By Steve Robinson | January 18, 2020 - 10:53 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – At one point or another in our high school careers, we might have groused about grades we received in certain classes. While such things are all part of what adults label as teenage angst, students from Normal Community High School believe there is something more problematic in the grading system used by the school and brought their complaints to members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board during the governing body’s regularly-scheduled meeting at district headquarters Jan. 15.

Students and parents, numbering around 30, filled the gallery in the school board meeting area of the building on Hovey Ave. In describing their concerns with the grading system, the students who spoke labeled the grading system using words like “inconsistent,” and “confusing.”

Standards-Based Grading uses a system which evaluates the student using a model that evaluates the student using a scale based on proficiency, and ranges from 1-to-4. The students who spoke to Board members argue the scale does not fit for all classes and teachers do not use it consistently across the board regardless of the subject.

“Standards-Based Grading does not affect students’ lives,” argued Conner McClellan in his comments to Board members, adding grades drop if there are two or more errors noticed by teachers.

“It’s a major problem of inconsistency from class to class,” explained Swetha Veluvolu. “We’re not learning. We’re just suffering.” Veluvolu asked Board members to reconsider the district’s use of this style of grading.

Another student, Emily Dusin, said there is another concern for some students where this testing system is concerned – test anxiety. “Students who have test anxiety suffer as a result of this system. How does this help us in college or in life?” She stated there are no “re-do’s” under this system.

District Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ray Epperson told the gathering he was of the belief the Standards-Based System was what was concerning to the students, but rather, the format upon which the students are graded which was at issue for the students’ grievances. He said such matters are continuing to be looked at in discussions between the district office and NCHS teachers.

Parkside Junior High Introduces Board To Four “Good News” Items: Parkside Junior High School was able to demonstrate three times the pride when they were spotlighted in three “good news” items presented to Board members. PJHS Principal Suzi Hesser introduced Board members to five students who won “Judge’s Choice Awards at the Illinois Elementary School Association Area Speech Contest on Nov. 9. The students are: Isaiah Eeten, Will Marvel, Gabrielle Montgomery, Katie Van Heuklon, and Corinna Thomas.

Hesser said students worked throughout September and October memorizing a solo, a duet, or small group skit and performed those before judges at the contest. They also practiced stage blocking and working to perform their pieces within a specified time period. Students were prohibited from using props or wearing costumes for performances, leaving them to use facial and vocal expressions to show conflicts. Eleven PJHS students participated in the event where students from a total of 124 schools took.

That was followed by a Congratulatory recognition for PJHS Band Director Jennifer Bolton for receiving IESA’s Distinguished Service Award. The award was created as a way to recognize, preserve and promote interscholastic fine arts. Directors are chosen for this honor by IESA Board of Directors and the association’s Music Advisory Committee. Selection is based upon director contributions, enthusiasm, and positive effect on students.

Concerning PJHS’ next bit of good news, junior high school band students in the state of Illinois are encouraged to audition for the state band. This is the highest accomplishment that any junior high band member can achieve with 84 of the top band musicians in the-state selected to participate. Hesser was smiling as she announced PJHS has had five students were chosen for the State band. Those students are Ethan Snyder, Rolen Schlipmann, Tori Tackett, Leah Renollet, and Ava Eames. Hesser told the gathering those students were the only ones from the entire Bloomington/Normal area for such recognition, with two of the students being selected as first chair. Those students were Schlipmann, who places the euphonium and Ethan Snyder who plays the trombone.

Lastly, Hesser spoke about an improvement made to the school building itself. She expressed excitement as she spoke on behalf of her school to thank the district for its support regarding energy management at her building. As of January 1, 2020, PJHS earned an Energy Star Rating of 87. That turns out to be a turnaround for the building because it had an Energy Star Rating of 10 four years ago. The rating is an 88 percent improvement in performance. Hesser said that improvement translates to a savings of $444,533.

In 2016, PJHS proved to be the worst performing school related to energy consumption. The building’s equipment had a heating and cooling system that was 42 years old equipment and was performing poorly, only earning an Energy Star Rating of 10. Board approval to sell bonds made paying for improvements possible, Adelman said. That included implementation of a geo-thermal ground heating and cooling source.

