NLU District Partnership

Diverse Methods in a Diverse District
by Robert Schroeder

In spring 2007, National Louis University assistant professor Vicki Gunther was set to retire as superintendent of District 73.5 in Skokie, Ill.  She may have vacated her office, but the relationship never ended.

Today, Gunther remains hands-on facilitating a deep and still-developing partnership between the district and the University that has provided a treasure trove of student development, research and curriculum opportunities for both parties.

"I think what makes this partnership unique is that it wasn't built on the same framework as traditional partnerships," Gunther said. "We started from a position of identifying mutual needs; it wasn't something that there was a top-down drive to convince people that this was a good way to go."

The needs facing the district are unique, even for an urban area.  Over 50 percent of students come from a home where another language other than English is spoken, and 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

As she prepared to step down from her superintendent's role, Gunther met with National Louis University assistant professor Dick Streedain, who was excited about the use of data and strong teacher teams already in place in the district.  The meetings spawned the idea for a close partnership, and incoming superintendent Kate Donegan readily agreed.  The Office of Partnerships at the National College of Education took the lead finalizing plans, and a new collaboration was born.

One of the initial needs the district recognized was to revise teacher evaluation programs.  National Louis University professor Dr. Linda Tafel spearheaded the implementation of the Danielson evaluation framework, a technique developed by author and consultant Charlotte Danielson that relies on self-assessment, reflection on practice and professional conversation.

National Louis University faculty have led teachers and administrators in the district through English Language Learner endorsements, bringing the district up to state mandates.  The Center for Teaching Through Children's Books at National Louis has aided teachers with developing literacy curriculum.  Teachers in the district have collaborated with National Louis University's Center for Practitioner Research on action research studies.  These research efforts are set to grow as National Louis University alumna Doris Wells-Papanek, M.Ed., founder of Tailored Learning Tools, is set to begin an action research study of the district in collaboration with National Louis University assistant professor Dr. Linnea Rademaker, co-editor of the action research journal i.e.:  inquiry in education.

"The way this is structured, there are formal and informal structures, and the benefit around that is it enables us to be very fluid in the work that we do," said Tina Nolan, associate director of the National College of Education Office of Partnerships.  "We really wanted it to be more synergistic and not focus the partnership strictly on services but on the work that can be created together."

Teachers in the district and National Louis University student teachers are collaborating in a new student teaching model.  In the district's elementary schools, special education students are integrated into the general student population.  Classes are taught by four teachers—one full-time teacher and one full-time special education teacher, and one student teacher and one special education student teacher.

"They are working together to help these student teachers refine their practice and get use to teaching in a multilingual classroom," Gunther said. "[They] draw from the [other] student's background as well, so elementary education students who may not have had any course in special education are learning from each other as well as from the teachers."

The next phase of the partnership includes integrating community resources for teachers to include in classroom instruction.  Faculty and district administrators are forging relationships with the Skokie Public Library, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Oakton Community College, as well as adding National Louis University faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Management and Business to the partnership.  The district is targeting relationships with local businesses and a new technology center recently opened in Skokie.

"We have the luxury in the partnership office of being able to think without a lot of boundaries, to try to connect things in new ways," Nolan said. "Out of that will come the work, and that work will have impact."

As the initial stages of the partnership draw to a close, Nolan and Gunther have their sights set on expanding the model to Skokie High School District 219 and other districts around the Chicago-land area.  Faculty and teachers are envisioning closer ties between the University's reading department and the district, closer collaboration with the Center for Practitioner Research and the development of a new communications plan, and the Office of Partnerships is exploring grant-funding opportunities to evaluate and publish best practices in the district.

"What is the glue that holds this together?" Gunther said. "The glue is a special kind of glue because it's a small district and there's a very supportive board of education, so it's a very unique partnership that really meets the needs of the University as well as the school district."