was awful, and he kept his head. He was treated badly over and over again by people in Hoffman Estates and Sears and Springfield, and he just persevered and kept going.”
And he’s still going: Bregy said he’s gotten calls from organizations and school districts all over the U.S., even Japan, to “present the District 300 story.” He’s accepted several invitations, including one in Phoenix, he said, not only to “celebrate our efforts, but also to teach other school districts that we need to become legislatively active.”
“That’s the next chapter for the school system in Illinois — the leaders of our districts need to come together and work together,” he said.
After a yearlong transition, first as associate superintendent, then superintendent-elect, Bregy said, “This year, I love my job. I walk into this building like I walked into Jacobs. Like being a high school principal, you never know what your next challenge will be. I learned about myself: I thrive on those challenges.”
Not all the challenges the new superintendent has tackled have been so publicly visible as the layoffs and legislation.
One of his first priorities was to make the District 300 central office in Carpentersville function more like its 26 school buildings, he said. Previously, each department had acted independently; the special education department had been at Hampshire High School before he brought them all under one roof, now overcrowded like much of the district, he said.
“This building really should be the heart of the School District. The blood should be pumping out of here to the other buildings,” he said. “The people in this building needed to get a sense of what it’s like to work together as a school building.”
Bregy also created a teaching and learning team with assistant superintendents for preschool and elementary school, middle school, high school and education services. He also created a “teacher swap” program, so far swapping places with four elementary school teachers, teaching their classes while they observe classrooms in a different building.
All that is focused on instruction, he said.
“I don’t want it to be weird when I walk into a classroom and the kids say, ‘Who is that? The president?’ I want to walk into a classroom and have it not be a big deal that the superintendent is there,” he said.
“The superintendent is a teacher. He’s the head teacher, but he’s a teacher.”
Growing up in nearby Mount Prospect, Bregy said he wanted to be a teacher from the time he was in elementary school.
“I was the teacher’s pet. I loved everything about getting to know the teacher and helping the teacher and sitting in front,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to teach school. Always.”
After graduating from he University of Texas, he taught elementary school, then middle and high school math in Coppell Independent School District, an “affluent” district in a suburb of Dallas, he said. Meantime, he learned he loved everything about getting to know the principal and helping the principal and making decisions for the building, he said.
Bregy moved back to Illinois 11 years ago and originally applied for a job as dean at Dundee-Crown, he said. Bob Whitehouse, then principal of Dundee-Crown, recommended him instead for a job as dean at Jacobs.
After a year in that role, his eye on the principalship, he moved into the role of associate principal. When he took the principal job not long after, he said, he met criticism he was too young (then 37) and too inexperienced — the same criticism he heard when he was named Arndt’s successor in May 2010.
Both times, Bregy said, he told his detractors, “Just give me six months.”
“I’ve fought this same thing from the day I started in the school district — I had to prove myself. I had to open myself up and put myself out there and say, ‘This is who I am.’ I’ve been doing that for 11 years, and I’m still doing it,” he said.
Six months into his first school year as superintendent, Zettler, for one, said, “I’m proud of him. He’s done a great job, and he can only get better with more experience.”
Copyright 2011, Sun-Times Media. All rights reserved.