State of the District

In 2021, District 427 began an annual State of the District address, in partnership with the Sycamore Education Foundation. 

During this event, Superintendent Steve Wilder provides an update to the community of Sycamore on the state of our school district, including past successes and future plans. Members of the community are invited to attend in person, and a recording is provided for later viewing. 

View All State of the District Addresses

State of the District 2021


Lauren Holtz, SEF Executive Director

All right, we're gonna go ahead and get started. I'd like to thank you all so much for coming today to our first inaugural State of The District event. We're so appreciative of your attendance. Thank you so much for supporting the Sycamore Community School District 427, and also the Sycamore Education Foundation today as the beneficiary of the event. I'm Lauren Holtz, I'm the executive director of the Sycamore Education Foundation. And now I would like to acknowledge all of our SEF board members who are in attendance today. So if you could please stand and be recognized. The mission of our organization is to enhance and enrich educational opportunities for the students of the Sycamore Community School District. And we do that through grants, scholarships, and alumni relations. We are so grateful for the support for today's event, from our sponsors. So please join me in thanking the following. Presenting sponsor AT&T, gold sponsors, Brian Bemis Automotive Group, Hometown Realty Group, Facebook, Ideal Industries, Shelley's Gaming and Lounge. O'Donnell Crane, Meyer, our supporting sponsors American Realty, CMJ IT solutions, First Midwest Bank, Law Office of Riley N. Oncken, P.C, Source 1 Mortgage and Sycamore Dentistree. And next up I would like to introduce our superintendent of Sycamore Community School District 427, Mr. Steve Wilder.

Steve Wilder, SYC427 Superintendent

Good afternoon, everybody. The day has gone pretty fast. I'm used to saying, I've been saying good morning all day, and here we are it's already, already afternoon. Thank you for being here. Thank you to Lauren and the foundation for sponsoring today's event. I told our manager of communications, David Olson. Who's taking pictures today so watch out, as well as the board members, a couple of which are here today, and I'll recognize them in just a second, that this was something that I had hoped to do when I first became superintendent here. What about 14, 15 months ago. Now if you think back think timeline, I was actually approved as the superintendent in December of '19. No idea that COVID was coming. December hits I come up for a couple of meetings things are nice and smooth I'm ready for transition planning. I'm talking to Kathy Countryman about transition planning. She was phenomenal throughout the whole process.

Then in March of 2020, COVID hits and just derailed everything we've hung on there. I think we've done a really good job, all things considered. And finally today we are able to hold the state of the district event. So very fortunate that we're able to do that. And it's only through the generosity of the, the education foundation, Lauren's coordination of everything that the foundation itself, all of the sponsors, most of whom are here today and in some capacity so thank you very much. It's not just this event that you make possible. It's a lot of other things that happen in the school district that are a result of the donations and the generosity of all the sponsors and donors through the foundation.

Before I forget also I wanna recognize David, one more time who's our manager of communications. He loves being recognized so I've really enjoyed this part. David is also helped today by Ralph Helm, who is at the back. Thanks, Ralph. Ralph's job is to make me look good, which is really, really hard. So he does a phenomenal job I appreciate all the help I get from Ralph.

Before I launch into my presentation. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanna recognize a couple of people. First of all, I wanna recognize two of our board members, school board members who were able to be here today. A lot of people have told me over the last year and a half or so, the being a superintendent during COVID is really hard. It has been challenging. It's been challenging for everybody in education and really everywhere across the world. But after board meetings are over and we're reveling and all the positive energy that we get from board meetings, I remind board members that they volunteer for that job. They put in a lot of hours. They give up time to attend board meetings. They give up time in between board meetings to make sure that they're up to speed and up to date on things, asking questions, whatever it takes to be an effective board member. It's been really hard over the last year and a half. So I just wanna take a second to recognize all of the board, but especially the two that could be here today. That is Mr. Eric Jones. You got to stand up and be recognized thank you. And Mr. Steve Nelson to my right.

And last but not least before I start, there were a couple of additional staff members from district 427 who were able to be here today. Some of them are principals over to my left Kristi Crawford, who's the principal at Southeast Elementary, Tom Rucker who is our new principal, newest principal. He's the principal South Prairie elementary. And then Mr. Cleven, who is the long-time principal at Sycamore Middle School. So please help me in welcoming them. They don't know it yet, but I'll call them up here in just a couple of minutes to talk about their schools so we'll see how that goes.

Last but not least I wanna introduce Lynn Riley is our director of special education student services really. So please help me in welcoming Lynn.

I work very closely with the administrative team. My previous position was a superintendent in a small district where I wear a lot of the hats that we have people who wear those hats in Sycamore. So I work very closely with the admin team who oversee a lot of the operations of the school district. None more than the two assistant superintendents in Sycamore, Nick Reineck, couldn't be here today. He had a last minute something came up and he couldn't make it. He is our assistant superintendent for human resources and educational programming. So you might see him out about it. He was previously the assistant principal at the high school. So many people in the community already known Nick, the other assistant superintendent for business services and operations is Nicole Stuckert and she's right here. So please help me in welcoming Nicole. The only person who likes being recognized less than David Olson is Nicole Stuckert and I can guarantee you that.

