Carbondale Elementary District 95 Superintendent Daniel Booth said tackling the serious problems faced by his school will require a long-term plan, one that will include a solid curriculum, good communication and good classroom practices, including remediation where necessary.
At the top of that list, he said, is loving the kids.
"We must know them, take a genuine interest in them and never give up on them," said Booth, who started as superintendent about a month ago.
Booth joins District 95 after 12 years with Carbondale Community High School, the last seven as principal. He replaces former superintendent Michael Shimshak, who was released from his contract last year.
Booth inherits a school system performing below the state average academically, and a teaching staff that has complained about a lack of consistent discipline and a "pass them along" mentality, whether students are ready for the next grade or not.
This month, the Illinois State Board of Education classed Carbondale District 95 as "underperforming," based on 2017 PARCC tests, proficiency scores and English language proficiency.
Booth is meeting with administration and staff, conducting teacher contract negotiations and says he is looking forward to meeting the teachers themselves when school starts in a couple of weeks.
"We are going to work with our teachers and stakeholders to do a comprehensive assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and we're going to use that assessment to come up with a long-term plan," Booth said. "This is not about me coming in and changing something. This is about me working with others to affect a positive change."
In a series of meetings this past spring, teachers made specific complaints that included:
• Inconsistent discipline. Jennifer Hartleib, a third-grade teacher at Carbondale Elementary School, told the board in May that discipline is inconsistent from building to building, and sometimes from classroom to classroom. "There are no consequences," she said.
• Scheduling issues. Stephanie Rushing, a science teacher at Carbondale Middle School, said in April that schedules used at Carbondale Middle School for the last two years are creating chaos, "like a city with no traffic lights."
• Failing classes. Kevin Garthe, a middle school teacher, told the board that the middle school has a high number of students who failed CORE and ENCORE classes -- 75 out of 422, or 17.8 percent -- and that students were being passed who did little or no work.
"The students tell us, 'I don't have to work, and you can't make me. I'll pass anyway,' and they're right," Garthe said. "We are enabling our students to secure their own failure."
At each of these meetings, Interim Superintendent Elizabeth Lewin assured the teachers and the audience that schedules are being worked on, that discipline is a common concern, that district passing requirements are being examined, and that the board and administration are listening to the concerns of CES teachers and parents.
Still, teachers pressed to be included in the process.
"It is imperative that we, the teachers, who are in direct contact with our students, be allowed to make these decisions," Garthe said this spring.
Booth will lead the district in planning how to improve academic performance, part of a four-year plan the state mandates on underperforming schools.
"Instead of seeing this designation as a failure and looking to cast blame, I see this as an opportunity to figuratively, and literally, roll up our collective sleeves and get to work," he said.
"I look forward to the collaborative brainstorming and strategizing on solutions that our wonderful teachers and staff and parents, families and community groups and partners will undertake."
Booth's priorities, he said, start with getting to know the students individually and taking a sincere interest in them.
"Second, we must have a solid curriculum. That's going to take some time, but we're on it.
"Third, is good practice in the classroom, knowing what we're teaching and how we're assessing it and helping our students understand," he said. "Teach, assess and remediate if they don't get it.
"And last, but not least, good communication, lots of dialogue," Booth added.
"If we can focus on those four things, we can succeed."
Booth describes himself as collaborative by nature and says he's in "discovery" mode right now, "beginning the process of meeting district employees and assessing policy and procedures, including how those measures impact such issues as discipline, scheduling and student failure rates.
He pledged that teachers will be heard throughout the process of improving the schools.
"The teachers are the most important people in this district, the ones on the front lines," Booth said.