Monticello schools fared well on the recently released school report cards, but all see areas where they could step things up, especially in the area of student attendance.

That even goes for Monticello High School, which for the second year in a row achieved the state rank of “exemplary,” reserved for the top 10 percent of schools in the state.

“There is still room for improvement,” said High School Principal Adam Clapp at the Nov. 20 school board meeting. “Our ELA (English/Language Arts) scores came in at 46 percent met or exceeded, which is still above the state average (of 37 percent), but it’s still something we feel we can improve upon going into next year.”

In an effort to improve scores, five Monticello staff members visited Mahomet-Seymour to discuss their SAT prep class, a requirement for high school juniors there. Separated by math scores and classes, M-S students practice SAT tests and review missed questions.

“When I sat down with administration last spring at Mahomet, they basically said that was their difference maker,” said Clapp. “They feel their students are used to the time-tested format, and that’s what separates them from area schools.”

He said the concept may be introduced in Monticello, but that the block schedule may make it difficult to fit into juniors’ class schedules.

“We feel we can implement something that is positive for our kids,” he added.

The high school’s 16 percent of students being categorized as chronically absent is also something staff are working on. That designation is placed on those missing 10 percent of school days – about 18 – for any reason, including planned absences due to doctor’s appointments and vacations. The state average last school year was 18 percent.

“We’ve been sending letters home. We require a doctor’s note after five ‘A’ day absences or five ‘B’ day absences,” he told the board.

On the other hand, chronic truancy – defined as unexcused absences totaling 5 percent of the school year or about nine days – is low at MHS at about 1 percent of the student population.

Other principals – whose schools all attained the second-highest “commendable” ranking, said they are also attempting to reduce the amount of students missing school.

“This year we have 19 students with 10 or more absences,” said Middle School Principal Jeanne Handley of her school of 348 students. “We have a team of teachers and staff members that send letters home, get doctor’s notes, ROE involvement. Not all of these kids are truant. Some of them have had hospitalizations, some have just had different things, but again we’re looking at ways we can reiterate the importance of having your hind end in a seat in a classroom. There’s nothing that’s any better than to actually be present in the classroom.”

The State Report Card showed the middle school registered 14 percent of students as chronic absentees by state standards, compared to a state average of 18 percent.

Handley added the school is also pondering ways to free up time to add more minutes of math instruction to the daily schedule in order to boost student achievement in that area.

Chronic absenteeism at the fourth/fifth grade Washington Elementary was just 8 percent in 2018-19, but Principal Nancy Rosenbery said efforts are still being made to reduce it this school year.

“What we’re trying with some of our kids who just don’t come to school? The teachers are really trying to make connections with those kids to avoid that,” said Rosenbery, who said Washington also sends attendance letters home when students are approaching 5 and 10 percent limits.

Lincoln Elementary Principal Mary Vogt felt that once that building is closed and all preschool through third grade students would be housed at Washington, that it would breed familiarity with staff and a chance to send out a consistent message through those years.

White Heath Elementary School Principal Emily Weidner said a designation of “commendable” instead of last year’s “exemplary” can be traced to higher absentee rates, which totaled 11 percent last year. She said the overall designation is based on eight criteria. Since only five of those are applicable at White Heath, the remaining five need higher percentages to achieve certain rankings.

“It happens all the time. A kid takes two weeks to Disney, then they get the flu and they’re over that mark. So once we get to about 15 to 20 kids at that mark, our absenteeism is too high to achieve exemplary.”

Probationary letter

Monticello received a probationary letter from the Illinois State Board of Education after the three-day teacher aides strike in Decatur.

Since member districts in the Macon-Piatt special education cooperative send severe needs students to a Decatur school, those students were not able to attend class for three days, since that particular school was shut down during the strike.

“ISBE talked to Decatur and said that we were discriminating against special ed students with disabilities because we just closed the special ed program,” said School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman, who noted it affected five Monticello students.

He said ISBE suggested that Decatur should have instead closed the entire school district during the strike, which would have affected 8,500 students instead of the 550 when special ed classes were down.

According to Zimmerman, Decatur school officials countered that, if the state wanted the entire district there to close, then by association districts sending students there should be required to close as well.

“Decatur wasn’t trying to throw us under the bus. They were just trying to make a point of how ridiculous for ISBE to tell Decatur to close all their schools and affect 8,500 kids,” added Zimmerman.

“That tells you a little bit about the lack of common sense at ISBE on this issue,” he added.

The probationary letter has no punitive measures or timeframe attached, but Zimmerman said if it happens again it could affect federal reimbursements.