Okay, with that said I want to launch into my presentation today. I want to be respectful of your time. You've given up time during the day and you're coming from jobs and other responsibilities. So I wanna be respectful of that. This is gonna be pretty high level. I talked to David about doing this last spring and the whiteboard in my office was packed. There was no space left where there wasn't something that I wanted to talk about and quickly realized that in order to do this whenever we were going to make it happen, we were gonna need to scale back a little bit. So this is fairly high level. What we refer to in board meetings is the 30,000 foot view. So you'll see a lot of generalities, but the very last slide is my phone number at the office, as well as my email address. So after today is over if you have a specific question about anything I've talked about, or you'd like to discuss anything in the school district, in addition, please reach out to me. I'd be glad to set up a meeting to speak with you, talk with you over the phone, or just communicate by email.

So I'm gonna start with just some basic information. Many of you who are from the Sycamore community, probably know these things already, but just some things kind of as a baseline to start our conversation today. So hopefully everybody can see that over there. If I need to crouch down Janell, just throw something at me I'll get out of the way. This year we have about 3,600 students, 3,607 students in grades pre-K preschool through 12th grade. Our average class size this, some of this data comes from the Illinois school report card website. So it's not actually this year, but it's the most recent information that was available. We do a lot of state reporting to the state board of education. A lot of this data comes from there because of COVID as well as kind of gaps in the reporting. Some of it is not quite as up-to-date as I would like, but it's the most current information available. So our average class size is about 24. That's across the entire school district pre-K through 12. Our enrollment in demographics are pretty stable over the last five years. 3,600 students is up a little bit from last year after a year of COVID. That was both of the, those two years this year and last year down a little bit from the previous years rough a little bit but overall, I would say that our enrollment and our demographics are pretty stable in Sycamore. We have seven schools, five elementary schools, the middle school and the high school. We also have an early childhood program that we refer to as little Spartans and Life schools. So I just wanna talk about those for a quick second.

You may or may not be familiar with those programs, but our early childhood program serve students who are aged three to five. Once students turn five they are eligible to enroll in general or regular education. That's housed at South Prairie elementary so Mr. Rucker gets to work with the folks down in early childhood program. If you're ever having a bad day now, we don't just let people come in off the streets to do this. But if you're working in the schools and having a bad day, all you need to do is go visit the ECE program in South Prairie. Those kids are always smiling and even better in a non COVID year, they're hugging you they're all over your legs and slobbering all over you. So it's one of my favorite places to visit.

Right up there with early childhood program in terms of favorite places to visit is our Life school program, which is actually housed at opportunity house, just down the street from our administrative building. It's a great program. Some of our special education students who have the most significant needs participate in programs that we offer there. And those students are a little bit older. So part of what we're doing to support those students is preparing them for life after their formal education. Also one of my favorite places to visit, they also really enjoy home-baked pie. So if you ever wanna bake a home-baked pie, drop it off at Life school, they love that.

We also have some additional buildings, transportation buildings, which are housed behind the high school. District warehouse, which is just a couple blocks south of no, excuse me, north of the admin building, and then a district administration building, which is housed in the old central elementary school, right on Exchange Street. We've got about 250 teachers in our school district but when you add to that, all the non-certified staff, bus drivers, custodians, volunteers, coaches, sponsors right at about 600 individuals who work for, or volunteer in the school district. So a good number of individuals in our communities. 71% of our teachers have earned their master's degree. Just a little bit of information about our staff. Average teacher salary is $64,706. This is one of the statistics I found really telling about Sycamore as a community. So over the last five years, 92% of our teachers have been retained they've stayed in Sycamore in their same school so not just in the district, but they stay in the school where they're working. They, I was told when I interviewed here and started nobody leaves Sycamore they love it here and I think this statistic is very telling.

One of the other things I love about our school district is that we've got very strong partnerships with a variety of organizations in our community, City of Sycamore, the Police Department, Fire Department, public library, Sycamore Park District, Chamber of Commerce, The DeKalb County Community Foundation, Kishwaukee Family YMCA, and then DeKalb county in general. So really strong partnerships that help us to offer opportunities and extend opportunities. Maybe it's things that we don't offer, but these organizations do and we can partner with them or point our families in those directions.

And very briefly, residential growth continues to grow locally. It's been kind of that way for the last several years is my understanding. I've talked to Maggie Peck from the city several times about this. We continue to see that gradual growth in our community, which is a good thing. Also signs of economic growth, both locally and regionally. So we're seeing that here in Sycamore, but also seeing that in the area in DeKalb county, one of the things I'll touch on later in a little bit more detail, but one of the things that's positioned us, I think well for the future is that there were some really difficult financial decisions made several years ago. I'll talk about our financial position a little bit later, but that's really put us in a much better position now to move forward and given us, I think it's gonna give us options that we might not have had a couple of years ago. So just some basic information about the school district before I start talking.

