Schools around our region are making great strides in preparing the next generation. Learn how both public and private school systems are increasing options and creating stand-out results.
If you’re looking to improve the fortunes of the Rockford region, you can’t avoid a discussion of its schools. After all, quality schools are an important component in recruiting valuable, highly skilled employees.
“We know that any time a family makes a decision to move, there are a number of variables that come into play,” says Ehren Jarrett, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools. “We want our school district to continue its journey toward becoming a strong selling point to attract and retain families and businesses in this community.”
The Rockford region provides a robust ecosystem of educational opportunities, from quality public schools to high-performing private schools, dynamic community colleges and world-class universities. As these institutions align their goals to better prepare Rockford’s workforce, their excellence is on clear display.
“If we don’t have a school district that is seen as viable, that is a big challenge to overcome,” says Jarrett. “So, we’re working hard together with a lot of partners to improve the system.”
Just a few years ago, RPS struggled to shed a reputation for low test scores, low graduation rates and neglected buildings. But under Jarrett’s leadership, things are turning around. His ultimate goal: create a first-choice school system that provides competitive options and outstanding results.
In just three years, graduation rates have improved 5 percentage points to 72 percent, with a 10-point improvement for black and Hispanic students. Nearly twice as many students are taking Advanced Placement (AP) college-level tests; those who take at least one AP course average an ACT score of 28.
Chronic truancy rates, once abysmally disproportionate to state averages, are now on par. Out-of-school suspensions have decreased, too.
Over the past five years, voters twice supported facilities improvement projects. The $250 million deal promises impressive modernizations of each district building, in addition to the construction of two new elementary schools.
“We have collectively, as a community, moved the public schools in a very positive direction, and we’re really excited to continue that improvement on an annual basis,” says Jarrett. “But really, to say annual isn’t enough. Every day, we’re trying to do better.”
The rapid improvements in RPS have caught the notice of the Ford Motor Company Fund, a philanthropic group that, in October 2015, named Rockford the nation’s third Ford Next Generation Learning Model Community.
Outside our public schools, a network of private institutions has long provided an alternative model for student success.
“We’re not looking to replace public schools,” says Randy Taylor, superintendent of Rockford Christian Schools. “We are offering that alternative, faith-based experience, and we have a drive for excellence because people pay us for what we do – on top of their tax money.”
Rockford Christian maintains two campuses that foster students from preschool through 12th grade. These schools are recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education and are further accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International and AdvancED.
The fundamental difference between these students and their public counterparts is that Rockford Christian students are educated in a faith-centered learning environment.
“We want to answer the question for a young person of, ‘Why do I have to know this?’” says Taylor. “We want you to know why. Here’s the practical application of it in your life, if you go this way or that way. It’s quite exciting to me, as an educator, to say that’s the greatest question. We want you to embrace your learning.”
Like many private schools, Rockford Christian maintains a small enrollment – just 1,200 students. These smaller settings enable a more intimate educational setting where students feel a strong connection to the faculty, who in turn feel a strong mission to serve young people.
“Education is about the kids, the family, and helping them on the road to their ultimate successes and dream fulfillment – that’s what education is for,” says Taylor. “It’s not to give me a place to go every day and have a job. It’s about those children.”
Inside the classroom, you’ll see students engaged in 17 AP courses. Foreign language courses, starting in elementary school, include Chinese, Spanish and Latin. A new wing at the high school is highly focused on STEM-based curriculum, with an emphasis on engineering, math and science. When the building’s three wind turbines are replaced this year, students will play a supporting role.
“The fun thing is that we’re going to set it up so the engineering and pre-engineering classes can go and see how it’s done,” says Taylor. “This whole building was built for hands-on learning.”
As the realities of Rockford’s future workforce evolve, Rockford Christian is embracing change wholeheartedly. Taylor has begun working with Northern Illinois University to help future engineers land a quality education. Across the school, young students are exposed to career exploration and personal inventories, in an effort to avoid meandering during teenage years.
“We have maybe 85 percent of our students participate in extracurricular activities, maybe a play or sports, drama, music,” says Taylor. “And we find that students find themselves much better when they’re involved in those things.”
Back at the public schools, Jarrett, too, believes in pushing students to new heights. He’s seeing more students enrolling in rigorous courses and finding direction through the high school academy model. He also finds successes in the district’s unique dual language, Montessori, gifted, creative and performing arts, and year-round school programs.
“I think you’ll see through our academy model in the high schools, and in our elementary and middle schools, that we have some really great students – the kinds of students that parents want their children to be around,” Jarrett says. “Our students are doing some great work.”
Regional Public & Private Schools
A sample of some of our region’s top choices for elementary and secondary schools.
Allegro Academy & Learning Center
Alpine Academy of Rockford
Belvidere School District #100
Boylan Catholic High School
Christian Life Schools
Hononegah High School District #207
Immanuel Lutheran School
Keith Country Day School
Rockford Christian Schools
Rockford Lutheran Schools
Rockford Public Schools
Spectrum Progressive School
Tags: AdvancED, Association of Christian Schools International, education, ehren jarrett, Ford Motor Company Fund, Ford Next Generation Learning Model Community, Randy Taylor, rockford, rockford christian schools, rockford public schools, Rockford region, RPS