For six months, Grayslake Elementary District 46 has boasted having three award-winning schools.
Prairieview School in Hainesville and Meadowview School in Grayslake have received what's referred to as the "prestigious" Blue Ribbon Lighthouse award. Woodview School in Grayslake snagged the Points of Light award, which is below the top Blue Ribbon Lighthouse status.
What's not mentioned is South Carolina-based Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Inc. named the award winners after being paid $22,192 to assess seven District 46 schools. Documents obtained by the Daily Herald through the Freedom of Information Act show the district spent an extra $15,732 for 20 administrators and teachers to attend a five-day Blue Ribbon Schools conference and awards banquet in North Charleston, S.C., in December.
At issue, some critics say, is whether public schools should find other uses for money than so-called recognition programs run by companies marketing to educators. Proponents say the awards are a side benefit to a more important professional assessment that leads to essential improvements and shows whether schools are meeting standards established by private education consultants.
Grayslake District 46 Superintendent Ellen Correll said she didn't know the awards were available from Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence before hiring the company. It's believed District 46 was the company's first Illinois client.
She said the business was hired in September 2007 to provide an outside assessment of her schools in nine major categories, such as technology integration and leadership and education vitality. Blue Ribbon Schools also collected data and provided feedback that's being used for comprehensive improvement plans.
"You know what? I really don't care about the awards," Correll said. "That's not the purpose behind it. The purpose for me was to have an outside group come in and look at our district to see where the strengths and weaknesses are. And I really wanted to find the weaknesses.
"If we're going to move forward in this district, we've got to be able to identify where our gaps are, where our weaknesses are. And it's very difficult to look at yourself and say, 'I need to grow here.' "
District 46 announced the awards Nov. 16, 2007, in news releases just days after Blue Ribbon Schools President/CEO Bart Teal made a public presentation to elected board members. The releases led to a story in a weekly newspaper about the three Grayslake buildings receiving the honors -- without mention of the financial relationship with Blue Ribbon Schools.
Web pages for the three winning individual schools have touted the awards with the company's logo, which includes an eagle and stars.
Specifics on how Grayslake Elementary academics would benefit from Blue Ribbon Schools were not cited in the initial award announcement, but Correll in February sent a letter to all district residents outlining numerous recommendations.
Total expenses related to Blue Ribbon Schools were $40,468, according to district documents. Correll said the costs were covered by properly tapping into a combination of nearly $89,500 available in federal grants and $200,000 from the superintendent's professional development account.
No real standing
Edward M. Mazze, distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Rhode Island, questions the use of public money to hire companies such as Blue Ribbon Schools. He said cash is tight at public schools across the country.
Mazze, who's examined award programs in business and academia, was among the critics when University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth issued a news release announcing the school's receipt of a Pat Summerall Productions Champions of Industry Award in 2004 without noting a financial arrangement was attached.
In the case of Grayslake District 46, Mazze said the public should understand the district struck a business deal with Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, and the company's awards are of no significance. District 46 board members authorized the hiring of Blue Ribbon Schools under an agenda action item labeled "annual application for recognition."
"There are enough schools looking for recognition to allow this company to have many profitable years, as one school recommends to another school to apply for this 'honor' as long as they have the fee to pay for it," said Mazze, who reviewed Blue Ribbon Schools promotional materials for the Daily Herald.
Mazze said while District 46 is unnecessarily "patting itself on the back" with the awards, it's not unethical to do so.
Parents should realize it's "buyer beware" when it comes to education kudos publicized from private organizations, said Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for Standard & Poor's School Evaluation Services.
Shafer said no financial relationship existed when her company late last year named 1,600 high schools across the country as tops in the United States in categories tagged gold, silver and bronze. The schools were judged on various criteria, such as whether performance levels go beyond statistical expectations.
"Go do a little homework. See what's behind it," Shafer said.
Teal said his company -- billed as a "national recognition program" -- doesn't always give a Blue Ribbon Lighthouse or Points of Light designation after it's hired. He said the awards provide schools with an incentive to improve or maintain high standards.
"The most important thing is integrity," Teal said. "You can't just say you won an award. It doesn't work like that."