So as I thought about putting this presentation, it's really important to me that I stress why we do what we do and that's for this reason. One of the things I try to tell people at opening day institutes or meetings. And when I'm talking to people about the school district, especially at the beginning of the year, is that I love what I do because of this because of the opportunities and the programs and the support that we are able to offer to our students. I was in a meeting this morning and talked about our desire to do more than we're doing. We'd love to do more than we're doing right now. And unfortunately there are limits and we have to make some difficult decisions, but this right here is what it's all about. Students walking in on first day in the classroom, coming to school. I think that's at Southeast if I remember correctly, a family dropping off their student on the first day, and then Mr. Anderson helping at the high school. How do we do what we do?

So Eric and Steve are going to be really bored by this because we see this at every board meeting, but it's really important for you guys to know that we discussed these things every single board meeting. We talk about our mission, empowering all learners to succeed in the world, our vision, providing an ideal learning experience where students and staff are engaged and want to come the next day. Our core values I won't read through all of those, but you can see them there. We talk again, we talk about these at every board meeting. And this is something I'm gonna touch on for just a second. These are five questions that our professional learning communities talk about on an ongoing basis throughout the school district. We implemented this initiative, professional learning communities several years ago, long before I arrived here. So the work that our staff does through these professional learning communities has been ongoing for a long time. And these are five questions that guide all of their work. What do students want to know and learn? What do we want students to know and learn? What do students want to know and learn? How will we know if they've learned it? What will we do if they don't learn it? What do we do if they already know it? So these are things we talk about on an ongoing basis that guides all of the work that we do.

So first and foremost, in my opinion, schools are open and operate because of the education that we provide to our students. So I'm gonna take a couple of minutes and just touch on the academic performance of our students.

We've pretty consistently beat the state average in almost every category if you look at the school report card. So if you look at student attendance, and this is information that anybody can pull off of the website that Illinois interactive report card website, if you search Illinois school report cards on Google, they'll take you to that website. You punch in Sycamore, and it will take you to this information. This is public information. Anybody can find it. You can see we're right at just a little bit above the state average in terms of attendance the light green you'll see in several of these slides, the light green is the district performance. Dark green is the state performance. The kids assessment is administered to kindergartners at the very beginning of the school year every year, it's required by the state of Illinois. There were 14 measures that are part of that survey. What's really important is that it's done at the very beginning of the school year. So when you're assessing kindergartners and where they're at in terms of their academic learning that early in the school year, we really can't take credit for that. Maybe if those students were in the little Spartans, early childhood program that I mentioned earlier, but really students measure of, of readiness for school in kindergarten is really a result of the hard work that goes on in homes within the community and parents working with their students to get them ready to come to kindergarten. So almost 99% of our students were proficient and in terms of being ready to start kindergarten, and you can see that the state averages is under 90%. So I think this is really telling, not just about the school district, but really more so about the community.

I had a lot of acronyms in the presentation. And when we reviewed this yesterday, Lauren said, make sure you explain what the acronyms are. There are a lot of them in education. The Illinois assessment for readiness is given them grades three through eight. They test Mathematics, English, Language Arts Science in some of those grades, not necessarily all of them. But English Language Arts and Math are pretty much assessed every grade three through eight. This is the overall results of how our students perform in English Language arts and Mathematics across all of those grade levels. So it will vary a little bit if you looked at different grade levels and in each of those content areas, but overall, what you would see is that again, in the light green, excuse me, they've broken out by district and state. But if you look at the district performance, as compared to the state, one of the things that I always look for is how are students doing in terms of meeting or exceeding the standard? So the light green and the dark green show, both of those two categories in both of those two categories, we outperformed the state average. One of the other positives is that if you look below that that 0% line, how many of our students aren't quite meeting state proficiency. We have fewer students than exist across the state of Illinois. Now I will tell you that this is a good thing that we're kind of ahead of the curve, but I wanna make it really clear. And I'll talk about some of the challenges that we're facing later on those numbers are too high.

I would argue with anybody that even though we're outperforming the state, those numbers needed to continue to get better. And that's something that we strive for on a regular basis. This is how our high school students have performed on the SAT over the last couple of years. And again, you can see a very similar trend. We have more of our students meeting and exceeding at the state proficiency and the SAT, than there are across the state. Again, I'd like to see those numbers higher, but it's nice to know that we're exceeding that mark. Graduation rate is really important in the state of Illinois, calculates this a couple of different ways. This is probably the most straightforward numbers that I could find. Again more of our students are graduating from Sycamore High School than the average high school across the state of Illinois. Right in that 95 kind of average over the last several years. And you can see how stable it is over these last five years. That's built stability goes back to the previous years as well. Post-secondary enrollment. So what do our students do after they graduate from high school? Where do they go?

In most high schools, the bulk of students are going on to some sort of post-secondary education. This measures the percent of students enrolling in college within the 12 months following graduation. And you can see, again, we're other than in 2017 where we were right at the state average, we were a little bit better than the state average across the board. I would never expect this number to be a 100% because we will always have students whose dreams, whose goals, whose path to the future does not necessarily include college or even community college. They may go into the military. They may go straight into the workforce. They may go into vocational or technical training that takes them to another place that doesn't necessarily qualify as them going to college. And in my opinion, that's a good thing. Part of our job is to help identify what students are passionate about, what their dreams are, and then helping them to achieve those dreams. So these numbers are really good.