Currently, Adelman added, the district is working on Normal Community High School and Kingsley Junior High School and those improvements will lead toward those buildings to be able to earn energy star certification in the future. PJHS is the 3rd of Unit 5’s six largest buildings to achieve energy star, he said, adding EJHS and Normal Community West High School are energy star certified as well.

Board Unanimously Approves Money For Working Cash Fund: Board members unanimously approved issuance of an amount not to exceed $29 million in working cash bonds for use by the district to help the district maintain operations for the school years 2020-21 and 2021-22. The purpose for this was to increase the amount of working cash for the district. A public hearing was required by law to be held prior to the Board vote. At that hearing, no members of the public spoke. Interest rate assumptions based upon market conditions as of December 2, 2019 plus 0.25 percent for working cash bonds and 0.5 percent for life safety bonds.

In an item related to finance for the district, Board members also heard from Robert Lewis III, managing director, PMA Securities LLC, who informed Board members in discussing a financing plan for the district that included the proposed timeline related to the bonds. That timeline included the Board approving a resolution of the selling of the bonds at their Feb. 26 meeting; the bonds being sold as early as June 16 and bonds closing, allowing the district to receive the cash as early as July 14.

Busing Consultant Leaves District With Decision To Make: In recent years, although the district has outsourced its busing services, Unit 5 has pondered keeping that service as one done in-house. At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, a number of reports of late bus arrivals at both ends of the school day had Board members pondering whether to continue its association with Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co. Once matters were corrected to the Board’s satisfaction, the relationship between the two, which has existed since 2012, continued. Prior to the agreement with First Student, Unit 5 had been doing busing on its own for several years.

But in October, Board members approved hiring of Charleston, S. C.-based School Bus Consultants, an affiliate of TransPar Group, to learn what the possibility would be if the district considered making the bus service workable in-house.

Phil McConnell, a consultant with School Bus Consultants, told Board members depending on the decision the district chooses, be it continuing with First Student, contracting with another company, or going ahead with independently operating a busing service, documented and enforced procedures and policies must be in place from the beginning of the arrangement.

Calendar For School Year 2020-21 Approved: As part of the Board’s omnibus agenda, which Board members unanimously passed, among other items, the school year 2020-21 calendar. That school year is slated to begin with a full-day of classes on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Next Board Meeting Feb. 12: This is the only Board meeting scheduled for this month. The next scheduled Board meeting will be Wednesday, Feb. 12 at district headquarters, beginning at 7p.m.

By Steve Robinson | January 13, 2020 - 10:23 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – After two rounds of interviews with candidates in December to find a successor to District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel, Normal-based Unit 5 School Board introduced Dr. Kristen Kendrick-Weikle as the person who will become the district’s 13th superintendent since the district was founded in 1948. By being approved by a 6-1 vote during a special School Board session Monday at district headquarters, Dr. Kendrick-Weikle also makes history by becoming the second female superintendent in the district’s history.

Dr. Kendrick-Weikle will assume her duties as superintendent on July 1, succeeding Dr. Daniel, who has served as superintendent since July 1, 2014. Dr. Daniel announced in September that he and his wife had just become first-time grandparents, and were desiring to move to the Chicago area to be closer to family. The Board began a search for Dr. Daniel’s successor shortly afterward.

While Board President Barry Hitchins, joined by Board Members Mike Trask, Meta Mickens-Baker, Taunia Leffler, Alan Kalitzky, and Amy Roser by voting in the affirmative for Dr. Kendrick-Weikle, Board Member Dr. Kelly Pyle cast the lone opposing vote.

Following the vote, Dr. Kendrick-Weikle told the gathering, “I’ve always held Unit 5 in high regard and I’m happy at where I’m at but when Unit 5 became open, it was just too intriguing to pass up. I’m excited to get know you better and work with you, and really do great things for our kids.”

Dr. Kendrick-Weikle is currently superintendent at Warrensburg Latham District 11, which is smaller than Unit 5, with just an elementary school, junior high, and high school, the combined K-12 population within the three schools is 973 students, according to the website niche.com.

