Article originally published in the LaSalle News Tribune, April 20, 2013
By Matthew Baker

Just minutes after the community room in Peru City Hall was filled with the sounds of children playing a spur-of-the-moment round of musical chairs, the noise dropped to sub-whisper levels as the children took their sides around a handful of chess boards.

The North Central Regional Betterment Coalition has created a series of intermural chess meets for third- through fifth- and sixth- through eighth- grade students.

“They learn at their schools, they come here to compete,” said DeAnna Carlson, who facilitates the NCRBC chess events.

Once the games began and the students, primarily from Tonica on Saturday morning, were focused on their boards, even comments between one another were limited to gestures and the occasional whisper.

“Chess is fun, it’s competitive,” and Adam Ford, a tournament chess player who coaches the Tonica School team. “There’s an old saying. ‘You can learn chess in a few minutes, but it takes a lifetime to master.'”

Adults stay hands-off during the games, letting the children develop their abilities.

Ford said the children tend to pick up the basics of the game quickly, while chess’s complexities keep them interested.

“There’s an infinite amount of moves, and every game is different,” he said.

During a short break after their first game, a pair of students explained why they enjoy chess.

“It works my brain a lot,” said Bryan Stillwell, 11, of Tonica. “It helps me in school.”

Johnny Johnson, 9, of Tonica added, “It’s one of the only puzzle games that I can find that I actually like.”

The next chess event is 9:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday, May 4 in Peru City Hall. Registration begins at 9 a.m. For more information contact Carlson at or (815) 223-2949.

Parker Supan, 11, of Tonica moves a piece during a chess match Saturday morning in Peru City Hall’s community room. The North Central Regional Betterment Coalition has begun hosting monthly chess competitions for local children.

Article originally published in the Bureau County Republican, May 21, 2009

What issue can get former Republican Go. Jim Edgar and former Democrat Commerce Secretary William Daley to agree?

How about the education of Illinois’ youth?

“It’s obviously no secret that Gov. Edgar and I view many aspects of the world differently, but we do agree that it’s time to make education not only bipartisan but a non-partisan issue,” Daley said Monday.

Daley was one fo the speakers at a town hall meeting held Monday at the Mendota Civic Center and sponsored by the North Central Regional Betterment Coalition and Advance Illinois. About 165 Bureau, LaSalle and Putnam county teachers and administrators, school board members and area business people attended the meeting, which was titled, “Transition to World Class Education.”

Daley, who is the co-chairman of Advance Illinois, said the meeting one of several being held with parents and educators, was to hear the concerns of those attending about educations and their ideas about how to fix it.

“Advance Illinois believes in putting children first, to make sure they are work and college-ready,” Daley said. “In other words, to make sure that they are world-ready.”

Education is a problem across the country, but Daley said the problems are more severe in Illinois, in part, because it has under-invested in education for a long time. While Illinois has the fifth largest economy in the country, it shoulders a smaller share of the school funding burden than almost any other state.

Daley said Illinois’ problems not only cause trouble for its students but for businesses and the economy in the state as well.

Also speaking was Robin Seans, executive director of Advance Illinois, who said according to any national educational measure, Illinois is either average or below average.

“The performance of our children in reading and math is below the national average, be it in fourth grade or be it in eighth grade,” she said.

It’s bad enough that Illinois students are below average, but the problem is made worse by the fact that the average is dropping. Steans said U.S. performance levels in math, science and reading are dropping against other countries.

Part of the problem is how Illinois tests its students. Steans said that according to JSAT tests, Illinois students are doing better.

“The twist is that we get to set our own proficiency rates on those tests,” she said. “If you compare our performance against our own measures against how we do on national measures, you’ll see it tells a very, very different story. On national measures, we’re below the averages.”

Steans said there was a recent study about a group of students who met standards in eighth grade. Of those students, less than 10 percent got a 20 or higher on their ACT tests – the lowest students can score and still be expected to be successful in college.

On a more positive note, Steans said Illinois’ high school graduation rate is slightly above average, but the school system is still losing 41,000 students each year.

“For the very first time in Illinois, the next generation is at risk of being less well-educated than their parents,” she said.

Article originally published in the Bureau County Republican, May 19, 2009

MENDOTA – Take any four Illinois high school freshmen, simmer for four years, and what do you get?

Well, according to recent statistics, you’ll get one high school drop-out, one gradu­ate ready to face whatever life throws him, and two who will graduate high school and yet be woefully ill-prepared for the chal­lenges of college or career.

That was only one of the sobering statistics revealed at Monday’s Town Hall meet­ing, held at the Mendota Civic Center and sponsored by the North Central Regional Betterment Coalition and Advance Illinois.

About 165 Bureau, LaSalle and Putnam county teachers and administrators, school board members and area business people attended the meeting, which was entitled “Transition to World Class Education.”