We've got a lot of our students going to post-secondary education in college. It's better than the state average, but I would also say really clearly, I would never want this number to be a 100% hundred percent. We wanna meet students where they're at and help them to continue their journey. So here's another one that you probably don't hear talked about very much, but it's one that I have kind of found over the years that I track. So some of our students don't go to four year universities. They go to community colleges like Kishwaukee College. One of the things that's really important to me is that when our students go to any community college, whether it's Kish or another one, how many of them are able to go to that community college, get right into the curriculum and pick up where they left off in high school and to continue to move forward. There are students who get to the community college and aren't quite ready for that community college work quite yet. So they need to take remedial courses. One of the challenges is that when you have to take a remedial course in the community college, you don't get credit for that. So one of the things that's really important to me is that when students go to the community college, they're ready to step up, take that credit bearing course that allows them to move and work towards certification associate's degree, whatever the case may be. We want these numbers as opposed to the other ones to be low. We don't want as many of our students to not be ready for community college, we're beating the state average, but like I mentioned earlier, those numbers are too high. I like to see those numbers come down as well as the staff around the district.

So I mentioned earlier that we we've got some challenges, what we do really well overall, but we still have some challenges. So we have achievement gaps between different subgroups within our school district. The state tracks this for every school district across the state of Illinois, every public school district. And I think what you'll see here unfortunately is a trend that at some other schools as well, but these are areas where we need to look to improve.

These two charts, show how our low-income students who live in what you might as poor homes, how they achieve as compared to students who do not live in some of our poor homes and homes that would qualify as low income by the state standard. And as you can see the students who live in those low income homes, don't perform quite as well as our students who don't live in those homes. So oftentimes those students face challenges that I may not be aware of, or some of our staff may not be aware of. So part of what we do is build relationships with students all the time, those pictures that you saw at the beginning of the presentation, those bright, shiny, happy faces. We enjoy working with those students and building relationships every single day.

And yet we still find, this is my 25th year in education, 12th as a superintendent. We still find that students are living through challenges and experiencing challenges that we have no idea, absolutely no idea. And every year it seems like there was a new challenge that's popping up in their home, a home environment or in their neighborhood or in their community, that's having a significant impact on them. So that's part of what we strive to do is to figure out what those challenges are, and then try to meet students where they're at. But there's a little bit of a gap there that we need to work on narrowing.

Unfortunately there's also a gap in a couple of other areas. So also show very similar charts. This is how are our white students perform compared to our Black students. And while we're doing a little bit better than the state average, those numbers are too high. So these are things that we have like we've had conversations about within our school district and within the admin team, as well as the admin team within their school buildings. The gap is a little bit narrower for our white students, compared to our Hispanic students. A little bit larger for our students who don't have an IEP who don't qualify for special education services as compared to the students who do. So these are four areas that, that I kind of watch on a regular basis when our state assessment scores come out, how are we doing compared to other schools, but then how are our students doing compared to their colleagues and their classmates in their schools?

So we've got a lot to be proud of many of you, you're all probably residents in this area, many of you in Sycamore itself, maybe you've got students in our school district. We've got a lot to be proud of. One of the reasons I came here a little over a year ago was because of the great schools the great reputation that Sycamore schools had across the state and the programs that we had going on within the Sycamore school district. We've got a lot of things to be proud of, but we also have some things that we need to work on. Those achievement gaps that I mentioned, one of the pieces of data that I didn't present, cause it's really hard to track are some of the social, emotional challenges that our students face every single day. Some of which contributes to those gaps that I mentioned. But those are harder to find harder to see and harder to get out of students. It's part of building relationships, but it's also connecting them with internal services, social workers, school psychologists, or staff within our school district that can build those relationships and get some of that information out of them. That we just hard to track that information. I could present the number of contacts that our social workers or counselors have had with students, but I don't think it really speaks to some of the challenges that our students deal with.

So one of the questions we've also been asking ourselves a lot over the last, at least the last 14, 15 months since I've been here, is that even though our students are doing really well, could they be doing better? Should they be doing better? If you lived and worked and breathed in education 10, 15 years ago, if you followed education, you probably remember the no child left behind act that was implemented at the federal level, and then worked its way across the country. The idea being that 100% of students are making the grade and moving forward together. I'm not sure that that was very realistic, but it did encourage and push schools to support students to the best of their ability to get as close to a 100% as you possibly could.

We're doing really well, but there's always room for improvement. One of the things that I've always believed as a classroom teacher, as well as an administrator and a school leader is that it's unrealistic may be unrealistic to talk about perfection, that 100% benchmark, but you should always be striving to get as close as you can to that. So these are, those are ongoing conversations that we've had within the school district. One of the other things that's really important to me. And we've talked about this in opening day. I'll come back to it here in a couple of minutes, is this idea, this philosophy, that all means all. No matter what background you come from, no matter what behavior a student exhibited the day before and how they challenged you and drove you crazy, no matter what students bring to the table, all means all.

A colleague of mine once described it as all of these kids are ours. It's not just my personal kids who are in the school district. It's every single student in the school district. Public education we take them all. We'll take on all comers.

That's one of the great things about public education. It comes with challenges, but my philosophy has always been the all means all, all those students are ours and part of our job is to, to meet them where they're at, help them and support them in any way that we can every single day. So we'll continue to work towards eliminating those achievement gaps, surpassing our current and historical achievements and continuing to move forward.