Dr. Kendrick-Weikle will start at Unit 5 with a three-year contract with a salary of $185,000. She has previously served as director of special education for Special Education Association of Adams County and was a principal in Quincy Public Schools. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Special Education and Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, both from Quincy University. She earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Western Illinois University.

Dr. Kendrick-Weikle and her husband, Skip, are parents to six children ranging from a junior in high school to a 26-year-old and have one grandchild.

Media were informed by Hitchins there were 32 applicants for the position which Oak Park-based search firm School Exec Connect narrowed to six candidates to start. After a first round of interviews with Board members, that number was reduced to three before the Board selected Dr. Kendrick-Weikle during sessions that covered five days in December.

Before the vote was taken at Monday’s meeting, Trask told the gathering of around 40 people present for the process for selecting a new superintendent involved each member not having tunnel vision toward their own views and listening to the viewpoints of the other six Board members.

Selecting a new superintendent “is not a process to take lightly,” added Mickens-Baker, who reminded the gathering this was her third time to experience it. “Please know we took the process seriously in the process of deciding which candidate was the best fit given the profile that our community, Board, and staff had developed,” she added. “I look forward to working with you.”

Mickens-Baker the search firm which brought candidates to Unit 5, Oak Park-based School Exec Connect, “did a really good job of preparing us for the challenge of finding superintendents.” She added each of the other superintendent candidates could have brought something to Unit 5.

In explaining her opposing vote to the gathering, and addressing Dr. Kendrick-Weikle directly, Dr. Pyle said she had “tremendous respect for the work you have done at Warrensburg-Latham.”

“It was a very difficult decision, and trying to match them up with a profile of who we thought would be the best person for Unit 5 was a difficult time,” Leffler admitted. “We tried to bring you the best candidate for Unit 5 and we think we’ve done that.”

“This wasn’t just a seven-person responsibility to find a new leader for our school district,” Kalitzky said. “This was an entire community’s responsibility.”

Hitchins, following the meeting, said he was impressed by Dr. Kendrick-Weikle opinions concerning “communication and relationship building. That’s what I think she will bring to this table.”

Second Woman Superintendent in Unit 5 History: Some may be wondering if Dr. Kendrick-Weikle is the first woman to serve as superintendent for the district. Fact is, she is not. Dr. Carol Struck served as interim superintendent for Unit 5 from August 1, 1989 until June 11, 1990.

By Steve Robinson | December 11, 2019 - 10:10 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – A new leader for Normal-based Unit 5 School District will be introduced next month.

Before the regularly-scheduled meeting of Normal-based Unit 5 School District Board came to a close at district headquarters on Dec. 11, Board President Barry Hitchins reminded Board members they would be interviewing a total of six candidates who are seeking to serve as Unit 5’s next superintendent. Current Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel announced in September he would be stepping down when the current school year ends June 30 and seeking a similar position in the Chicago area to be closer to family there. Daniel and his wife, Janet, have just become first-time grandparents.

Hitchins announced six candidates have been found the Board wishes to interview. Those candidate interviews would took place Dec. 13 and 14. That candidate list would be narrowed to three and the three finalist candidates would be interviewed Dec. 16, 17, and 19. Hitchins said the announcement of the person to become the next superintendent of Unit 5 would be made once school is back in session sometime in January. The district’s Christmas break runs from Dec. 23-Jan. 6.

Daniel became Unit 5 Superintendent on July 1, 2014 succeeding Dr. Gary Niehaus, who retired after serving as superintendent for seven years.

Vote On 2019 Tax Levy Taken: Also at this session, Board members voted unanimously on approving the 2019 tax levy in time to meet the deadline for submitting it to the McLean County Clerk’s Office for filing. The County Clerk’s Office will verify the levy in March or April and begin collecting the tax in May or June.

Board Approves $29 Million In Working Cash Bonds: Board members unanimously approved using an amount not to exceed $29 million in working cash bonds with the intent to use them to increase the district’s working cash fund. Marty Hickman, business manager for the district, explained to Board members approving this is the first in a number of steps to getting this matter approved including holding a public hearing in January. Among the items to be purchased include new buses. Hickman reminded Board members the district is responsible for purchasing their own fleet.