The NCRCB was creat­ed after a study in 2003 showed the North Central Illinois Region was going to be limited in its advance­ment due to an abundance of low skilled low wage jobs, a lack of people who seek higher education and a sig­nificant drug problem.

Monday’s meeting was one of many across the state, and designed to look for local solutions to the problems Illinois schools, and students, face.

One of the speakers was Steven Wrobleski, the cur­riculum director at LaSalle­Peru High School.

Wrobleski said one of the problems with schools is that they are training young people for jobs that no longer exist.

Also speaking with Joe Buchanan, the valedic­torian of Mendota High School’s Class of 2009. Buchanan said there is a growing emphasis on tech­nology in schools, and called it a “good and important” direction.

He said a technology-based eduction is essen­tial for the future, but warned that education must move with the growth of technology.

Another of Buchanan’s concerns was about the focus on the current grade-driven system. He said good grades have become more important than the actual knowledge being taught.

“The goal should not be to get the highest grade,” he said. “The goal should be to learn things that you will need to know in your future.”

Like Wrobleski, Buchanan was concerned schools preparing students for no-longer existent jobs, and said that many future jobs have not even been thought of yet.

“If I choose a career now, how will I know the job will still exist when I’m done?” he said.

Despite the current problems with education, Buchanan said that education is the foundation of the future, and that it’s essential to reinforce and improve the educational system.

“Today’s system won’t meet the needs of tomor­row,” he said.

This is the first in a three-part series. In Thursday’s BCR, read more about the challenges facing educa­tion in Illinois, and the United States, and what one group hopes to do about those challenges.

Article originally published in the Bureau County Republican, April 12, 2011
By Barb Kromphardt –

Educating our students

PRINCETON – The educators came to Princeton’s Prouty Building Tuesday, the first part of an effort to deepen community involvement in education reform presented by the North Central Regional Betterment Coalition (NCRBC).

J. Burt, president of the NCRBC, welcomed those in attendance. In 2002 the regional workforce board, NCI Works, conducted a Community Audit in Bureau, LaSalle, Putnam and Lee counties to determine its strengths and weaknesses with an eye on how to use that information to best prepare for the economic future.

Burt explained the NCRBC began in 2003 after the results of that audit were released. According to the report, the North Central Illinois Region would be held back in terms of economic development due to an abundance of low-skilled, low-wage jobs and a lack of people who seek higher education. The NCRBC was created by people who saw the problem and came together to identify and focus on the issues surrounding the major problems identified in the audit.

Since that time, the world has changed quickly, and Burt said it will change even more quickly in the future. Because of this, institutions have to be ready to adapt.

Area schools do produce bright students, but Burt said those students go elsewhere to college, and then don’t return to the area. Of the students who remain in the area and attend Illinois Valley Community College, Burt said 86 percent of all freshmen must take remedial classes.

“We need a culture that supports and values education,” Burt said.

Part of the way to accomplish that is to increase parental and community involvement in the schools.

Debra Strauss, president of the Illinois Parent Teacher Association, discussed the PTA’s National Standards for Family­School Partnerships.

Strauss said findings show that when families are involved at home and at school, students do better in school. To accomplish that, families need to understand that they should be involved, feel capable of making a contribution, and feel invited to participate by both the school and their children.

When parents are involved, Strauss said the children earn higher grades and test scores, pass their classes, attend school regularly, have better social skills, and graduate and go on to post-secondary education.

The six national standards include welcoming all families into the school community; communicating effectively; supporting student success; speaking up for every child; sharing power; and collaborating with the community.

In discussing the standards, Strauss said effective communication requires an ongoing, two-way, consistent communication between school and home.

The ways parents support student success has changed over the years. Strauss said that in the past, support meant a parent came to school during the day. Now, with many single parent homes or both parents working one or more jobs, that support might be shown by those parents making sure homework is done, and their children get a good night’s sleep and attend school on time.

Strauss said sharing power is the hardest standard. Families should be involved in all decisions about their children, much the same way the parents of students in special education are involved in all of their children’s decisions.

Melissa Trumbull Mitchell, associate director of the Federation for Community Schools, discussed the findings of a Family and Community Engagement in Illinois in April 2011 study.

Mitchell said family engagement is key to learning, and the school plays an important role.

First, the school must create a welcoming environment. Mitchell said administrators should consider what it’s like when a new parent first enters the school. If that first connection is positive, it goes a long was to ensure more connections in the future.

Other things the school can do is create a sense of teamwork and promote trust. Another more concrete example is for the principal to model engagement for teachers by listening to and valuing parents.

The Princeton session concluded with Putnam County School Superintendent Jay McCracken, who discussed the need for deeper involvement by parents in their children’s educational lives. The program moved to Ottawa in the afternoon, and then on to Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby Tuesday night.