However, Better Government Association executive director Jay Stewart said he found it "sort of odd" for Grayslake District 46 to accept and promote awards from a company that was paid for its services.
Traveling for award
Grayslake District 46 spent $15,732 on airfare, hotel rooms, rental cars, conference registration fees and meals for the 20 administrators and teachers to attend the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence conference and awards ceremony in North Charleston.
Another $2,350 was spent on substitute teachers from Dec. 4-7 while the regular instructors were in South Carolina, bringing total travel-related expenses to $18,082, according to District 46 documents.
Correll said the number of employees who traveled was justified. Six Grayslake teachers led workshops at the convention, while others were able to participate in talks with educators and experts from across the United States on topics ranging from classroom management to iPods as a learning tool.
"This whole thing is to help improve the performance of our students," Correll said. "That is the sole purpose behind it."
District 46 board President Michael Linder said the traveling party was more than usual for an education convention, but it was a one-shot deal. He said the district will benefit from its association with Blue Ribbon Schools.
It's about children
Teal, a South Carolina resident, said Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence is a nonprofit organization and his passion is to improve children's education. He at one time was involved with the federal government's blue ribbon school program and has more than 40 years experience as a principal, teacher, assistant superintendent and education consultant.
His private business is not to be confused with the U.S. Department of Education's No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools award initiative, considered one of the most prestigious in the country. Winning schools don't pay anything to be considered for awards from the federal government program.
In the federal program, schools must be nominated by a state board of education and are honored for helping students achieve at very high levels and for making significant progress in closing the achievement gap. Some schools have students with state test scores in the top 10 percent.
Teal said his Blue Ribbon Schools charged a discounted $22,192 fee to Grayslake District 46 so his team could perform an assessment that included on-site building visits and online surveys with 189 questions completed by parents, staff and students. He said he provides free services to financially struggling schools.
Prairieview School in Hainesville and Meadowview School in Grayslake are two of 79 Blue Ribbon Lighthouse champions named since 2004, with 22 coming from South Carolina. Blue Ribbon Schools did not respond to a request for information on the number of districts it evaluates annually.
Winners of the top award can purchase caps, T-shirts and static-cling window decals -- complete with school name -- through another South Carolina company.
"I guess it's hard to convince people, but I'm not out to make money," Teal said.
Teal's company gets high marks from Peter Guerrera, superintendent of Cuyahoga Heights School District in suburban Cleveland. He said outside evaluators provide "good indicators about your school and, in some cases, validations for a variety of reasons."
Guerrera said the education recommendations for his district's three buildings are why Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence was hired. He said the current promotion of the three awards his buildings received from the company are extraneous to him.
M. Lynn Barkley, assistant superintendent of teaching, learning and assessment at Grayslake District 46, said she'd give a positive recommendation for Blue Ribbon Schools. She said the examination of her district's buildings by Teal's business will be invaluable.
"Nothing is for free anymore, unfortunately. But to be able to take our teachers and our administrators to those next levels and give them the opportunities to move us all forward together, it's a great thing," Barkley said.
Awards to brag about?
• University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Texas A&M University-Commerce and University of Southern Mississippi were among the schools lauded by Pat Summerall Productions as "Champions of Industry: Spotlight on Education." The schools issued news releases on the awards in 2003 and 2004, but didn't note fees charged by the now-defunct company. Naperville police and Lombard village government also announced Summerall awards without disclosing the financial relationship in 2004.
• Plano, Texas, was declared on a CNN program as one of the "Best Places to Live" in the United States in 2004. A financial relationship with the company that provided the honor, Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Platinum Television Group, wasn't mentioned. The same year, the village of Libertyville rejected a similar award from Platinum Television because it carried a $19,700 price tag for the company's services.
• Cuyahoga Heights School District in suburban Cleveland has a newsletter story this month on how it achieved "a first of its kind in the nation" by having all three of its buildings named Blue Ribbon Lighthouse award winners. The article didn't mention specifics of the district's deal with South Carolina-based Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Inc., which studied the buildings and named the winners. The article has the byline of Blue Ribbon Schools President/CEO Bart Teal.
Source: Daily Herald research