Many parents want more for their children’s education, and our region’s private schools are rising to the challenge. A renewed investment in school culture, parental involvement and academic success are gaining notice.
As families select an ideal school for their children, a multitude of factors come into play. From academic excellence and a supportive community to strong guiding values and individualized attention, these factors can profoundly impact a child’s academic journey. These are also the cornerstones of a private-school education.
Times are changing, and many parents want more for their children than a public school can offer. To meet that demand, Concordia Lutheran School, 7424 N. Second St., in Machesney Park, Ill., is undergoing a transformation. With a fresh logo, a new mascot, advanced curriculum, increased parent involvement, and a new principal at the helm, the school is altering the way children from preschool through fifth grade learn and grow educationally, morally and spiritually here in our region.
“This was my first full year as principal and it’s been great,” says Sherri Runge, who previously worked as a special education coordinator at a Lutheran school in St. Louis. “It feels like one big family – even for me, and I’ve initiated a lot of changes.”
Over the course of the 2022-23 school year, Runge was instrumental in breathing new life into Concordia Lutheran and helping to attract more families into the fold. For starters, those who once cheered on the Celtics in green now cheer on the Lions with teal spirit wear. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.
A new parent-teacher league is reinvigorating the connection between families and the school, and it’s engaged parents, grandparents and siblings through a multitude of events.
“We’ve hosted dances, an Easter egg hunt, a trunk-or-treat and activities like bingo to bring the families together,” says Runge. “We also had an adult kickball game that the parents loved.”
Before Runge’s arrival, Concordia Lutheran required families on financial aid to volunteer a certain amount of time at the school. Now, parents have a choice.
“I want parents who want to come, who want to be involved and who are going to give it their all,” says Runge. “This year, the number of volunteers who have turned out has been amazing. They want to be involved; they just need the opportunities to be there.”
Academic achievement remains a cornerstone of the Concordia experience, and this, too, is meeting with a renewed focus under Runge’s direction. It’s important to ensure that students are well-rounded and prepared for the next phase of their academic journey, she says.
Last summer, Concordia obtained updated math textbooks designed to accelerate students beyond their public-school peers. Runge says the school is also working to get new language arts textbooks that better account for the ways children learn to read.
“It’s important that our curriculum is properly sequenced to ensure that each year the students are building on a firm foundation to minimize learning gaps,” Runge says. “That allows all students to actively be engaged so that they are motivated to practice higher-level critical thinking skills.”
For those students who do need help catching up, the school now has a stronger focus on interventions with help from a Title I teacher.
“Another benefit here is that we can keep the class sizes down to a reasonable number and not have a teacher servicing 28 students,” says Runge. “You can’t be with them one-on-one, but it sometimes feels like it.”
The small class size also supports the school’s “love and logic” approach. Teachers emphasize a nurturing and supportive atmosphere where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and develop problem-solving skills. When discipline happens, students are encouraged to understand the consequences of their actions and are guided toward better choices, says Runge.
“If a student does something wrong, we talk to them and work them through what they could have done differently,” adds Runge. “That cuts down on bullying and things like that because other kids feel like they can stand up, help and protect each other.”
Across the board, Runge has brought a fresh energy to Concordia, which was founded in 1962 and is connected to the Missouri Synod-affiliated Concordia Lutheran Church. The past few years have been a time of transition for the school. When she was hired, Runge inherited a school with 72 students, roughly half the number who attended at the school’s peak enrollment. This fall, she expects to welcome nearly 90 students.
This recent turnaround isn’t just about numbers, says Runge. It’s also about the future.
“There was a decline with enrollment numbers, but also, schools have changed quite a bit since COVID happened,” she adds. “We are making sure we are responding to the need of our area’s families and making sure we can give them the education they expect. With some of the things that are going on in Illinois’ public schools right now, not every parent wants that for their child.”
While Concordia’s team doubles down on its advantages in academic rigor and spiritual instruction, students are also encouraged to actively live their Christian values. The school is making a positive impact, in part by supporting local nonprofits such as Rock House Kids, Carpenter’s Place Outreach Center, Northern Illinois Food Bank, Noah’s Ark and Children’s Home & Aid.
“It shows the kids the necessity for helping others,” Runge says. “It’s one of those values we teach, that you can always be doing something in your community.”
Reaching out to the community has also meant re-establishing connections with alumni in the Rockford area and encouraging them to become part of the school’s renewed focus.
“If they have kids, we want to make sure they know we’re still here,” says Runge. “We want to find out how we can help their family.”
Concordia Lutheran is also extending the invitation to fellow churches including Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, 2001 N. Alpine Road, in Rockford, which has a deep network of home-school children.
“Mt. Olive allows home-schooled kids to meet and work on different things together, and we are going to start reaching out to see if we can help serve them,” says Runge. “If they need help with math they can come for that, or they can have [standardized] MAP testing available to them to have assessment scores.”
Runge also sees an opportunity to reinvigorate the school’s lineup of extra-curricular activities, which had been reduced with lower enrollment. While cheerleading is currently available, basketball and soccer may be coming soon.
“The numbers had dropped over the course of about four years,” says Runge. “Now, we are back on the upswing and building back up so we can add those sports.”
There’s also growing interest in art classes, and Runge says there are plans to launch new groups such as a Lego club and gardening club, each led by adult volunteers.
Students are invited to join a Bible study session on Wednesdays while periodic literacy nights help younger students to find a love of reading. Little Lambs targets preschoolers with help from a kindergarten teacher who reads bedtime stories via Facebook at 7 p.m.
Parents who want to enroll their children for the fall semester can apply at concordiamp.com or call (815) 633-6450. Families are encouraged to schedule a tour and drop by for an enrollment packet to see what Concordia has to offer.
While the school has already accomplished many changes this past year, expectations have never been higher for what’s to come.
“This year was mainly a build-up year of catching up and seeing what we can do differently,” says Runge. “We have been revamping the whole school in the past year. It’s been a whirlwind.”