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Low-performing suburban schools could have access to special federal funds
By Kerry Lester and Jameel Naqvi | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/19/2009 12:00 AM

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Five low-performing suburban high schools have received notice from the state that they have been designated as "high priority" schools needing improvement.

It's not simply a naughty list.

The schools may have greater access to federal stimulus funds being doled out by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But Friday, school officials were taking the news with caution.

"This has all transpired rather rapidly," Elgin Area School District U-46 spokesman Tony Sanders said. "We're still reviewing things."

Dundee-Crown, Elgin, Larkin, Streamwood and Round Lake high schools are on the state list of 181 lowest-achieving schools, according to standardized test scores from 2007 to 2009.

The 181 schools could receive half of the $200 million to $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds for which the state is eligible, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

The program, part of the federal stimulus package, will award $4.35 billion to states that plan to make educational reforms and improve student achievement.

It is not yet clear how much each school could receive. Each school must opt in to be eligible for the funds.

"We certainly hope that they will consider this," said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the state board of education. "It's an extraordinary opportunity to garner some critical funds for education reform."

School officials reacted to the list with a mix of disappointment that their schools were named to the list and excitement that they could be eligible for federal funds.

Dundee-Crown Principal Lynn McCarthy, whose school has seen modest improvement in test scores and behavior issues since starting a state-mandated restructuring effort more than a year ago, said inclusion on the list left her "stunned."

"It hurts to be listed on this, but we also know that we're making progress," McCarthy said. "If we can qualify, that will just help our students."

Streamwood Principal Terri Lozier said her school "would be interested in doing anything we can to get extra funding to help with the programs."

School officials, though, expressed concern over the yet-to-be-known strings attached to the federal money.

Ben Martindale, chief executive officer of Round Lake Unit District 116, said he's viewing the possibility of receiving Race to the Top money for the high school with caution.

"If we get (the money), it would be beneficial to us," Martindale said.

But, he added, the district is still waiting for federal stimulus money that was supposed to pay for new programs.

"It's like dangling the carrot," U-46 spokesman Sanders said. "You have the possibility of getting funds, but there will be additional work required to do it."

Illinois' Race to the Top application is due Jan. 19. Awards will be announced in April.

-Daily Herald staff writer Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.