North Shore school districts topped the Cook County list in Chicago Magazine's Best Elementary Schools survey this year. Nine area schools, two in Glenview, took positions in the top 10 while several others claimed slots in the top 20, out of 500 in the county.
Chicago Magazine publishes the Best Elementary Schools list, which examines schools in the City of Chicago and its collar counties every few years. The last ranking was published in 2006. To determine rankings, magazine staff review and analyze three key criteria: Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores (ISATs), student/teacher ratios, and instructional spending per student.
When the story was first published in Chicago Magazine's October issue, the two schools in Avoca District 37 (Avoca West in Glenview and Marie Murphy in Wilmette), were not on the list due to an inadvertent and possible computer error, according to Chicago Magazine's Senior Editor Geoffrey Johnson.
After School district staff noticed the omission and contacted the magazine, Superintendent Joseph Porto followed up with an email to parents, informing them of the error and outlining the corrections.
"It was important that we were advocates for Avoca and followed up with the magazine to make these corrections," he stated in an email to parents. "These kinds of lists can affect people's perceptions of school quality."
A negative perception of Avoca District 37 within the community would have been frustrating, to say the least, for all those who rallied last year to pass a tax rate referendum. It was the district's first request for a tax increase in 30 years and passed by a 59%-41% margin on April 7, 2009. Also in 2009, district ISAT scores were top in the township and fourth in the state.
"Sometimes Avoca gets lost in the shuffle because it's part of four different communities," said former school board president John Chen, a parent to two Marie Murphy students. "Avoca's name doesn't relate directly to a suburb like Winnetka or Glenview, so it may not have been obvious it was missing."
Avoca parent Beatriz Zijlstra said she was floored when she first heard about the omission and called editorial staff at Chicago Magazine to express her disappointment.
"What's the first thing young families look at when they want to move the suburbs? The schools," she said. "Avoca 37 is a good district in an economically diverse community. There are a lot of options for affordable housing here. We're sandwiched in between other more prominent districts, so it's easy for us to get overlooked," she said.
"I understand this was an innocent mistake," she continued, "but it was a huge mistake, and now Dr. Porto has to spend extra effort trying to make up for it."
Geoffrey Johnson, offered his apologies on behalf of Chicago Magazine. "We acknowledged the error and immediately took steps to correct it," he said. "Marie Murphy and Avoca are two outstanding schools, and if I were a parent in the district I wouldn't have been happy about the omission either."
As an Avoca parent and former magazine editor myself, I can see both sides of the issue. It was an innocent mistake and not a slight. I'm already secure in the knowledge that Avoca is a good school. They review and update the curriculum on a yearly basis to ensure that our kids receive the best possible education. Their teachers are top notch. District and school staff keep an open line of communication with parents. Although I understand that an omission like this can look bad to those who don't have firsthand experience of the school, I also know that things like this can happen, and Chicago Magazine took all possible steps to rectify it.
The magazine's web site has been updated to reflect Avoca District 37 rankings, and the print edition will include a correction in its Dec. 2010 issue.
Among the local rankings, Willowbrook Elementary School in Glenview and The Skokie School in Winnetka were first and second, respectively, while Avoca West in Glenview and Carleton W. Washburne School in Winnetka were fourth and fifth. Marie Murphy took the seventh slot.
New to the survey this year was an efficiency rating that measures spending per student against test scores.
"Given the tough economic times Illinois is facing and its impact on public education, we wanted to see how school districts are spending money and who's getting the most best bang for the buck," Chicago Magazine's Johnson said. "To determine this, we looked at which schools are spending most wisely on each student and still seeing high ISAT performance."
Schools that spent less money per student but whose individual test scores were higher earned better grades for efficiency, which explains why even schools that are highly ranked on the list might have C's and D's in the efficiency column.
For a complete list of rankings in the Chicago area and related articles, see Chicago Magazine's web site.