For one new teacher at Grant White School this fall it is a first teaching job. For the second new teacher at the Forest Park school it is likely, at age 60, to be the culmination of a career which has included teaching, aviation, operating day care centers and working on a pig farm.
Both though say that what attracted them to District 91 was a sense of family and an openness to innovate in teaching.
Jennifer Ryan, 24, chose D91 over other options she had, because during the interview process it felt like family, she said.
“I felt like if I came here,” said Ryan, a recent education graduate from North Park University, “I would be part of the Grant White family and the Forest Park school district family. Out of all the school districts I could have picked I wanted to be here because of what the district offered and how the staff members acted with each other.”
Like Ryan, Peter LeGrand is one of 13 new teachers district-wide this fall. But unlike his young colleague, the 60-year-old has been around the block a few times. His first teaching job was in 1981, and since then his resume includes not only teaching but co-owning an airline, running day care centers and working on a pig farm.
He was enthused about the district’s emphasis on relationships as well as academic achievement. “Education overall did a really good job of ignoring the social/emotional connection even though the research has been out there for a long time. Two minutes of meditation with your kids every day, which I do in my classroom three times a day, can get massive results. It’s all related. I think test scores go up the better students feel about themselves.”
“Those social/emotional things matter just as much as test scores,” said Roger Beauford, Grant White’s principal. “Things like character. We focus on the feeling of belonging. We want our students to feel connected and invested.”
Ed Brophy, the assistant superintendent of operations at D91, is well aware, on the one hand, that test scores in reading in recent years have been less than what teachers, administrators and parents have hoped for and that the scores in math have been much less than hoped for, and he said that the district has set annual goals for itself in those areas.
On the other hand, he also said that this group of 13 new teachers seem to be on the same page with Ryan, LeGrand and Beauford. “What those three were saying absolutely speaks for everyone,” he said. “We administrators host a new employee orientation right before our first day of school every year, and when we go into that room, we can feel the kind of group that we have. This group is fantastic, and I believe that they’ve found a home.”
Social workers in each of the district’s five schools are naturally important players in the task of social/emotional education. Lucia Suarez, who has been the social worker at Grant White for five years, said she participates in social/emotional learning with all students in the building: in classroom groups, pull out groups, crisis work, and school wide assemblies and programs. She also collaborates closely with the teachers who are with the kids every day.
LeGrand, for example, took his students to an outdoor learning center in Wisconsin called Covenant Harbor on Sept. 11 to participate in a team building program known as a ropes course. He said that at the beginning of the year each class — teachers and students — has to form its own unique identity, and that the ropes course experience will help them “gel.”
Beauford said equity is still a challenge and the district is working at raising test scores. In addition, while the racial/ethnic backgrounds of students in the district breaks down as: black 51.4 percent, white 22.5 percent, Hispanic 12.9 percent, two or more races 9.1 percent, Asian 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, 86 percent of the 87 teachers in D91 are white, and only one of the 13 new teachers is a person of color.
The challenge of integrating three new teachers into the Grant White culture is a microcosm of the challenge of blending 13 new teachers district wide. Supt. Louis Cavallo said this amount of turnover is “not exceptionally large” and is “typical in most districts.”
Beauford looks at all the change in his school and in the district as an opportunity more than as a challenge. “The new staff members,” he said, “bring with them excitement and focus and determination to get us where we need to go.”