EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of low-income students at Harvard School District 50, based on inaccurate information on the Illinois State Report Card website. Harvard school officials said the most recent rate of low-income students was 62 percent for 2016 to 2017.
MARENGO – In 2017, Marengo-Union Elementary School District 165 ranked in the middle of McHenry County students’ readiness for the next grade level. It also has one of the lowest achievement gaps based on income.
District 165’s instructional spending a pupil was $4,765 last year.
“We run a very lean machine over here,” District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said.
The district has the “leanest” instructional spending a student, according to Illinois Report Card data.
Community High School District 155, on the other hand, spends $9,494 a pupil, and the district almost leads the pack in the county as the “most prepared” for the next grade level, according to standardized test scores the Northwest Herald previously averaged from Illinois Report Card data.
Experts said the extent to which money affects students’ success can be a controversial topic, but research suggests that increasing financial support can benefit students who come from low-income backgrounds.
Christine Rienstra Kiracofe has worked as a professor in educational leadership for Northern Illinois University for 14 years, and she has researched whether the amount of money going into each student affects his or her learning experience.
“This can be a somewhat controversial question,” Rienstra Kiracofe said. “What we can kind of tell is it’s hard to tell, but we know there is a floor. If a school falls below it, children do suffer.”
Rienstra Kiracofe said that “floor” is difficult to quantify, but the answer more likely would stem from where the money is coming into a district.
Districts with larger budgets tend to consist of wealthier families who can afford to invest in their children’s education, which includes hiring tutors when they need extra help and assisting with homework at home.
“Money matters at the low ends. At the high ends, it’s hard to say,” Rienstra Kiracofe said. “There’s only so much better things can get.”
With a large portion of taxpayers’ money funding local schools, residents also tend to be interested in how districts are performing.
Advance Illinois Deputy Director Benjamin Boer, who assisted in creating the state’s most recent education funding formula, said extra money only helps if all other best practices are executed.
“The research is getting stronger and stronger that shows previous adequacy changes, especially targeting low-income students, has a significant impact,” Boer said.
He cited a study performed through Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research that backed up his claim.
The study, called “School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement,” found that reforms gradually increase achievement among students in low-income school districts.
Basically, more money can positively affect districts with less money, but other societal changes need to be made as well, Boer said.
“One of the big pushes of public schools is to break any cycle they don’t want replicated,” Rienstra Kiracofe said. “We don’t want kids to be limited to choices their parents made.”
The challenges students can face include parents who did not earn higher education and cannot help as much with homework, those whose English proficiency is limited, and parents who cannot afford to pay for extra educational help for their children. Some parents who work long hours also might not have time to help their children outside of the classroom.
Prairie Grove School District 46 had the next highest spending – $9,357 – and came in fifth, based off an average of the new SAT scores with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Dynamic Learning Maps (designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities).
PARCC scores show how many students met or exceeded expectations. Those who met or exceeded expectations are likely to be on track for the next grade level, and ultimately, ready for college and careers, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Cary School District 26 had the next lowest spending – $5,458. It ranked seventh, only two steps below
Harvard School District 50 ranked lowest in previous reporting.
The district spends $6,666 a pupil, according to state data. It also has the highest percent of low-income students in the county – 62 percent.
District 165’s Damisch said her staff’s investment in the community is what sparks growth. The district has 51.8 percent of its students considered low-income.
“Almost 60 percent of staff live in the Marengo community,” Damisch said. “Teachers and staff members just give back a little bit more because their neighbor’s kid could be in the room next door.”
But the district still needs to make up funds somewhere.
“We just really watch our bottom line and capitalize on every grant that comes in,” Damisch said.
Teachers also use data to pinpoint where some students need extra help.
“Every kid, we can see what we need to work on – [it’s] crafting something a little bit special to help close that gap for those kids,” she said.