At the opening day of the school year it's the first time I had the opportunity to interact with staff face-to-face the previous school year, everything was done virtually we remotely a year ago. We were in person for the first time this year, since I arrived here. So these three areas were things that I talked with our staff about. The first one is professional learning communities, which I mentioned earlier. If you have students in school, you may not be happy about Thursdays having to get them to school a little bit later than usual. I've heard that from the parent that I live with every day that causes some challenges, getting the kids ready and ready for school and getting them there. But the time that that gives our teachers in our buildings to collaborate and look at student performance data, talk about students and the relationships that they have with them. Maybe pick up on things that one teacher notices that another teacher hasn't seen in their classroom that time for teachers to collaborate and having that time at the very beginning of the day, so that every teacher has that time available has been unbelievably powerful this year.

At our last school board meeting, we talked about how that was implemented just in Southeast elementary school. At the first meeting of every month, we try to highlight one of our schools and they have an opportunity to talk about the things that are going on there. So we got to hear firsthand about how teachers are using that time to collaborate, work together, share information, and then use that for planning as they continue to move forward.

All third grade teachers at Southeast elementary, let's say have that time together on Thursday mornings. So they have the opportunity to compare notes. How are things going in your classroom? How did you cover this topic? They can meet with other specialists within the school, whether it's a social worker, counselor, bring them into the fold if they're starting to see a trend in their classrooms, it's really important time.

MTSS Multi-Tiered System of Support. If you're familiar with education years ago, it was kind of launched as a response to intervention. It's really evolved into multi-tiered system of support. So you may hear us talk about MTSS over time now. One of the things that's a part of MTSS is, is analyzing how students are performing on a regular basis.

One of the things that teachers do in the classroom every day is really get a handle of how students are performing every single day. Some of that's a written assessment. Some of that's just seeing the work that they've provided. Some of that that's listening to conversations, but assessing how students are learning is what teachers do every single day as they observe and work with students. So as we analyze and track how students are progressing, and education is much more individualized now than it used to be when I was younger and you walked into a classroom, there were 25 or 30 kids everybody sat down, teachers did at the front of the room and just kind of taught. And if you got it, you were great. And if you didn't, maybe you asked a question, but most students that I remember when I was younger, didn't have the guts to ask questions like that. They did their best, and if they did well great. And if they didn't, they just kind of fell behind and lived with that.

Education is much more individualized now. We've got a lot of room to grow in terms of individualizing education, but it's much more individualized than it used to be. So this multi-tiered system of support allows our staff using some of that PLC time to track how students are performing and then start to plan how they can intervene or provide interventions to individual students or to small groups of students in our schools.

So we review academic data, social, emotional data, or observations that we've made and data and a lot of different areas to try to plan for those interventions. As we continue to help students. While we're doing that, we're continuing to align our curriculum and implement best practices.

Curriculum, and instruction there are two pieces to that. Curriculum is what we teach instruction is how we teach it. The curriculum is always a little bit easier cause when you're identifying what you're supposed to teach you align it with standards, somewhat straightforward. The instructional pieces is a little bit different. There's a lot of different ways to work with students to, to help them learn concepts. And I talked about this all means all the last bullet point I want to talk about for just a second.

Just before Mrs. Countryman retired and left the school district she was part of the formation of a committee, actually kind of a task force at that time in the spring of 2019, excuse me, spring of 2020. That really was brought together to talk about issues of equity, diversity inclusion. She started that right before she left and that transition to me as I started and that committee has continued. So we've renamed that committee, IDEA stands for inclusion, diversity, equity and acceptance. We meet on a regular ongoing basis. You probably haven't heard a lot about the work that the IDEA committee has done, cause it's been pretty district level up to this point. But one of the things we're starting to do this year is get that work down to the building level. So having conversations with staff just about issues that relate to equity and diversity, so that we can support all of our students, regardless of the background that they come from,

Ordinarily, I would stop and ask for questions, but I'm gonna keep rolling in the interest of time and see if we've got some time for questions at the end.

So academics is the core of what we do, but if you like football or soccer or band or whatever the case may be, we have a ton of activities to offer our students. So I pulled a couple of these pictures off of pictures that I'd taken or off the, the newspaper website, the Chronicle, or actually Chauncey Carrick shared some of these at a board meeting in July.

Our activity programs continue to have a lot of success in terms of wins and losses but as a former athlete, not a very good one, but as a former athlete myself, one of the things I loved about sports programs was just the comradery, the teamwork, the commitment that was required. When I went out for a sport, my parents were all for it. You can go out for football and knock yourself out. You can go out for wrestling, knock yourself out. But if you go out, you're finishing the season, right? There's dedication and commitment that comes with that. And that's part of what we teach our students in our activity programs.

Really wanna highlight the work that our activities department did last year to get through the pandemic. The coaches and the sponsors were well versed in all the rules that it took for our students to participate in practices, games, events that were chomping at the bit when they couldn't do that. And then when things loosened up in the winter, they were full [Indistinct]. Last winter and spring were really busy cause we were cramming all of those sports. I don't think I'll ever see football played in March and April again. It was kind of interesting to see that. Wrestling meets outside. If I remember correctly, there was a wrestling meet at the DeKalb that was on the football field outside. Probably never see those things again made for a really busy winter and spring. But the opportunity for students to participate in activities was really important. So kudos to the activities department for making that happen. It's a really powerful way to keep students engaged in school.

