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Richmond, Davis principals bring schools together in divided community

Quentin Koaxum teaches music to kindergartners at Davis Elementary School in St. Charles.
Quentin Koaxum teaches music to kindergartners at Davis Elementary School in St. Charles.

ST. CHARLES – When consistently low test scores gave parents the option to transfer their children from Richmond Elementary School to another St. Charles school, more than 80 took that opportunity in recent years.

When only one child left Richmond in its second year as an intermediate school serving grades 3-5, district administrator Becky McCabe said she viewed it as a “real positive.”

The decline, she said, speaks highly of how the community is feeling a year and a half into the new Richmond Intermediate and Davis Primary configuration.

“I think we’re in a really great place,” McCabe said.

St. Charles School District 303 shook up the Davis-Richmond community in 2011 by announcing a plan to make the K-5 schools into sister schools, with Davis educating the youngest of the students and Richmond serving the oldest. Additionally, the plan called for a focus on literacy at Davis and, at Richmond, foreign language instruction and technology.

The community reacted strongly to the proposed change, with parents packing board meetings at the schools.

Soon after the school board approved the proposal, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging it acted illegally in combining the schools. Their attorney, Tim Dwyer, said his clients still feel strongly about the issue, noting he asked the judge Thursday for a trial date. The next court date is Jan. 25, he said.

Several parents contacted for this story who are not involved with the lawsuit said while some are happy about the new setup, the topic remains a sore spot for others, making it difficult to address. Criticisms include the logistics of getting siblings to two schools with different start times, the use of iPads at Richmond, how the curriculum changes at Richmond will be handled as students progress to the middle schools and the lack of unity between the two schools; each has its own principal, newsletter and set of rules.

School board candidate Ed McNally, who became a sounding board for parents griping about the changes, said District 303 could have avoided much of the animosity if it hadn’t rushed the process.

The district publicly announced the proposal in early February 2011, and the school board approved it mid-March 2011.

“I think that was just not the right way to go about it,” McNally said.

Uniting student bodies

Administrators have said a declining enrollment at Richmond and over-capacity enrollment at Davis contributed to the reconfiguration. In the new setup’s first year, enrollment at Davis dropped from 617 to 522; at Richmond, it increased from 354 to 465, according to the schools’ annual report cards. This year, McCabe said, 470 students attend Davis and 479 attend Richmond.

Davis Principal Denise Liechty and Richmond Principal Rosa Ascharya communicate regularly and work to unite the two schools, they said. Together, the schools have a PTO and website and host shared events. In spring, second-graders buddied up with Richmond students, who showed the youngsters what to expect at their new school, Liechty said.

She also said the student body recently chose a new mascot – Tigers, with Davis adopting a younger version – as well as school colors: dark blue, light blue and white.

“It was something fun to bring the schools together,” Liechty said. Ascharya noted Richmond’s student council is working on a school song.

Kids and their parents have made new friends because of the merger, parents said.

“I met some wonderful people at Richmond I would not have met otherwise,” parent Ann Russell said.

Michelle Kovar, who has two third-graders at Richmond, said her children have made new friends, just as they would with any new student in their school.

But other parents said kids originally from Davis still play with kids from Davis, and the same is true with those initially from Richmond.

A touted benefit – having the Spanish-speaking students interact more with the English-speaking students – didn’t appear to pan out in the first academic year, McNally said. He noted he isn’t sure of the situation this year.

According to the schools’ report cards, Davis’ student body went from 85 percent white in 2011 to 65.7 percent white in 2012. Meanwhile, its Hispanic population increased from about 7 percent to 27 percent, and the population of limited-English-proficient students increased from 3.2 percent to 20.9 percent.

Meanwhile, at Richmond, the student body has become more white – 34.2 percent to 67.5 percent – while its Hispanic population dropped from 59 percent to 25.2 percent. Its limited-English-proficient population decreased from 46 percent to 12.7 percent.

Mixed reviews

Russell, a supporter of the Richmond-Davis plan from the start, said her family’s experience with the setup has been mostly positive.

As with anything new, she said, hiccups were expected and did occur, but her children – a third-grader and fifth-grader at Richmond – love using iPads for school and enjoy learning a foreign language.

“They both really love the fact that they take French,” Russell said.

Full-immersion Spanish and French classes are available to Richmond students who can read at grade level. The classes meet three times a week for 40 minutes a day and focus on applicable, conversational language, Ascharya said.

Videos of the classes were shown at a Summit 303 meeting last year, generating positive feedback from parents at other schools, McCabe said.

“I think it’s been a big success,” McCabe said. “It’s really remarkable what’s going on.”

Kovar, whose children are learning Spanish, said she’s concerned about their foreign language options once they enter middle school. She doesn’t want them to lose what they’ve learned or go backward, she said.

Superintendent Don Schlomann said the middle schools this year accommodated incoming Richmond students as best they could with foreign language options. The district intends to propose a new middle school schedule for next year that addresses issues discussed during Summit 303 and foreign language options, he said.

Since the beginning, parents have questioned the use of iPads at Richmond. In addition to expressing cost concerns, parents said iPad use varies by teacher and makes it difficult for them to track what their children are doing in school.

“What exactly is being done on the iPads, I don’t know,” McNally said.

Parents also said children accessed inappropriate material through the iPads. Schlomann said educators are learning that what seem to be age-appropriate search terms might yield inappropriate results.

“The technology has, from my perspective, made us rethink some of what we wanted to do at the district level with the elementary,” Schlomann said. “As part of Summit, we are choosing right now to focus our efforts at the high school leave for awhile.”

Overall, the superintendent said, he is proud of the efforts everyone has put into Davis Primary and Richmond Intermediate, and he is looking forward to the parent survey results and, among other things, test results.

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