Grove Elementary’s “Good News”: In the only “good news” item for this meeting, Grove Elementary School Principal Sarah Edwards introduced Board members to teachers at her school who serve as several members of the school’s Student Support Team. It has become clear that one teacher cannot meet all the needs of every child by themselves. Edwards introduced Board members to Beth Beaty who serves as social worker at Grove. Beaty came back to Unit 5 after taking a few years off to raise her children, and since returning has provided crisis counseling, serves as a lead member of the school’s special education assessment team, and is part of the school’s Behavioral Leadership Team. In addition to all that, Edwards explained, Beaty finds ways to assist our families.

“Most recently she helped a single mother find a new apartment, assisted with her move, and found a way for her to get a reliable car to get to her new job and school program,” Edwards told Board members. I am so proud to work alongside Beth to assist the Grove School Community.

Next, Edwards honored the Grove Elementary Learning Behavior Specialists team. Jennifer Hawkins, Michele Kinley, and Katie Matthews make up the LBS team at Grove. “They work tirelessly to plan interventions, accommodations, and modifications to ensure that our students have equitable access to an excellent education at Grove,” Edwards told Board members. “They develop strong relationships with classroom teachers to plan instruction and develop goals and objectives. They regularly communicate and build trust with our families for strong and positive working relationships.”

Edwards also shined a spotlight on Kindergarten teachers Veronica Collins and Nikki Dillow, who encountered a unique issue with one student this year. Early on, they realized he was not talking at school — at all. Rather than letting time go by and hoping that he would become more comfortable, they took a unique approach to the problem. Collins called the family and built a trusting relationship. From that, the family opened their home to Collins to come and talk with the student, where he was more comfortable. Then each week, they took an additional step. One week they walked to school, talking with the boy the entire trip. The next week they planned a play date with a peer after school. The following week they invited the student’s mother in to start volunteering in the classroom.

All of these steps, Edwards explained, build comfort and trust with the student. “I am so proud to say that the student walks in the front door and says hello and talks at school, all because of the extra efforts of this pair of educators,” Edwards said.

Recently, the State of Illinois released their school designations, and Grove Elementary has been rated as Exemplary, Edwards informed Board members.

Board Receives Update From First Student: Board members received an update from officials of the district’s transportation provider, Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co. during the session. Chris Coyle, area general manager for the company, began by telling Board members he admitted the company had some struggles at the beginning of the year but that the issues which plagued the company at the start of the school year had been resolved.

The company has been at “95 percent on time performance for the last six weeks,” explained Roger Moore, a senior vice president for the company. “We’re confident that with the recruiting, the compensation package we have that we can keep that level of 95, 96 percent or higher going for the remainder of the school year.” He credited the current positive economy for being able to have potential employees come their way to seek employment.

“The bar keeps going higher and higher to try to retain drivers,” Moore added. Coyle said that as of this meeting, locally, First Student stands at having a 97 percent staffing level for drivers. However, he did admit he is borrowing drivers from other communities to fill vacancies for between 8 to 10 drivers calling in daily to not report for work.

“Rather than put it on the backs of the community, we’re bringing folks in,” Coyle said, explaining some of those drivers are borrowed from adjoining states. He added that from May through December, the company has hired 36 drivers while losing 15 drivers. He said the company has raised it wages by $2 to help keep employees.

First Student has had a contract with Unit 5 since 2012 but there has been conversation about not renewing the contract as late as November last year after a series of delivery issues. With the contract under examination for renewal again, Coyle told Board members, “We think we have a good team and can continue with the district. We know the district very well. We know you have different options and that you were, once, doing this in-house. You could extend with us – that’s our desire – hopefully, tonight we have shown you we are operating at a high level. We’re confident we can maintain it.”

Board Member Mike Trask told Coyle and Moore he “continues to struggle with issues” related to communication between the district and the busing provider, calling those issues “horrific.”

“At the end of the day, we’re paying you a significant amount of money to handle this operation and it’s not our problem to fix driver shortages or communication issues,” Trask told the men. “It’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. You talk about the size of your operation but I cannot figure out why the communication part is as poor as it is.

“I don’t know where I am on this issue,” Trask added. “All I know is we have a community that doesn’t have the trust that they should have in their bus company in transporting the kids to and from their house.”

