Waukegan D60 balks at raising minimum grade to 50%; ‘Do not provide a way out, but a way up’

Waukegan D60 balks at raising minimum grade to 50%; ‘Do not provide a way out, but a way up’

Concern from a number of Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 teachers triggered a last-minute change to a proposed policy designed to make the lowest possible grade on school work 50% rather than zero.

Set to approve two new policies — one regulating promotion and retention of students, and the other grading — the District 60 administration took a step back on the provision allowing no grade lower than 50%. It would remain a failing mark.

Hearing rumblings from teachers — more than a dozen of whom stood outside the Lincoln Center administration building demonstrating against raising the lowest possible mark from zero to 50% — Superintendent Theresa Plascencia spoke before any teachers had the chance.

“The administration is asking to put a stickpin into grading the 50% versus 0% until we can have some focus groups, engage our staff a little bit more and revisit it because we do hear the concerns,” she said.

The District 60 Board of Education voted 5-1 to approve the modified grading policy, and 5-0 to approve the promotion/retention plan Tuesday at Lincoln Center, changing ways the district will operate during the 2024-2025 school year and beyond.

Not only did the board debate academic policies of grading, promotion and retention, but it also conducted a public hearing on a proposal to sell $30 million worth of working cash fund bonds to make improvements to aging buildings, some of which are more than 100 years old.

As the grading policy was first presented on May 14, Robert Vossel, the district’s science coordinator, said then that should a student receive a zero on a test or an assignment, it could be nearly impossible to raise their grade to a passing one.

Justin Simon, a data strategist at Waukegan High School, said students need to be challenged. When they are, they usually do what is necessary to meet the goal. Making the minimum grade 50% makes it too easy for them, he said.

“This community and its students rise to the challenges put in front of them,” Simon said at the meeting. “The adolescent mind is a fickle one, and it needs to be pushed. If not, it finds the easiest way out. Do not provide a way out, but a way up.”

John Hazners, a math teacher at the high school, said he fears setting a standard where 50% is the lowest grade reduces standards, even though it is not sufficient to earn a passing grade.

“I am concerned the 50% rule communicates to our students we don’t believe in them,” he said. “I think any student can get to 50% on their own without me having to set that floor for them. I’m very much concerned it sends the message, ‘We don’t believe in you.’”

Chief academic officer Eduardo Cesario said during a break in the meeting, grades will be issued from zero to 100% for the entire 2024-2025 school year. After discussions over the summer and in the fall, a final board decision will be made for the following term.

Andy Friedlieb, the Waukegan Council Lake County Federation of Teachers union president, said after comments by Plascencia and Cesario he was glad the administration was taking the time to engage with the teachers. They are closest to the students, he said.

“Learning is cumulative,” Friedlieb said. “If you receive 100% on the first test, you may not try to do any better after that for the rest of the year.”

Board President Brandon Ewing and members Jeff McBride, Christine Lensing, Carolina Fabian and Rick Riddle, voted for the policy, while Anita Hanna voted no. Hanna said she wanted to wait until the full policy was before the panel.

After approving the grading policy, the board voted 5-0 with an abstention and little discussion to adopt a new policy where students will be more closely monitored through the year on their academic progress. The policy was discussed in detail on May 14.

Jason Nault, the district’s associate superintendent for equity, innovation and accountability, said the policy concentrates on students in third, fifth and eighth grades who are not making sufficient academic progress.

If the students are behind in math and reading, Nault they will have the opportunity to attend the Summer Bridge summer school program to move to the next grade. If they chose not to attend or they do not make up enough ground, they will not be promoted.

Ewing, McBride, Lensing, Fabian and Riddle voted for the policy. Hanna abstained.

During the public hearing on the $30 million bond sale, former Waukegan Ald. Ray  Vukovich, 4th Ward, and a chief of staff to three former mayors over nine years, said the amount is large but the district has a lot of aging buildings. Some are nearing, or are more than a century old.

“You’re going to look at doing the best for what we have,” Vukovich said. “I hope you’re not buying any more old buildings. If you’re going to build something, build it new. We do have old buildings, and you’ve got to keep them up.”

Gwen Polk, the district’s associate superintendent for business and finance, said the $30 million will be used strictly for capital improvements. No referendum is necessary, but it will cause a property tax increase.

Polk said the owner of a $205,000 home can expect to pay approximately $48.64 a year more in property taxes. Aging buildings are not the only reason the district must borrow the money, she said.

“It’s the age of the buildings coupled with the end of ESSER (federal COVID relief) dollars and keeping taxes level for the past four years necessitated a bond issue,” Polk said.