So there's a lot of students who might've checked out otherwise if they weren't on a team or they weren't in a club and they weren't connected to school somehow. So this is a really important part of what we offer. I am all about academics first and foremost, but this is a really close second because without this students don't have access to the academic, the learning and the support that we need to offer them. And just as a frame of reference, about a third of our students participate in activities every season. It's about a third in the fall a third in the winter a third in the spring, that changes a little bit, right? Cause some students want to play a sport in the fall, but not necessarily in the winter, but about a third of our students in grades pretty much six through 12 participate in activities during each season.

All right, this is always one that gets people's attention. I'm gonna shift gears and talk about school finance here for just a little bit. Thank you to Nicole for helping me put some of these numbers together I hope I get them right. As a previous superintendent who was in charge of the budget and in charge of preparing the tax levy for the school board, it's always been really important to me that we find ways to live within our means. The resources that are shared with us from the community or from the state, that's important for us to be responsible with those. So our commitment and thankfully Nicole had that commitment when I got here, our commitment is to live within our means.

Any given year, about 70 to 75% of our financial resources come from local sources. The bulk of that comes from property taxes. So three fourths of our budget comes from you. People who live in our community, pay those taxes, give them to the school so that we can operate. It's really important that we are responsible with those resources don't overextend ourselves. Sometimes again, it's hard making decisions about things we want to do, but we just don't have the resources to do them. They kind of go on a list of things we wanna consider for the future, but we implement as much as we can to provide opportunities and support to our students. But 20 to 22% of our financial resources come from the state of Illinois. Years ago, it came in the form of general state aid. Now it comes in the form of evidence-based funding.

So several years ago, the school funding formula changed. It looks a little bit different now than it used to. Here in Sycamore, about 20 to 22% of our financial resources come from the state. And if you've done your math, you know that we're missing a little bit, that doesn't quite add up to a hundred. The remainder comes from federal sources and that changes just a little bit. It fills in that gap to get us to a 100% every year. So one of the things that is kind of a measure of the health of the school district is our fund balances. And we should have fund balances. And I've had these conversations with folks over the years when I was preparing the budget. And we've had those conversations here as well. Well, shouldn't you spend all the money that you're getting every year and really be responsible with it. Well when COVID happened and the [Indistinct] funds or those, those cares act funds weren't really cleared that they were gonna come in. Having a fund balance helps you to keep your doors open.

Several years ago, the state prorated state funding. So instead of getting a 100%, it was down into the high 90s or the lower 80% all at once. When I got into the superintendency 12 years ago, that was in 2010, July of 2010. And the 2009/2010 school year, Mr. Nelson may remember this state of Illinois just told schools, we're gonna quit paying you in February. We get two payments from the state every month and in February of that year. So it would have been 2010 they literally quit paying schools, their state aid.

If you remember, Steve might remember this, that the federal sources, the federal funding came in in the form of era funds, and that might bring back some memories. That's what helped schools. Most schools keep their doors open. It's really important to have a fund balance because you never know when things are gonna turn south, go bad and if you wanna continue to operate schools and open doors and bring students in and have staff, you have to have the resources to do that. Now it's really important that we balance that and not overdo it.

The board has a board policy that identifies a goal of having 25% of our expenditures every year in fund balances. 25% is a fourth of our operating year, so that doesn't get us through a full school year, but that can be a bridge when there's financial hardship to get to where we need to be.

We're not quite to 25% yet. You can see that we were a little bit higher back in 2014. Dipped a little bit that's when those difficult decisions were made and we had to file a deficit reduction plan because the district in terms of finances was in a tight spot, but that plan worked and helped us to get to where we are today. You can see it says AFR at the bottom. Those are annual financial reports that are prepared by our district auditor. We're in the process of doing the audit for the '21 school year right now. So that's why you can see the last number says budget budgeted numbers from '21, not finalized numbers after the auditors are done. Nicole's really excited because the auditors are in town this week and they're working on that.

You can see that we're in a better spot than we were several years ago. Things look stable, but we'll continue to, to do our best like I said earlier, to live within our means and be responsible with the resources that we've been given.

If you take out a piece of paper and something to write with, there's gonna be a quiz after I go over this slide. You can use a calculator if you want, it's on your phone. I'm not gonna go over this slide in detail, but I'm gonna touch on this in just a couple more minutes and tell you why it's really important.

Every school district that I know of carries some amount of debt. When you have a large expenditure, you typically don't have those in fund balances or in reserves. And even if you do, and a lot of, for a lot of reasons, it can be advantageous to borrow those funds through the sale of bonds, to finance projects, construction, things like that. But then you have to pay those, those debts off over time. I don't know of any school district. It would be rare for a school district to not be carrying some amount of debt, maybe smaller, maybe higher. The state of Illinois does limit how much debt you can carry. So we're under that limit for Sycamore schools, but you can see we've got several bond issues that are still hanging out there. Some of them were bonds taken out from construction or facility work. Some of those bonds were taken out to restructure existing bonds.

