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Empowering Regional Staff in Illinois to Improve Schools

The Region 9 Comprehensive Center and the Illinois State Board of Education are strengthening supports to struggling schools through revised processes and new resources.

In 2015, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) applied processes specified in the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESSA) to identify struggling schools. The schools designated as Comprehensive or Targeted Support and Improvement (CSI or TSI) schools were eligible for additional services and supports aimed at helping them improve student outcomes and close achievement gaps between student subgroups.

ISBE created the IL-EMPOWER program to support CSI and TSI schools statewide, dividing the schools among seven IL-EMPOWER Coordinators (IECs) to help schools identify local service providers to address schools’ needs. An external evaluation in 2020 revealed growth areas for the program. ISBE turned to the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC), known for its strengths in providing targeted technical assistance on high-leverage problems for state education agencies (SEAs). At the same time, new leaders for the IL-EMPOWER program stepped up, creating an opportunity to refresh the program.

Building Resources (2020–2021)

R9CC and ISBE leads identified key documents needed to increase consistency in IECs’ services to schools and make school improvement tools easier for schools and districts to access. In the first year, R9CC provided thought partnership, research, and writing support to develop five key resources:

By 2021, IECs said the resources had increased their understanding of their roles and responsibilities “by 100%” and the processes for their work were now “very clear.”

In 2018, 202 schools across Illinois were designated as Comprehensive or Targeted Support and Improvement (CSI or TSI) schools. ISBE founded the IL-EMPOWER program to connect these struggling schools with supports from the SEA and local providers.

A 2019 external evaluation revealed that designated schools needed further support. ISBE turned to R9CC, known for its collaborative approach to building capacities to support school improvement. 

Goal 1 of the 2020 ISBE Strategic Plan aims to move at least 33% of currently identified schools for improvement from Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) and Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) status to Commendable or Exemplary during the 3-year improvement cycle.

R9CC staff developed key documents to guide the program, increased voice for IECs in the program redesign process, and built program leaders’ connections to colleagues in ISBE and other states to further leverage the work. 

The collaboration has produced key resources and one-page guidance documents, increased professionalism and collaboration among IECs, built connections for program leaders within the SEA and among colleagues in other states, and increased access to resources for schools. These results are positioning stakeholders to make progress toward ISBE’s Strategic Plan goals.

Building Skills and Consistency (2021–2022)

Four co-workers talking in a conference roomIn the second year of the collaboration, R9CC focused on supporting IECs in fulfilling the Year in the Life guidance with Community of Practice sessions focused on leading school data meetings, monitoring progress, and building coaching skills. In the process, R9CC produced occasional one-page resources to support IECs in their work with schools. R9CC also provided thought partnership and logistical support for two whole-team retreats.

Feedback from Year 1 indicated that some IECs felt underutilized in the process of updating the program. Across the second year, R9CC staff adjusted plans and content to tap IECs’ expertise and meet their individual professional development needs. This combination of voice with support contributed to IECs’ increasing success in monitoring and coaching schools. By 2022, IECs expressed excitement about the team’s direction.

R9CC also pivoted to support IL-EMPOWER leaders in their role as their needs emerged, adding services such as:

  • Co-developing a program-level strategic plan aligned with the ISBE 2020 Strategic Plan
  • Completing a scan of other states’ staffing structures and exit criteria for school support programs
  • Facilitating peer-to-peer conversations with counterparts in other states about school support program structures
  • Connecting IL-EMPOWER leaders with related departments in ISBE to:
    • Build IECs’ knowledge of effective use of American Rescue Plan and other funds with help from the Finance Department
    • Strengthen the Family and Community Engagement Framework with feedback from the IL-EMPOWER team.

One-Page Resources for IECs:

Research Support for Program Leaders:

“Previously, IL EMPOWER was composed of individuals with similar roles. Now we’re a cohesive team and R9CC is building our internal capacity collectively.”

Outcomes to Date

Teaching sitting in front of classroom, students have their hands raised.IECs have access to tools and processes to provide high-quality support to CSI and TSI schools in a consistent way. IECs said their work has been “systematized” and that “R9CC has helped to better organize our approach to schools.”

ISBE and R9CC collaborated on improvements to the IL-EMPOWER web site, making resources developed with R9CC readily available to IECs and their schools. An IEC said: “A principal could pick up a resource and use it. The resources would not be out there without R9CC.” An IL-EMPOWER leader said that school administrators have thanked the team for the readily available, high-quality tools and resources.

The IL-EMPOWER leaders have also gained access to information about how other SEAs organize their school support systems, have built networks within ISBE and with role-alike colleagues in other states, and have strengthened connections internally for the program by pivoting with R9CC staff to ensure IECs have input into the tools and processes as they are developed.  As one IL-EMPOWER leader said,

“we’ve shifted from planning to implementation, including building coaching skills for IECs. We’ve gone deeper into revising the program with R9CC.”

Looking Ahead

Deeper collaboration and coordination among the R9CC team, ISBE, and IL-EMPOWER will be necessary in 2023, with a special emphasis on supporting Illinois schools that were newly identified under CSI/TSI status and those that need extra support to recover from the pandemic’s impacts on educational attainment. R9CC anticipates that supports provided in the first 2 years of the collaboration will improve practices for supporting CSI and TSI schools, strengthen implementation and monitoring of the program, and increase capacities among IECs to guide schools toward resources that will result in better outcomes for students.

I appreciate that the Department of Education makes R9CC a resource to SEAs, as they have been a stabilizing force. I know I can trust the resources; they know what they’re talking about.

The Year in the Life and the Monthly Topics and Tasks developed in conjunction with Region 9 show us what conversations we need to be having—who's responsible for what—and it holds everybody accountable. All the IECs are looking at the same thing, and support to the schools is aligned through all of us. In some of our schools, this is having an impact. School improvement is doing what we wanted to do, and what we want it to do for kids.