On another matter related to busing, Coyle stated First Student has “a very good relationship with AFSCME,” the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, represented by AFSCME Council 31. Prior to signing an agreement with First Student, Unit 5 bus drivers were represented by AFSCME Local 2608 and Council 31. A total of over 200 drivers are represented by Local 2608.

During public comments, Renee Nestler, staff representative for Council 31, told Board members the local hopes to agree with First Student on a second contract for drivers. “With whatever decision the Board makes regarding the transportation employer for next fall, our expectation is that our union contract is honored and followed.”

2020-21 School Calendar Previewed: Board members got a sneak peek at the district’s 2020-21 school calendar, courtesy of Dr. Ray Epperson, deputy superintendent. He explained to Board members that district staff were asked to complete a pair of questionnaires in order to fill in certain dates on the calendar. With regard to one survey, Epperson said in the first questionnaire, most respondents said they wanted to continue having Friday, April 2, designated Good Friday, as a non-attendance day. Epperson said 77 percent of the staff said they would prefer to have that day off. He said with that response, the district then wanted to find out what day worked best for staff as the start day for the new school year.

The majority of staff, two-thirds, voted they would prefer to have institute days on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 17 and 18, followed by Wednesday, Aug. 18 as the first day for students to start school. He added that a couple of scheduled institute days for teachers have been moved from Mondays to Fridays. He said the reason for that has to do with there being a number of holidays which fall on Mondays. As a result of institute days on Mondays, some students missed out on attending art, physical education classes, or scheduled study hall in the school library. Making the change would eliminate students missing those classes, Epperson said.

With the change that was made, the four institute days teachers need were split evenly between Fridays and Mondays. Epperson said there will be a total of 12 “late start” dates – dates when school starts late so teachers can attend in-service sessions – with six in the fall and six in the spring. Should there be no use for the five snow days or any other days when school is cancelled, the last regularly-scheduled day of classes would be Wednesday, May 26.

Insurance Renewals Approved: Board members also unanimously approved renewal of insurance policies for the district. Those include property and general liability insurance, school board liability insurance, workman’s compensation, automobile, and group medical.

Next Board Meeting Jan. 15: With the Christmas holiday coming, there will be no second Board meeting this month. The next scheduled Board meeting will be Wednesday, Jan. 15 at district headquarters, beginning at 7p.m.

By Steve Robinson | November 14, 2019 - 10:48 pm
Posted in Category: Unit 5

NORMAL – There was plenty of recognition to go around when Normal-based Unit 5 Board members held their regularly-scheduled meeting at district headquarters Nov. 13. Veterans, the girls’ cross country team from Kingsley Junior High School, an honor bestowed onto Parkside Elementary School, and even Board members themselves received honors at this meeting.

Veterans Day Remembered: In the first of four “good news” reports presented to Board members, district superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel informed Board members and an audience of about 20 people that throughout the day, district schools hosted “dinners, assemblies, classroom visits and parades” to recognize veterans. At the meeting, Daniel added, “Tonight we want to honor all of our employees who are veterans, past and present, whose service and sacrifice enable us to enjoy peace and freedom every day.”

At this meeting, Daniel honored Shane Hill, associate principal at KJHS who had just returned from a recent tour of duty at Bagram AFB, Afghanistan. There, Hill served as with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing as chief of public affairs. “Capt. Hill is representative of our many employees who selflessly serve our country,” Daniel told the gathering. “We want to thank you for all your service.”

Hill responded by saying, “On behalf of all my family, Unit 5 is an extension of my family and while I was gone, I received over 500 letters from grade schoolers, and junior high and high schoolers. That was awesome.” He presented Daniel with an American flag which was flown over Bagram AFB to recognize all those at Unit 5 who showed support for his family.

Kingsley Junior High’s “Good News”: Dennis Larson, assistant principal at Kingsley Junior High School, introduced the next “good news” report which featured members of the school’s Cross Country team. On Saturday, October 19, the team, aided by the guidance of their coaches, finished 4th in the Illinois Education State Association Girls’ 3A State Meet. The Cross Country Team is coached by Amanda Robison and Shelby Wall. Runners on the team are: Ali Ince, Addie Snoeyink, Maya Lanier, Kaitlyn Ringler, Makayla Jackson, Ryann Bossard, Carly Gorman, Lana Alcorn, Maddie Chapman, and Lydia Plattner.

