Peoria: Vallas extends help to District 150

Clare Jellick

A education leader known nationally for reforming schools in Chicago and Philadelphia recently met with District 150 officials and Mayor Jim Ardis to offer up his expertise.

Paul Vallas, currently head of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, was invited to Peoria by Ardis. At the meeting in mid-November, Vallas and a group of consultants offered educational services to the district.

"This isn’t saying anything negative about the current school administration or board, but I think clearly, clearly something very dramatic has to happen in District 150 that hasn’t happened. If Paul can somehow help what they’re trying to do … then good for us. Lucky us," Ardis said Monday.

The mayor, who has a friend who knows Vallas, said he originally contacted the New Orleans superintendent just to talk to him about educational issues. But Vallas ultimately offered to help out the city and its school district.

Vallas’ help would be free, but the consulting work from other individuals would have a cost, Ardis said. He said it was unclear whether the others were represented by a firm.

Vallas came to the struggling New Orleans district earlier this year after making waves previously in Philadelphia and Chicago. Key initiatives in those cities included after-school and summer school programs, reducing class sizes, budget overhauls and building new schools, according to a biography provided by the Recovery School District.

He has been credited with raising math and reading test scores in Philadelphia by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to a previous Associated Press article.

Vallas is implementing sweeping district-wide reforms in New Orleans, according to his biography. Initiatives include a standardized curriculum, a classroom modernization initiative and a network of alternative schools.

District officials that attended the November meeting were Superintendent Ken Hinton, School Board President David Gorenz and Vice President Martha Ross. Others in attendance were retired District 150 official Sandy Farkash; Lee Graves, CEO and president of the ELM Group; and Peoria County Circuit Judge James Shadid.

Hinton said it’s too soon to say how the district will respond to the opportunity. Board member Mary Spangler said the full board hasn’t even been apprised of the meeting.

"We’re just listening right now," Hinton said Monday.

The superintendent said the meeting with Vallas didn’t include specific details about what the consultants would do or how much their services would cost. He said the consultants — much like other firms — basically "come in and look at your school system and make suggestions to you."

Ardis said District 150 and Peoria are extremely lucky to have this chance to work with Vallas. While it’s ultimately a board decision, he doesn’t think this opportunity should be dismissed.

"If there are certain costs associated with bring people (here) who have been able to affect positive and productive and immediate change, I think we should get them here yesterday and find a way to pay for it," Ardis said.

Clare Jellick can be reached at (309) 686-3112 or cjellick@pjstar.com.