So without getting too complicated, without having to bring Nicole up here to explain this, sometimes it's advantageous again to restructure that at a lower interest rate, but that means you have to pay off bonds, get new ones, and it can really complicate things.

Right now we're under our debt limit. We do have quite a bit of debt that we're in the midst of paying off. So just take a mental note of this 'cause I'll come back to it in just a minute. So I'm gonna segue to facilities before I come back to that debt question.

Here's our enrollment over last three years in each of our schools. And you can see, we were a little bit higher in 2019/2020 before the pandemic started. It dipped last year, pretty much across the board. We are back up again in each school, not quite to where we were in 19/20, but we're back up and almost every school this year compared to last year. Not the last column, but the second to last column is our operational capacity. So one of the things that we watched with our facilities is how much space do we have? How much room do we have within our schools compared to our enrollment.

So if you're at the last board meeting, this is one of the conversations we had. We always have a future focused item just to make sure that we're talking about things on a regular basis and that we're prepared for the future. So we compare the first three columns and our enrollment with the capacity of each of our schools. So you can see from an operational capacity, the difference there, that last column we're still within the operational capacity is determined by our architects. They have a variety of factors that they look at when they're establishing those operational capacities, but you can see depending on what school you're looking at, things are starting to get tight in some of our schools tightest at west in terms of capacity, but the North, South Prairie, North Grove and so on and so forth. So one of the things we have to do is really monitor enrollment. What's going on with enrollment? Is there growth in the community? What kind of capacity do we have at schools? We have some programs like the early childhood program that I mentioned earlier that are just housed at one school. Is it advantageous for that program to stay there? Or should we consider moving into another school where maybe there's space and it's not just early childhood it's a variety of other programs that we operate that are just one program at one school. So we're constantly keeping an eye on our facilities, our enrollment and where we've got room and space. And I didn't want to say the R word at the last meeting, but one of our board members did, I won't call that person out, but at some point in the future, do we need to look at redistricting and changing the boundary lines between elementary schools, maybe. That for a school district, this size with multiple elementary schools, that's just something that you've got to keep in mind all the time.

After that conversation at the last board meeting, we did talk about bringing our architects and having a deeper conversation about this. Not sure that we're ready to have to have that conversation right now, but we need to be ready when it's time. So there'll be an instrumental part of that when we get there.

We're currently undergoing about 20 little over $20 million in renovations this past summer. And really it was planned over three years, but we're gonna condense it down to two or three. We think we'll get the rest of that work done next summer. It's about $20 million of work spread across all of our buildings. The bulk that work is being done at the five elementary buildings, as well as the middle school. There is some work being done at the high school, but it's the largest school in the district. So to do any kind of significant work, the high school would be much more costly. This is work that needed to be done some of it's visible, we've got some nice new parking lots that were a little bit more complicated than we thought they were gonna be, but we got some nice new parking lots things that you can see. We've also replaced some of our HVAC equipment, things that you can't see. Then improved the environment within our schools.

The high school has been kind of the, the focus of ongoing conversations since I got here because of the age of the high school, the age of the infrastructure, and while it's still functioning very well. It's not to say that at some point and probably in the near future than, than it used to be, but we really have to think about what we wanna do with the high school long-term. Do we invest in the high school and renovate, do we look at building something new? If so, how do we finance that? So now I'm going to go back to that debt slide that I talked about earlier, what kind of financial capacity do we have to do that? What other sources are out there if we wanna build something new? If we were going to build something new, where would it go?

We got a lot of facilities at the current high school. So one of the things that's commonly done is if you can find adjacent property to a large school like that, and still keep things like the field house or the football stadium and not have to build new for those, you're saving some costs. So those are all just kind of high level questions that we're asking ourselves, is we're thinking about, what's the future of the high school, whole. The administrative building where central offices is located is also aging, and it's gonna require some work. So we're having some conversation about that as well. Same thing do we renovate that building? Probably not gonna build new for the size of that building. Are there other places in town that those buildings those offices could be relocated? And if so, are there other programs that could be moved from an elementary school or even one of the other schools put in that same location, if that kind of space was available? So when we have conversations like this, it's really about all options on the table and really brainstorming the best way again, to use resources and to make decisions for our school district and our community. I promise I'm getting really close to the end.

So our future. I think our future is really bright in Sycamore. We are weathering the pandemic it's not quite over yet. I purposely didn't get into anything COVID related today. I didn't wanna talk about that. If you have questions about how we're managing, COVID let me know and I'll talk to you about that afterwards. But I think the future is really bright.

We've managed to get through the pandemic for the most part. I'd like to say that there's light at the end of the tunnel, but who knows how far off that is. And it's really created some opportunities.

So previous to the pandemic, we were not a one-to-one school district. One-to-one in terms of one computer technology device for every single student in the district. We are now some of those cares act funds that I mentioned earlier have allowed us to do that. It took us a while to get those machines. If Roxanne Horton, our tech director was here she'd say how frustrated she was that we ordered those in May of '20 the last shipment came in January of '21, but those devices are here. So we have one device for every single student in the district. We've not had that kind of technology available to students before. We've been forced to innovate on a really short timeline. And if you've talked to any teacher in the district, you know firsthand how difficult, how legitimately difficult that was. But I think it also helped us to understand that we're probably capable of more than we get our give ourselves credit for.

