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Illinois Chief Stresses 'Basics' in Plan

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Springfield, Ill--All Illinois students would have to spend more hours in school each day with more attention to the "basics," and potential dropouts would have to spend more years in school with expanded program options, under proposals advanced by State Superintendent Donald G. Gill.

Mr. Gill has presented requirements to the Illinois State Board of Education stemming from the second phase of his study of state mandates directed at local school districts and their students. His examination of curriculum requirements, known as Phase I, attracted national attention and stirred much controversy in the Illinois General Assembly. (See Education Week, June 6, 1983.)

Five Phase II Reports

The five Phase II reports cover requirements governing the length of the school day and school year, compulsory attendance, health and immunization, transportation, and school records (the only mandate largely untouched by the superintendent's proposals).

Mr. Gill recommends that the state board:

Lengthen the school day from five to seven hours, reserving five for instruction in foreign languages, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. The remaining two hours could be used for courses of a student's choice and for certain noninstructional functions carried out by the school, such as standarized testing, hearing or vision examinations, or counseling.

Raise from 16 to 18 the age at which students can quit school without parental permission and expand educational opportunities for those who want to leave the classroom to include adult-education programs, work experience, community-college classes, and high-school-equivalency tests.

Prohibit children not properly immunized from entering kindergarten and hold parents liable under truancy laws for their children's absence from school.

Repeal current mandates requiring districts to provide transportation based solely on the distance from residence to school and substitute instead a system giving districts more discretion to devise systems suited to local conditions.

The proposal to lengthen the school day is based on findings that an ever-increasing array of programs, services, and academic disciplines has crowded much of fundamental education out of a school day that has been extended only once this century in Illinois.

The mandates study found that physical education and health classes took up 17.2 percent of the average school day--a greater portion than that for language arts, mathematics or social studies and nearly double the amount of time devoted to science.

It also found that, in addition to "extraordinary growth in the content to be learned" and in the number of disciplines (such as computer technology), "there have been substantial increases in ancillary services provided as the schools came to be seen as an irresistibly convenient place to address societal problems whether or not they were part of the school's commonly understood major purposes."

However, Mr. Gill shied away from recommending that the length of the school year be changed. His report cites "other experiments in that arena which failed, largely because America has developed a complex of social and cultural behaviors which impede its acceptance." The report also contends that lengthening the school year provides less leverage on educational programs than increasing the school day. "To equal the effect of adding one hour to the school day, 35 days would need to be added to the school year."

On the superintendent's proposal to force students to wait two additional years before they alone can decide to quit school, his report comments that current state laws may encourage students who are unhappy with formal schooling to leave the classroom.

"The student who is not succeeding in the regular full-time school program has, for all practical purposes only two choices at age 16: to stay in the program he or she finds unacceptable or to leave the public high school entirely."

24 Percent Did Not Graduate

The Phase II study found that about 6 percent of high-school students quit school each year. For example, 45,068, or 24 percent, of the students who entered 9th grade in 1977 did not graduate with their classmates four years later.

Mr. Gill said a majority of those students later voiced regret at their decision but only a small minority returned to school. He suggested that those students be given greater latitude, with the involvement of their parents, to pursue alternative school programs.

With respect to increasing parental responsibility for ensuring that children are properly immunized, his report concludes that the present sanctions against school districts--withholding state aid if 90 percent of students are not immunized--"are neither appropriate nor effective." It suggests that such provisions penalize the majority of students who are immunized by taking state money away from them because a few students are not protected against communicable diseases.

Present law also allows students to attend school for 45 days even if they are not immunized; Mr. Gill recommends that such students be barred from school completely and their parents penalized under the truancy law.

The superintendent says there is no medical evidence to support the requirement for three physical examinations for students--the most stringent in the nation--and he urges that it be decreased to one.

But he also advocates increasing the role of the school in correcting hearing and vision problems. Because such problems can affect student achievement, Mr. Gill proposes that school authorities develop procedures to follow up on hearing and vision tests to help ensure that students receive the aid they need.

The Phase II reports will now be reviewed by a committee of the State Board of Education.

In its last session, the Illinois legislature failed to enact the board's proposals to end or relax requirements for driver and physical education, but it overwhelmingly approved new mandates for tougher graduation requirements.

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