Parkside Elementary’s “Good News”: Board members next heard about Parkside Elementary School having been named one of just four National Unified Champion Schools in the State of Illinois, celebrating the honor at an assembly in the school gym on Oct. 24. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is an all-ages based program supported by the Federal Department of Education. A primary goal of the program is to motivate young people and give them tools, skills, and opportunities to help change their schools to have a genuine culture of inclusiveness, according to the national office of Special Olympics.

Unified schools have three main goals as set by Special Olympics: Inclusive sports; Youth leadership and advocacy; And Engagement in the program on the part of the whole school. At this assembly, Parkside Elementary was awarded a banner signifying the school’s commitment toward those goals.

Parkside Principal Chris Ellis introduced Kathy O’Connell, the school’s adaptive physical education teacher and Nancy Wojtanowski, a special education teacher whose students, many of them, are part of Special Olympics. “Together, these two ladies, honestly, have pulled this program together and made it one that is respected in our building and in our district.”

Board Members Honored On Their Day: The State has set aside a day to honor school board members for the work do and hours they put in. Illinois Association of School Boards designated Friday, Nov. 15 as Illinois School Board Members Day. Honored this year were Board President Barry Hitchins, Vice President Amy Roser, Secretary Alan Kalitzky, and Board members Dr. Kelly Pyle, Mike Trask, Meta Mickens-Baker, and Taunia Leffler.

Hitchins and Leffler were recognized for having completed IASB courses related to Board membership. Hitchins completed work related to earning a Board Member Level II designation while Leffler completed work related to earning a Board Member Level I designation and Leadershop member designation.

Curriculum Update Presented: Board members heard a presentation from Dan Lamboley, director of secondary education concerning curriculum updates planned to start in the 2020-21 school year. A new course in cybersecurity for high school students is among new offerings planned by the district, Lamboley said. The one credit course would be available to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Another course dealing with the subject is Project Lead The Way, which he explained offers students benefits to students such as fostering interest in the subject, and acts as a springboard for students to have more opportunities to interact in computer sciences.

Also being planned in an internship in education for seniors for either one or two credits building on knowledge and skills learned in another course, Introduction To Education. As part of this course, Illinois Professional Teaching Standards will be used to guide course curriculum. Necessary career skills will be correlated with soft skills and academic skills in a project-based format. The student will participate in an unpaid internship with a mentor teacher in a community school. Students are required to provide their own transportation for this component.

These two classes are among eight the district is adding to help spark students’ interest. The others are Transitional Math, Pre-Advanced Placement World History and Geography, Transitional Math which includes Statistics, Robotics and Engineering, taught through Bloomington Area Career Center, and AMPED 1 Algebra. AMPED stands for Algebra 1 in Manufacturing Processes, Entrepreneurship and Design). Dual credit courses conducted in conjunction with Heartland Community College are also part of the new offerings.

Tax Levy Filing Deadline Approaches: Board members heard from District Business Manager Marty Hickman concerning filing the tax levy by the Dec. 31 deadline. Board members will consider adopting the levy at their next meeting Dec. 11. The County Clerk’s office will verify the levy in March or April and collecting the tax will begin in May or June.

Hickman said tax levy dollars account for nearly 65 percent of money used by the district, with State and Federal revenue, as well as other sources making up the rest of the money used by the district. The percentage taken in using property taxes for Unit 5 is $71.4 million. Federal revenue accounts for 7.54 percent, or over $8.3 million; State revenue accounts for 21.52 percent of what the district gets, or over $23.9 million, and 6.64 percent comes from other local sources, or over $7.3 million.

Next Board Meeting Dec. 11: Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, there will be no second Board meeting in November. The Board’s next meeting will be on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at district headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave., beginning at 7p.m.

