Teaching in Rantoul

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”I’ve heard that’s a dangerous area.”
”Have fun in Rantucky. That place is so ghetto.”
THAT’S WHAT I HEAR whenever I tell a person that I teach in
Rantoul, Illinois. These statements are almost always braced
with a “How do you do it?” or “I could never do that.”
In decades past, there were very different perceptions
about Rantoul. Rantoul was seen as a town with dedicated
and successful people. Within the last fifteen years, the
perceptions of Rantoul radically changed. Beliefs about
the community transformed Rantoul from a successful
town to one that has had to deal with the destructive
impact of poverty on a daily basis. Rantoul’s economic
woes are a microcosm of what is happening to families
who live in impoverished working class communities
throughout the U.S.
Like many other cities, Rantoul has a very rich history.
It was once the site of Chanute Air Force Base (AFB).
Chanute AFB became the location where the United States
Army Air Service Technical Training Command was established
in 1941. During World War II, thousands of airmen
received technical training through this program. Chanute
AFB continued to be a vital part of the local community
after World War II. Chanute provided the majority of the
jobs in Rantoul. The population also surged due to the
base. The taxes funding the schools were substantial.
There was a strong home life for the students with
involved parents. Rantoul was an example of a positive
community. Then, certain events occurred and peoples’
perceptions changed.
Chanute Air Force Base was officially closed in 1993. The
aftermath devastated Rantoul. Thousands of jobs with living
wages disappeared with no replacement. The school system
not only lost a major source of tax income, but they also lost
one half of the entire student population. Ninety teachers
lost their jobs during the school district’s reduction in force.
At the school where I teach, J. W. Eater, 70.5% of students
are now eligible to receive free or reduced price
lunch and labeled ‘economically disadvantaged’. At J. W.
Eater, approximately one out of every four students will
transfer to another school district or be a new student. It is
these students who daily face the issues of poverty.
A major problem facing Rantoul is something over which
the students have no control, the circumstances and educational
background of their parents. After the base closure,
Rantoul’s job market became minimum-wage, lowskill
service-sector jobs. Some parents came to Rantoul
due to the availability of such jobs, since they did not have
the skills or educational background to be employed in a
professional job. These parents likely did not receive the
educational training necessary for professional jobs
because of the socioeconomic struggles of their parents
and so on back into the past.
These generational issues of impoverishment put students
at a disadvantage. I have encountered parents that
lack the knowledge to help their child with homework. I
have students regularly ask me for school supplies,
because they are unable to purchase them. Many parents
have rightfully put survival as the priority. It is disingenuous,
callous and morally wrong to hear politicians and
pundits demanding that these students ‘pull themselves
up by their bootstraps’ when many of the children,
through no fault of their own, have no proverbial boots of
which to speak.
The mobility rate for my junior high students clearly
shows the trend that parents move to where jobs are. With
the rapid mobility of students to leave or enter the district,
teachers face major problems. There is little continuity in
what and how something has been taught. The children
are not able to develop rapport with other students and
their teachers, nor are they able to get in the habits of what
is expected of them. Yet, teachers are being held accountable
in standardized testing for all of these factors over
which they have no control.
All the students at J. W. Eater are expected to take the
Illinois State Achievement Test. The scores from these tests
are then used to determine if the school has made Adequate
Yearly Progress (AYP/’meeting or exceeding standards’),
according to No Child Left Behind. The federal
government divides the scores into different subgroups—
by race, special education, and economic disadvantage. A
percentage benchmark of “meeting or exceeding standards”
is developed by the state. If any one subgroup fails
to meet/exceed the percentage, the entire school fails to
meet AYP. My school has failed to meet AYP due to the special
education subgroup.
While having standards and holding schools accountable
is an excellent idea in theory, No Child Left Behind
standards and expectations fail to recognize the realties
in many classrooms. Special education students have
documented evidence showing that they have cognitive,
developmental or emotional disabilities that make them
unable to meet the same academic expectations as their
age appropriate peers. However, these students are
expected to meet or exceed the same testing standards as
their non-disabled peers. These students have significant
difficulties meeting or exceeding the standards. These
difficulties are compounded by the economic problems
that they face at home.
Yet, hope is not lost for towns like Rantoul. Hope can be
found in J. W. Eater being recognized by the government
for significant gains in learning achievement. These
achievements are a testament to the work ethic and dedication
of the families who work and live in Rantoul. The
teachers at Eater provide developmental learning skills for
these students—from math formulas to positive conflict
resolution skills. It takes a lot of patience, but it is worth
every moment.
By no means are the solutions to the issues in Rantoul
going to be found overnight. But when people talk about
Rantoul, they should focus on the tireless efforts of the
community members who work hard to provide for their
families. They should focus on the children who work
hard at school. They should focus on the Rantoul citizens
who positively contribute to their community. They
should focus on how the families at J. W. Eater came
together to donate more than 4,000 pounds of food to the
Rantoul Community Service Center. Despite all of their
challenges, these families support teachers and do what
they can to ensure success.
As I tell my classes, people will rise to the expectations
you have. When people only report negative stories or
prejudicial stereotypes about Rantoul, it is a self-fulfilling
prophecy. When we believe that people can achieve anything
to which they focus their efforts, the positive results
begin. Rantoul deserves our support and belief in the community’s
abilities. For those who ask me “How can you do
it?” I usually respond with “How could I not?”

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