D-219 Retools To Raise Low Reading Rates

78 percent of Niles West & North High School graduates who attend Oakton Community College need to take remedial reading classes; the district wants to merge its English and social studies departments by 2015, saying this will address the problem.


English and social studies teachers from Niles North and Niles West high schools crowded into the Niles Township High School District 219 school board meeting Dec. 17 to protest plans to combine their two departments into one humanities department starting in the fall of 2015.

The goal, said Superintendent Nanciann Gatta, is to make sure social studies teachers focus on improving students’ reading and writing skills in their classes, just as English teachers do.

In the end, the board unanimously agreed to call for a humanities department, under one department director, with separate divisions for English and history.

The proposal was one of many included in this year’s annual review of programs and has been listed as a recommendation since August, but it has been overshadowed by discussions about changing the school calendar and eliminating the honors track to encourage more students to take Advanced Placement courses. Neither of those proposals were approved for next year, although the calendar will change in 2014-2015.


Niles West social studies teacher Chris Schwarz said it wasn’t until the school board spent eight minutes out of a more than three-hour meeting discussing a combined humanities department on Nov. 26 that teachers understood the proposal.

“It was clear that there were some serious misunderstandings and a lack of information about what we do in social studies on a daily basis,” Schwarz said, noting teachers already teach literacy skills. However, they were especially dismayed by a comment referring to history as a series of “discrete bits of information.”

“Content is paramount,” he said.  “Our students need to be able to put their world in context. And I gotta tell you that sometimes dates do matter.”

Gatta agreed that content matters, but said that good literacy helps students learn content.

“When you show them how to read as a historian reads, they learn how to read better, they learn how to write better and they learn the content better,” she said.

Other English and social studies teachers – all signers of a one-page statement protesting the combination of the department – also spoke to the board, saying that teachers from the two departments do collaborate, but that there are different literacy standards for history and for English, and that they should remain separate departments.

Board member Jeffrey Greenspan suggested that the proposal be amended to call for a humanities department, with separate divisions of English and history, but other board members said they would prefer to leave the proposal flexible as teachers and administrators work out what a combined department would look like.

In a back-and-forth discussion that at times became heated, Schwarz asked why the district is pressing for a change when teachers from both departments already teach literacy skills and collaborate.

Gatta and board members said that 78 percent of District 219 graduates who attend Oakton Community College need to take remedial reading classes, and more than half the district’s graduates are not ready for college English.

“We need drastic action,” said school board member Ruth Klint.

She then asked why the English and social studies teachers do not want to coexist under a single humanities umbrella.

Schwarz said the teachers wanted to be sure they would still have separate English and social studies classes, taught by teachers who have expertise in those areas as well as in English.

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Mother of Three December 25, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Overpaid teachers - problem...over spending on unnecessary things - problem...wanting everyone to take AP classes, and eliminating honors when students can not read at grade level - problem....overpaid administrators who care less about the students than their salary/benefits and retirement - biggest problem....I think taxpayers need to look at the school board, the teachers and administrators then look at the students....let's see if we can figure out why they are doing so poorly and find a solution - combining English and history is not the answer - either was combining math and science.....overpaid teachers who don't know the subject matter need to be replaced - not given another subject they don't know anything about to try to teach!
Schoolmarm December 26, 2012 at 11:26 PM
This thread makes me think back on the years my kids spent in school in Skokie at Meyer, Middleton and McCracken, and, specifically, it makes me think of all of the written communications from teachers and administrators at those schools which contained misplaced punctuation and other usage errors. I remember that it was not usual for the correct homophones to be used, and especially remember some amusing sentences like "Bare [sic.] with me," and "He went down the whole" [sic.], where the teacher-writer obviously didn't think the reader was worthy of going through the trouble of proofreading. I also remember that one McCracken administrator explained to me that it was correct to use "it's" in a sentence where a possessive was required, and that another McCracken administrator was unaware that "if you want the person or I to do something" is not considered good usage for formal, written communications. I recall encountering a dismissive attitude of administrators in District 73.5 towards these types of errors, and that concerns were often met with derision. For at least the past ten years, the schools in District 73.5 have regularly produced a weekly newsletter with the same poorly-written statement "Everyone, everyday [sic.] is . . ., which contains two usage errors. For at least the past ten years, no one at the schools has cared enough to notice that, as written, this statement can be confusing. What are the upper schools to do?
Pam DeFiglio December 27, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Oh, Schoolmarm, if only everyone else valued grammar, usage and spelling as much as you do! I salute you for championing the importance of good English.
Schoolmarm December 27, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Is this type of experience unique to Meyer, Middleton and McCracken schools, or do other teachers and administrators exhibit the same attitude and lack of concern for rules of writing? District 73.5 has not met federal standards for AYP. It must be really difficult for children to develop good language skills in such a hostile environment where these skills don't seem to be valued, and where, it seems, the adults responsible for instilling literacy dismiss basic writing skills as unimportant, and fail to model them. Imagine how frustrating it must be for the high schools and colleges to deal with students for whom ths attitude has been their normal. Perhaps District 219 should try to work on this attitude and coordinate curriculum with the feeder schools. It will, otherwise, just be frustrating to try to work on literacy with kids who have learned that there is no value in it.
LongIslander January 07, 2013 at 07:56 PM
100% of the people who read this article don't read for understanding. The article doesn't say 78% of the students can't read it says 78% of the students who attend that community college from that district need remedial help. Does every student from the school system go to that college? I think not! So it can be only a few students who attend but 78% of those that attend need remedial help.


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