NORMAL – When we were in grade school, we all sought to be considered part of the group of kids we had classes with. For some students, fitting right in happened almost immediately. But for kids with developmental disabilities, sometimes, those youngsters find fitting in difficult because other kids aren’t able to relate or made fun of them. But youngsters at Parkside Elementary School, through programs at Parkside Elementary School, are finding themselves fitting right in thanks to Special Olympics.

Parkside Elementary was named one of just four National Unified Champion Schools in the State of Illinois, celebrating the honor at an assembly in the school gym on Oct. 24. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is an all-ages based program supported by the Federal Department of Education. A primary goal of the program is to motivate young people and give them tools, skills, and opportunities to help change their schools to have a genuine culture of inclusiveness, according to the national office of Special Olympics.

Unified schools have three main goals as set by Special Olympics: Inclusive sports; Youth leadership and advocacy; And Engagement in the program on the part of the whole school. At this assembly, Parkside Elementary was awarded a banner signifying the school’s commitment toward those goals.

In addition to the school’s 290 students, a number of former staff members and students who were part of the program in the past were invited to return to cerebrate receiving the honor. Also, a group of students who now attend neighboring Parkside Junior High School and were part of the program at the grade school in the past were invited to attend the celebration.

“It’s a tremendous honor for Parkside and we’re really proud of them,” stated Marty Hickman, Chief Operating Officer for Special Olympics Illinois, who represented the organization at this function. “They have exhibited all the things you would want a school to exhibit with regard to inclusion and helping students with intellectual disabilities to be part of their school community.”

A total of four schools in Illinois were receiving this honor and Parkside is the only elementary school in the State to claim the honor. The others are two high schools and a junior high school. There are a total of 400 schools Statewide which participate in the Young Athletes Program. Schools applied for the honor and needed to meet 10 excellence standards to qualify to be awarded the national recognition.

The program has been in place for 11 years, Hickman said, adding, “It creates an environment in this school where students with intellectual disabilities are more accepted, more included, and can have a richer and more full elementary school experience because of how they’re treated here.”

Fifth graders serve as peer coaches for students in Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program, a program that involves students who are younger than age 8, explained Kathy O’Connell, Special Education physical education teacher at both the grade school and PJHS. The next step for athletes once they become 8-years-old is to be eligible to participate in Special Olympics programs and events. The Young Athletes Program has been available at the school for 13 years, O’Connell added.

O’Connell said students are taught lessons in the importance of respect toward people with disabilities. Because she teaches at PJHS, O’Connell sees the lessons at the grade school sticking with kids once they move on to secondary education. “They just grow up with it,” she said. “It just flows from one school to the other.”

To celebrate the accomplishment, the assembly’s audience included current and former students who have been involved in the Unified Sports Programs established at the school through Special Olympics, as well as hearing from some of those people.

Among the speakers were former athletes in both the Young Athletes or Unified Sports Program at the grade school. Eighteen year old Brandon Lake and his mother, Heather. Heather recounted for the audience that her son was a participant in the Young Athletes program starting at age five, and she has kept the first shirt he ever got when he entered the program at that time.

She admitted she was “an overwhelmed mama who was new to the world of disabilities” at the time she and her son came to see O’Connell about Brandon getting to be part of the program. For the Lake family, “Young Athletes Program line of Special Olympics events that Brandon participated over the years,” Heather Lake said. “But for me, personally, it marked a point in time where we were actually empowered to embrace our son’s strengths rather than his deficits.”

The assembly also heard from other parents and teammates in the Unified program who say they have learned from the experience.

Sean Foster, principal of Bloomington Central Catholic High School, also addressed the gathering, saying, “We are here to congratulate you on your accomplishment. It’s really important to have schools and organizations that partner together to help one another and serve one another. He noted that seniors at his school spend one of the last days of their high school career helping with the Young Athletes program. “By helping with this program, our students receive so much more in return.”

Before the program closed, Hickman spoke just before the banner with the national honor was presented. “I want you to understand not every school is able to be a national banner Unified Champion School,” he told the gathering. “A Special Olympics Unified Champion School has an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement, and respect for all members of the student body and staff. “

With that, and after the presentation, school employees, members of the school’s Young Athletes Program, Special Olympics athletes, and coaches gathered around the banner as family and friends closed out the proceedings taking pictures with the newly-attained banner.