So one of the things that we're doing this year, I've asked the building administrators to have these conversations with their staff and their buildings. Just spend some time reflecting on what we learned during the pandemic. What can we take from that? And how can we envision or re-imagine what the future of our school district looks like. And we have, we implemented things like remote learning, which I hope that we don't ever have to do again on a large scale, as well as hybrid learning. Some of the things that really come to my mind and we've again, we've had some conversations internally what does a normal school day look like? For decades, for centuries, the school day was eight o'clock to three o'clock or something really close to that. Classes at the middle school and high school, secondary level were broken up into 45 minutes or 40 or 55. Does it have to look like that?

We've implemented remote learning. We've implemented hybrid learning high school has already implemented something called blended learning, where you're in class a couple of days a week, and you're working independently or remotely a couple of days a week. What are we preparing students to do after they leave our schools? And what's happening in the workforce, what's happening in colleges, community colleges, and those vocational and technical training programs? What are those programs look like? And how can we best prepare our students to be successful there?

The state board of education to their credit they have not always gotten a great rap from superintendents and administrators, but they've given us unprecedented flexibility during the pandemic. And while the pandemic is gonna end at some point, and that flexibility might dry up. It's given us a lot of ammunition to go back to the state board and say, listen, when we had the flexibility this is what we did and it worked really well. Our students' performance went down a little bit last year when they were learning remotely. But one of the things that we found and was a trend across the country, was that students really didn't that achievement gap really wasn't as large as we thought it was gonna be. There was some learning loss. There was some this because of that disruption across the country, but it wasn't as bad as we thought it was gonna be. We did things pretty darn well on short notice and on the fly. So given more time to plan, I think we've got a much more solid argument for the state of education than we had before.

It's really important also at the same time to make sure that we're keeping in mind how changes are gonna impact our community and our families. So the late start that I mentioned earlier, and having students later to school on Thursdays, we understand that that's an impact on families. So as we make these decisions, we will also absolutely be careful and cautious about, it's not just a decision that impacts the school, right? It's a community, it's a decision that impacts the community and our families. So we have a responsibility to keep that in mind as well.

My goal is always to build on the successes that we have and as we look to the future. So look at that, the last slide. I don't know how much time we've got left a couple of minutes. I would be glad to answer questions if you have them or you're welcome to email me or call me later. I know we're pretty close to one o'clock. Any questions I can answer for the group?

So some of you have probably seen on social media that I pitched in and helped drive a bus. If you want to get your CDL on your school bus endorsement, you let me know and we will get you set up for sure. When I started as a superintendent 12 years ago, that was one of the first things that our transportation director asked me, my previous position, because the bus driver shortage was real 12 years ago. It's real much longer than 12 years ago. And I'm not sure I made the right decision, but I did go ahead and get my bus driver endorsement, which is much harder than you think it is. I'd rather get another master's degree than a bus driver endorsement, but I'll tell you, it was really important to be able to help and chip in because multiple days over the last two weeks, if we didn't have every driver available driving a bus, some of your students would have gotten picked up an hour or more later to get to school. And although I'm not driving a bus this week, I'm the only substitute bus driver that we have in the district right now. So we've managed pretty well so far, but when we hit winter and our drivers get sick, like everybody gets sick things may get tighter. And we're trying to be proactive. And we did consolidate a couple of routes a couple of weeks ago. I created tighter spaces on our buses, but without doing that, we'd still be in a tough spot.

We may continue to have to do that. We'll look at consolidating routes if we can, we've implemented a couple of things to, to attract bus drivers, but that's not just an issue in Sycamore. It's an issue everywhere in our community and our state and across the nation. Michelle my wife shared with me a news article a couple weeks ago that the Massachusetts governor called out the national guard to drive school buses because the entire state was that shorthanded. I think they identify 250 national guardsmen. And then all you, if you were superintendent, all you had to do was contact the governor's office and they would send drivers to your school district. So it's tight.

Anybody that's interested in driving a bus, you let me know, we'll get them signed up. Actually, one of my favorite things to do, cause there's nothing like the look on a high-schooler's face when I opened the door and it's the superintendent sitting there, not very many behavior problems on my bus. It's kind of nice.

Any other questions? Okay it's one o'clock you guys all have more important things to do than to listen to me. Before I welcome Lauren back up here. Just want to thank you again for attending. Hopefully this event will continue to grow in the future and I look forward to it, thank you.

Lauren Holtz, SEF Executive Director

All right and thank you, Mr. Wilder for your presentation today. I know it was really valuable for everyone to get to hear from you and learn a little bit more about your vision for our district and thank you for all that you do. So thank you for everyone for attending today. And thank you once again to our sponsors for the event, we are so thrilled to be able to put this event on for community and lastly, I'd like to encourage everyone to take the centerpieces at your tables. Those were designed by our high school's horticulture students and they're absolutely beautiful. So please grab one on your way out. So thank you so much everyone have a great afternoon.

All State of the District Addresses